James Shott / July 31, 2018

Our Founders Saw Freedom of the Press as a Vital National Element

The U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of important rights is a major factor in making America a great nation. The First Amendment is especially important, as it guarantees us the right to free speech, religious beliefs, and a free press, among other things.

The U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of important rights is a major factor in making America a great nation. The First Amendment is especially important, as it guarantees us the right to free speech, religious beliefs, and a free press, among other things.

One of the lesser well-known Founders, John Dickson, wrote in detail about its importance. For the Founders, “Freedom of speech was a commodious right,” he wrote. “It is a truth-seeking right. It inheres in the nature of man and is essential to his pursuit of happiness.”

Freedom of the press is perhaps the most commonly mentioned right these days, and its importance was very high on the Founders’ list. During the run-up to the creation of the Declaration of Independence, in a “Letter to the Inhabitants of Quebec," Dickson addressed the freedom of the press: "The importance of this consists, besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general, in its diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of Government, its ready communication of thoughts between subjects, and its consequential promotion of union among them, whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated, into more honourable and just modes of conducting affairs.”

He goes on to write, “Men prefer to commit their sins in private, to deny, dissimulate, deflect or defuse. But freedom of the press is a rod on those in authority so that they will put aside their passions and conduct themselves as true representatives of the people.”

The news media, especially print journalism or “the press,” was christened “the Fourth Estate,” equating it with the three official branches of the federal government: the executive, legislative, and judicial. That illustrates the importance of the job of informing the American people.

A free press must keep the public well informed so that the citizenry is adequately prepared to encourage and effect sensible, constitutional government.   And because of this extreme level of importance, the press must remain focused in doing its job correctly, no matter whose chain it may yank in the process. Every right and duty carries with it an equivalent responsibility.

Freedom of the press is a two-way street; because it is so important to the constancy of the nation, it cannot falter, and its practitioners cannot allow themselves to fail the high standard they accepted with their job. If they do, they have compromised their claim to freedom of the press.

Freedom of the press therefore is not absolute; it is not a blanket justification of whatever a reporter, editor/producer, newspaper, network, etc. decides to put forth. Professional rules and ethics still must control.

The press is expected not to drift off into personal bias but to remain loyal to its sacred duty to stay on the straight and narrow path of objective truth, accuracy, and balance.

What, then, can and must be done when the press generally, or particular elements of the press, shirk, flaunt, ignore, or abandon their requisite duty to the American people through false reporting, biased operation, and other activities that fall short of their solemn duty?

One would reasonably expect the press to police itself and issue appropriate sanctions to those wayward practitioners and organizations that slide off the straight and narrow path. Professional ethics should be sacrosanct and inviolable.

Alas, today they are not.

No matter how much media functionaries may hate President Donald Trump, no matter how much that hate may have been justifiably created by Donald Trump through his words and deeds, that does not excuse them from the ethical boundaries in reporting factually and accurately, and without personal bias.

When Dickson wrote, “Men prefer to commit their sins in private …” he means that the press is supposed to make these sins known to the people, but it does not mean the press may join in committing its own sins.

Covering government officials may indeed be difficult at times, but that does not excuse media people from behaving appropriately.

When the president and a head of another country open themselves up to the press to talk about the reason for their meeting and the results, for example, those are the questions the press should ask. If offered the opportunity to ask other questions, fine.

But when the presser ends, shouting questions at the participants should be off-limits. Especially when the question is more for the benefit of the questioner than for the people whose interests they serve.

Worse is the large proportion of “news” that is poorly sourced, based upon anonymous sources, which is not adequately confirmed, or in some cases is actually incorrect. Getting the story first is frequently more important than its accuracy, as is producing a story that attracts a large audience.

And worse still is the high degree of anti-Trump bias, which is so painfully obvious these days.

When Trump calls the media “the enemy of the people,” he, of course, gets hammered. But if the news media fails in its solemn duty of truth, accuracy, and fairness, does that not put our freedom and future at risk, as enemies do?

The press is supposed to hold officials accountable, and now must start holding itself accountable.

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