Following Trump’s repeated attacks on the press as the enemy of the people, hundreds of publications across America are today uniting in a defense of their right to free expression. The editorial board of the New York Times, in A Free Press Needs You, describes our heritage and the threat to it:
In 1787, the year the Constitution was adopted, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote to a friend, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
That’s how he felt before he became president, anyway. Twenty years later, after enduring the oversight of the press from inside the White House, he was less sure of its value. “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” he wrote. “Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
Jefferson’s discomfort was, and remains, understandable. Reporting the news in an open society is an enterprise laced with conflict. His discomfort also illustrates the need for the right he helped enshrine. As the founders believed from their own experience, a well-informed public is best equipped to root out corruption and, over the long haul, promote liberty and justice.
“Public discussion is a political duty,” the Supreme Court said in 1964. That discussion must be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” and “may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
In 2018, some of the most damaging attacks are coming from government officials. Criticizing the news media — for underplaying or overplaying stories, for getting something wrong — is entirely right. News reporters and editors are human, and make mistakes. Correcting them is core to our job. But insisting that truths you don’t like are “fake news” is dangerous to the lifeblood of democracy. And calling journalists the “enemy of the people” is dangerous, period.
The Times is right to unite with other publications, and more correct still to see that a free press needs the support of many if it is to survive.
We do not find ourselves at this perilous time because Trump sprang fully formed from the ground; we find ourselves at this perilous moment because too few have defended free expression this last generation.
Even in the small town from which I publish, only a decade ago, a local politician-publisher voted against a resolution on free expression because, in his view, the right was already addressed in the Constitution, and so as a member of the Whitewater Common Council he would not vote in support of it.
His was a laughable argument then (as though one need not often reaffirm first principles); it is now merely one more of the many mistakes – in communities across the country – that made easier others’ concerted efforts against free expression.
A selective support for liberty, masquerading as a community-minded approach, was and always will be the wrong approach. It has degraded our country, and left to so many – merely common people united in concern – the task of doing so much as possible in lawful opposition and resistance.