The Freedom of the Press given in the First Amendment was a unique American idea. It sprung to life when a colonial jury in New York refused to convict printer John Peter Zenger for publishing articles critical about the Crown’s appointed governor. The case introduced the concept of truth as a defense against a charge of libel.
Accountability to the people is the cornerstone of democracy and the First Amendment was a necessary adjustment to the Constitution to see that the 13 original states would ratify this new form of government.
While print journalists have now been joined by journalists who use broadcast or social media to report, the concept of a Free Press remains a bulwark against corruption or overreach by government officials, be they a township trustee, governor, or president.
Citizens generally don’t have the time to regularly attend the local school board, city council or county commissioners meeting. Following the Indiana General Assembly, numerous state or federal agencies or the U.S. Congress would be even more difficult.
It’s journalists who serve as the eyes and ears of the public. They are the watchdogs of democracy – important in reporting what government is doing right and what government is doing wrong.
A recent study be a group of university economists showed that in areas without a strong newspaper presence, government was more costly for taxpayers – bond issues were more expensive, government officials’ compensation was higher and corruption was more likely.
History has repeatedly shown that despots fear a Free Press. In the playbook for committing a coup, seizing immediate control over the broadcast and print news outlets is a must. They seek to control the message to legitimize their actions.
Hundreds of journalists have lost their lives trying to document the events of the world. Four journalists were killed in the attack on the Capital Gazette in Maryland in 2018.
We’re not saying government officials are inherently bad or corrupt – quite the opposite as the majority want and try to do what is best for their constituency. But tough issues don’t have easy answers and choices can create winners and losers when a policy becomes law. The public has a right to know what options were considered, why an elected official voted for a particular position, and who will benefit or be harmed by a government action.
Journalists ask questions, not to embarrass a public official, but to give the public the full story. It’s up to the citizen who is fully informed to determine whether he or she approves the job being done by those who were elected or serve as public employees at the local, state and national level.
Historically in the United States, journalists have shown a spotlight on not only government issues, but social and health issues. The impact of child labor, the treatment of mentally ill, the lack of hygiene in meat-packing plants, the safety of automobiles, the ecological impact of DDT, and the suppression of Civil Rights in the South were exposed by journalists, print and broadcast.
If you want a strong democracy at all three levels of government – local, state, and national, you should support journalism and the First Amendment right of a Free Press.