A free press is a critical check on the government

A free press is a critical check on the government

Investigative reporting is to journalism what hypothetical research is to science.

It pioneers new realities, shatters old paradigms and transforms how people see their world. It exposes wrongdoing, sparks reform, changes minds and changes lives.

A smart, fair and watchdog media has been a crucial check on our government since its naissance. Thomas Jefferson once observed, “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.” The fourth estate, however, currently faces a reckoning.

Fake news, alternative facts, inadvertent briefings and memes about the likes of Last Night in Sweden and the Bowling Green massacre loom large in today’s purported post-truth society. The current White House has proven itself inept with the facts, and as it is unlikely that this will change, it is up to journalists to dig up the truth and bring it to light. Just weeks into the Trump Administration, newsrooms are already rising to the occasion admirably — for example, Vice President Mike Pence found out about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s communication with Russia just like many of the rest of us: by reading the Washington Post.

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President Trump attacks the media vitriolically because relentless journalists and a free, fair press will be his undoing. On Feb. 17 he issued yet another Twitter offensive: “The FAKE NEWS media is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people. SICK!”

His repeated and caustic aggression against the “failing New York Times” and “phony Washington Post” has a carefully calculated and self-serving purpose: to convert honest reporting of his administration’s turmoil into fuel in the culture war, which casts the media as the antagonist or “opposition party” and makes it easy for his supporters to refute sound journalism. He is quick to label any critical story as “fake news,” denies reporters a basic standard of professionalism at news conferences and has threatened to “open up” libel laws so that journalists could be sued over content unfavorable to his administration. Never mind that in actuality, there is no federal libel law.

Americans do not stare down fascism, yet, but it is important to remember that the suppression of honest media is an initial descent down the long and slippery slope to an autocratic regime. Newspapers under authoritarians such as Ayatollah Khomeini, Mao Zedong and Vladimir Putin functioned to serve state interests and impose ideological hegemony. The Third Reich deployed the press, newsreels and radio to kindle popular anxiety, which it then channelled into political measures that eradicated civil liberties. The SS used its monopoly on the media to justify its brutalization and incarceration of political opponents. We can elude the long shadow of fascism if we retain the ability to think hard for ourselves, but we cannot do so without a free, disinterested press assiduously committed to the truth.

The survival of good journalism depends on the fidelity of newsrooms and the electorate alike. Journalists must do their part by retaining a commitment to the most important beats and by remaining somewhat unaffected to Trump’s constant stream of trial balloons and distractions. The president overwhelms the media with access and creates “news” faster than journalists can fact-check him — by the time they do, the news cycle has moved on, leaving little time or attention for issues Trump does not highlight on his Twitter feed. To be certain, Trump knowingly exploits deep-rooted journalistic conventions that anything the president says is inherently newsworthy. Journalists should emulate David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, whose deep, longstanding commitment to investigating Trump’s lack of charitable donations deserves a Pulitzer Prize.

If we as a citizenry want serious, fact-based journalism, though, we will have to not only consume it but choose it. Reading your 10 free online articles per month on The New York Times is a good start insofar as it informs you, but it does nothing to help sustain the journalism practice so that others may likewise be informed. National and local newsrooms currently face a serious blight, and it is unreasonable to expect journalists to do more with less. Since the advent of the Internet, there has been an emerging cultural expectation that journalism is a free commodity, and if that prevails, the industry will not survive. We cannot afford that. We must subscribe.

Even the most relentless watchdog journalism will not preserve democracy, as our Founders intended, on its own if we don’t pay attention. A well-functioning democracy requires an engaged and informed voter base and responsible and honest elected officials all living in the same truth-based reality.

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