America’s latest war of incivility, launched by the president on the media, is not really about the White House or any newspaper, TV station or digital news outlet covering it. This is a disagreement between the president and you, the citizens of the United States. Your Constitution is its script, and your rights are its plunder.
“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.”
Those are your rights. The free press — the media — defends those rights and protects you from assaults against them.
When you hear our president say that “the media is the enemy of the American people,” what you really should be parsing is that he believes there should be restrictions on how your government and elected officials should be covered, that there should be prohibitions on that flow of information. This in direct contradiction to the principle that the framers of our Constitution gave first priority.
Today more than 200 newspapers are joining voices in support of the First Amendment. Some observers are posturing this as the media’s teaming up to scream back at a president who devalues and denigrates the essence of what we do in representing your interests.
But this is about the message, not the messenger.
No one should care who holds the hammer and chisel that would chip and crack the free speech and free press that are our nation’s bedrock. That bedrock must be reinforced against all assaults. To do otherwise is absolutely antidemocratic and patently un-American.
Since the Hartford Courant published its first words in 1764, newspapers have been testament to informing the public, holding government accountable and ensuring those we have chosen to lead us fulfilled their commitments and our ideals. As radio, television, the internet and now social media have followed our lead, the type, tone and tenacity of those tenets have evolved and quickened. Yet, the responsibility and commitment remain the same for all who choose to adhere to them.
“The media” is an amorphous term, encompassing everything from “Access Hollywood” to Snapchat to The New York Times. The true benefactors of the public are journalists, those painfully committed to the truth, fairness and shining their lights, a legion of honorable but fallible individuals who play sometimes heroic roles in their pursuits. Yes, journalists make mistakes, sometimes in large print and permanent ink. But we collect ourselves after every fall on your behalf and return to our course.
Everything you say and write as individuals is equal under the Constitution to everything you hear and read. One protects the other. Your protest about a news story can be spoken aloud because that article could be published unfettered. Free speech is free speech. And that responsibility is ineffably significant.
Those who have power wield power, and that power can’t go unchecked.
For instance, the North Carolina General Assembly has shown a penchant for taking its heaviest steps in darkness. Restructuring local government, adjusting the biennial budget and possibly amending the state constitution all happened in Raleigh with carefully practiced legislating that was devoid of transparency and likely even the input of your elected representative.
Who shined any light on those activities? Who explained who was doing what and how? Who gave voice to those otherwise shunned in determining how your tax dollars will be collected and spent? Your legislators? No, the media.
Yet, when the Fairness Doctrine was abolished in 1987, consumption of information changed. News menus evolved from a diet designed to nourish you to a steady array of only the junk food you found comforting. And those appetites are evolving to dangerous levels.
A poll published earlier this month by the news site The Daily Beast offered ominous insights about how you feel about the media. About one in four of you believes that the president should be able to shut down a news site (which is about the same as in 1979). But 43 percent of the president’s loyalists think the media are his enemy, and nearly half think the president should be able to shut down media outlets that he deems counter to his message.
On the bright side, that same poll said about half of you think the media try to do a good job, and 85 percent agree that “freedom of the press is essential for American democracy.”
And that’s the irrefutable reason that the authors of the Constitution specified a free press in its very first amendment. They were thinking about you.