How to Government #3: Freedom of the Press
As I was going over the US's system of checks and balances, there were a lot of references to another check: the Press. The Press (or Media) plays a large part in political discourse across the country because it bridges the gap between the government and its people. It makes the inner workings of our legislative process accessible to ordinary people. It highlights the most pressing issues and helps the masses keep track of the political happenings we should pay attention to. At least, press at its best--and most free--is supposed to do that.
Freedom of the Press is a right protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. This ensures that the press stays accurate and unbiased. If the press was owned by the government, their reporting would be controlled by said government. How could anyone know if the information they got was true if it was being influenced or censored by the government? They wouldn't know and even worse, they would start to believe the narrative fed to them by a carefully curated, owned "press."
It sounds like I'm speaking in very broad "what ifs" here, but we don't need to go that far to find real world examples of this. Most authoritarian governments own their press and its reporters are at risk of imprisonment, torture or worse if they break from the status quo. For instance, China censors all media and recently clamped down on reporting of bad air pollution and the slowing economy so its people wouldn't know the full extent of it. They often detain journalists who break with the censorship rules to keep them from stepping out of line. As of 2016, China imprisons the second highest number of journalists after Turkey.
Another powerful authoritarian government known for censoring their press is Russia. Putin's administration has been carefully formulating a narrative around the Kremlin and punishes and intimidates journalists who criticize that narrative. Over several years, Russia has cracked down on different publications, forcing editors to resign, offices to close and journalists to fear for their life. A prominent and critical Russian journalist, Masha Gessen, fled the country in order to continue her work in the US.
The fact that Freedom of the Press is protected under the Constitution is really important because it gives journalists, and people, the power to be critical of their own government. And what's more American than that?
This freedom has come in handy several times throughout history. The most notable example being when journalists Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal. Without their reporting, Nixon may never have been impeached. Journalists play such an important role, not just in presenting the news in an unbiased way, but also in shining a light on corruption. Political leaders on the federal and local level would be able to get away with so much if they didn't have the press investigating and reporting on corruption. That is an incredibly vital check on our government that needs to remain in place--Now, more than ever.
Let's look at the ways our press' freedom is threatened in the country today. We don't have to look far to see that our President considers the press or "Fake News" public enemy number one. Do I need to link to the video? Okay...
I mean...when you have the President and his administration creating a narrative that the press is not to be trusted, the first amendment is in danger. First of all, it puts journalists in a vulnerable place, where they must live in fear of being persecuted by the government or attacked by the people. When the President uses violent imagery towards the press it encourages people to feel violent and angry towards them as well. Remember when Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte got in trouble for assaulting a journalist and won anyway? Wild times everybody!
Second of all, that rhetoric discredits the good work being done by serious, unbiased journalists. It causes the public to distrust the press. And when the public distrusts the press or media, where do they turn for their information? They go to the sources they do trust, often in their own bubble; whether it's MSNBC for liberals or Breitbart for the far right. Another way our President has threatened the press is by telling people to go straight to the source: his twitter account. Why read a "Fake News" article about his press conference when you can get the same information from his own mouthpiece? This eliminates the middle man, effectively rendering the press moot. And that's what he wants. The less people trust the press, the freer he is to do what he wants without criticism or blow-back.
The press is truly the strongest defense we have against the Trump administration because the checks and balances in our government are not being exercised. The Republican majority is following his orders, The Court system is stopping his unreasonable travel ban but can only do that for so long. We need the press to remain free now more than ever. We need to protect our journalists so they feel safe reporting on corruption (or I dunno...Russian collusion!) If you want to get a better idea on how Russia became an autocracy, watch this scary interview Samantha Bee did with journalist Masha Gessen:
It's a scary video, I warned you. There are two points Gessen makes that are worth noting because this interview came out in JANUARY. She made two predictions that Trump would follow Putin's autocratic rule by 1.) Starting to ban certain news outlets from the White House and 2.) Holding only one press conference a year. It has been six months and already we've seen instances where certain news outlets were not allowed to attend press briefings. We have also seen the number of press briefings grow smaller, with more limited questions and bizarre responses from press secretaries Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. These press briefings are being televised less often, with some journalists being withheld from recording audio. Trump has also not held a full press conference since February. It appears that little by little the White House is distancing themselves from the press. They're hoping if they do it gradually enough, that we won't notice. Remember that saying, "If you put a frog in boiling water, it'll jump right out. If you put it in tepid water, and gradually heat it up, the frog won't notice it's boiling until it's too late."
What can we as a people do to support the press? We can pay for hard journalism. Sign up for that New York Times subscription already! Become a NPR member! Donate money to organizations that work to protect freedom of the press such as the ACLU and the Committee to Protect Journalists! The press may be the best defense we have against the Trump administration. If we lose freedom of the press, we lose one of our most valuable rights as Americans.