The Press Is Not the Enemy of the People
August 17, 2018
By Arturo Castañares / Publisher and CEO
A free and vibrant press is not only a sign of a democratic society, it is the essential cornerstone of one.
For over 240 years, the world’s oldest constitutional democracy has remained free under the watchful eye of a press that has often chronicled, criticized, and sometimes even sued the government to force transparency.
Even before the founding of the country, colonialists fought against the tyranny of the government by using printed materials to openly critique their leaders.
All Americans and people living in the country know that the First Amendment now protects the freedoms of speech and the press. Those rights form the bedrock of the personal freedoms we all enjoy; to be free to speak out against our leaders and to allow the press to do its job without fear of retaliation.
The common law crime of “seditious libel” was the way that England and the early colonies in America fought to control the press, if you can call it that back when hand-printed pamphlets served as the most popular medium of the day.
Critics of government often voiced their opposition in political flyers or letters in local newspapers, rallying their fellow citizens to stand up to tyrannical leaders or corrupt officials.
Those early decenters feared prosecution and jail time for openly writing critical pieces calling out political injustices.
But, one case may have been the start of what later became the rights enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.
In 1733, in the then-colony of New York, a local writer named John Peter Zenger published his first Weekly Journal, which included an article critical of the local sheriff. Zenger wrote that the Sheriff wrongfully refused to allow Quakers to vote because they would not swear during their oath, instead choosing to affirm.
New York Governor William Cosby wanted Zenger prosecuted for seditious libel and he forced the attorney general to file charges and issue a warrant for Zenger’s arrest.
Zenger was tried for “being a seditious person and a frequent publisher of false news and seditious libel”. What’s worse, the attorney general argued that truth was no defense for seditious libel, meaning that even if the criticism was true, Zenger was still guilty of a crime.
In a shocking verdict, the jury found Zenger not guilty. The public’s view of libel trials had began to change.
50 years later, during the drafting of our Constitution, Gouverneur Morris (yes that was his first name not his title) recalled that Zenger’s trial “was the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.”
After the Declaration of Independence, the new country operated under the Articles of Confederation until the Constitution was drafted in 1888. Even then, though, no mention of protections of the press were included in any of those three important documents. It wasn’t until the Bill of Rights were ratified in 1891 that a formal declaration of the freedom of the press was enshrined in print.
Much has happened since the ratification of the First Amendment, but much is still the same.
Over the years, the media has covered wars, elections, and inaugurations. Many times over, the media has discovered and published critical stories that informed the public about actions, misdeeds, and even crimes committed by government officials.
From broken campaign promises to our-right scandals, the media has been the lens through which the public has had opportunities to see and judge their leaders.
The Watergate scandal that led to the only resignation of an American president was only discovered through the diligent work of reporters, even in the face of blistering denials by Richard Nixon.
In the end, it was just old-fashioned journalism that finally gave the public a true accounting of what had happened. The President had lied to the American people, and he almost got away with it.
Now, fast forward to today.
A man with a checkered past in business, never having been elected to any office, becomes the President of the United States.
Although he had been known to stretch the truth about his wealth and business prowess, Trump’s supporters maintained that he would become more “presidential” after taking office.
More than 18 months into his presidency, Donald Trump has instead launched an aggressive campaign against the media, calling journalists the enemy of the people. Well, not all media, just the ones that deliver information critical of the President, or his family, or his colleagues that are under investigation or charged with crimes.
Donald Trump calls any news report that he doesn’t like “fake news” in an effort to discredit the information. He has threatened to revoke media credentials, has banned reporters from media events, and often dismissed questions posed by reporters from CNN, NBC, the Washington Post, and other outlets that are not his favorite, Fox News Network.
In fact, Trump’s embrace of Fox News (and vice versa) have led many to compare it to state-run media like many oppressive governments operate, including Russia, North Korea, and Cuba.
Trump’s aggressive posture toward the media in general should be alarming to all Americans. A media that kowtows to a tyrannical president would render itself useless. Without a watchful eye on our leaders, freedoms erode, and liberties are lost.
The world has seen dictatorial rulers abuse their positions; Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, Hussein, Putin, and the Kim family in North Korea, just to name recent ones. In all those cases, a controlled media helped (and certainly never hindered) their rise to power and the abuses inflicted upon their people.
Many say it can’t happen in America. But, look around.
When the President calls the media the “enemy”, the “opposition”, “dishonest”, and “fake”, it eviscerates the power of the press to inform the public, exactly what autocrats have done in the past. He doesn’t do it by passing a law limiting the freedom of the press; instead he does it by intimidating reporters and trying to convince Americans that the press is the enemy. He does it to confuse the public, and it’s working.
The American press (in general) is not always right, not always perfect, but it must always remain vigilant. Discrediting the press is the first step down a dangerous path toward obscuring the actions of our leaders and could lead to the erosion of the fundamental rights we so dearly cherish.
A free press is not the enemy of a free people. Ignorance is. Blind allegiance is. And apathy is.