Tuesday, July 4, 2017

"No more essential ingredient than a free, strong and independent press"

Happy Independence Day! As we celebrate the birth of our nation, on July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, let us thank the Founders for their courage and wisdom in an act and a subsequent constitution unlike any previously seen that has guided a diverse people into 2017. 

Let’s thank the many good women and men who over the centuries have given selflessly – and, those lost in war, their very selves – to their fellow citizens, often without great financial reward or recognition: the teachers, healthcare professionals, social workers, clergy, police, veterans, patriots of all stripes, and many more. The list is long; the final result, a nation still united and still, despite inevitable flaws and divisions, a remarkable example of democracy.

I would ask also that we reflect on the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791, specifically the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. That Madison, et al, placed it first was no accident. The first casualty of any repressive regime is the loss of the freedom to say and publish what people will. King George III ruled just such a regime.

The Bill of Rights

In Washington and beyond today, we are witnessing an ugly attack against press freedom. It is not explicitly stated in such terms, at least not frequently, but the message of “fake news” and of members of the press being “the enemy of the people” and the dog-whistle suggestions that harming a journalist would be heroic are unambiguous evidence of that attack.

I have been a professional journalist my entire adult life, through seven presidents: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. And I remember well presidents before that career: Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy. Every one of them, to varying degrees, faced the scrutiny of the press. And while they may have disliked or hated it, with the exception of 45, they all understood (as presidents before them did) why Madison, et al, made press freedom the first of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights. Through the colonial press, they had long experience with tyranny.

The New York Times and Washington Post, among other practitioners of the First Amendment, are among those publications that have been singularly targeted in this year’s attacks against the press. Just as the Founders would have wished – if you know any of the history of the colonial press, starting with journalist Benjamin Franklin, you can be sure of it –the journalists at these contemporary publications have not been intimidated. They have continued on their constitutionally enshrined mission despite the sort of hate, threats, scorn and ignorance directed against not only the press, but other pillars of our society, science among them.

We live in perilous times.

On Sunday, The Times’ Jim Rutenberg wrote a thoughtful essay on this subject. Whatever your politics, it is well worth reading. In his column, Rutenberg quoted Franklin and several presidents on the press; they are worth reading too, as we celebrate our independence, an independence supported by the press of a long-ago era.

Here are a few of them:

“Power can be very addictive, and it can be corrosive. And it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.”
-- George W. Bush, 2017

“There is no more essential ingredient than a free, strong and independent press to our continued success in what the founding fathers called our ‘noble experiment’ in self-government.”
-- Ronald Reagan, 1983

“The freedom of speech may be taken away — and, dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter.”
-- George Washington, 1783

“There is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so justly terrible to tyrants, and their tools and abettors, as a free press.”
-- Samuel Adams, 1768

 “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”
-- Benjamin Franklin, 1722

Happy Independence Day! And as always, please subscribe to a newspaper.