The necessity of a trusted free press to the health of American democracy has been undisputed since the founding of our republic — until now.
Over the past year and a half, the journalists of our free press have been slandered as “Enemies of the People” — not by a foreign power or a fringe group, but by the president of the United States, the nation’s highest officer sworn to protect the Constitution enshrining the First Amendment rights those journalists exercise daily for the benefit of us all.
But Donald Trump’s casual use of this Stalinist epithet — banned in the Soviet Union shortly after Nikita Khrushchev came to power in the mid-1950s! — is only the most egregious example of a years-long campaign to destroy public trust in the news media and erode the ability of the Fourth Estate to hold our government and politicians and other key actors in society accountable.
From denouncing factual reporting as “fake news” to the proliferation of websites pushing propaganda, conspiracy theories, and outright lies as legitimate reporting, the role of America’s free press is under attack — and with it, our nation’s founding values.
Without a free press that is justly trusted as a source of impartial truth, politicians and special interests have unchecked rein to lie, dissemble, and manipulate reality with impunity. Without journalists who are free to question public officials and demand information on government actions, the institutions that are supposed to protect and serve us cannot be trusted to do either. Without political leaders who respect the value of our free press to the American way of life, the world’s first constitutional democracy fails in its historic role as a beacon of freedom to all of humanity.
Trump is by no means alone, however, in the systematic attack on the role of the free press. On August 12, Mayor Bill de Blasio had a New York Post reporter hauled away by police after he asked the mayor for comment on that newspaper’s recent story on the many meetings he and his top aides have had with lobbyists — meetings that de Blasio had pledged as a candidate to disclose on a monthly basis, but only recently began revealing after four years in office and only because of relentless pressure from the news media.
Just as Fox News joined other reporters in denouncing the White House’s recent exclusion of a CNN reporter from an event because of aggressive questioning, we join in objecting to our mayor’s thuggish treatment of a local Post reporter doing his job.
The work our reporters do in the neighborhoods we cover and the institutions — public, non-profit, and corporate — we report on is as important as reporters taking leaders to task at the White House and at City Hall.
And attacks on the work we do don’t only erupt in frontal assaults, they also come in the insidious and increasingly common practice of turning over the basic responsibility of responding to legitimate press inquiries to public relations spinmeisters who have no working knowledge of the underlying issues we explore and are simply paid to deliver pre-packaged “messaging.” In an increasingly complex society and economy, all large institutions have an obligation to transparency in their operations. Paying lip service to that obligation is simply not enough.
Editors and reporters across the nation are standing together this week to denounce the attacks demonizing our profession and seeking to sabotage our ability to hold the people in power accountable for their actions.
And we ask you, the readers we work for, to stand with us.
Defending our free press from attacks by politicians and special interests should be a cause that rises above party, ideology, race, ethnic identity and nationality, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity, or any of the other fault lines along which some are seeking to divide our country. It goes to the heart of what America stands for and is vital to the survival of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
As women’s rights pioneer and investigative journalist Ida B. Wells wrote in 1892, “The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”
Please join us in upholding and protecting that cherished value.
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