Four freedoms are guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution: freedom of religion, speech, the press, and the right to assemble peaceably to petition the government. The freedom of the press, meaning news media, has been challenged by the administration’s determination to undermine it, labeling it ‘fake news’ and ‘the enemy of the people.’ With well orchestrated ferocity they’ve caused a large portion of the population to believe it. Pew and Gallup report different levels of trust in the media, but at best it hovers around 50%, and some sectors are as low as 14%. Television news is often rated lowest, but is the most popular source. Newspapers typically rate highest, but are the least popular source. It leaves unscrupulous persons in power to say whatever they want, knowing a cynical public will distrust media reports about truthfulness, or commentary about meaning. It gives them latitude to do whatever they want, knowing that being called to account for it will likely be unheard and unheeded.
The constitutional guarantee of press freedom has always been subject to interpretation. In America the debate began with the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger that introduced a legal foundation for press freedom in the colonies. I have vague memories of the 1953 television play “The Trial of John Peter Zenger,” a film of which was shown in my high school class. We were a bit misled. It wasn’t about the right to report on misbehaving government officials, but about the intricacies of colonial libel laws. Zenger got off on a technicality. It helped that the jury didn’t like the judge. Just the same, it encouraged newspaper publishers to hold governments accountable. The cork had been popped. The genie was out.
Politicians and governments don’t like being held accountable in the harsh light of news media exposure. The importance of press freedom to provide public accountability was essential to the survival of the new American democratic republic. It was a key reason for its inclusion in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Nevertheless, the young American government passed a sedition law in 1798 making it a crime to say bad things about the government in times of war. Some newspaper publishers ignored it, and some went to jail. Its authorization expired early the 1800s, but the nation did it again with another sedition law in1918 during WWI. Same results. Repealed a few years later, it’s never been tried again. Today we have more effective substitutes involving information labeled secret for reasons of national security and executive privilege. We also have public relations professionals skilled at manipulating what and how information gets to the public.
Sparring with them are reporters and commentators equally skilled at ferreting out what the public really needs to know.
All of that’s been true for decades. What makes the present different is an administration intent on destroying the public’s trust in the integrity of a free press, thus removing it as a means by which they can be held accountable. If the president and his minions call the press ‘fake news’ and ‘the enemy of the people’ often enough, loud enough, they believe they will persuade a critical mass to disbelieve whatever the press puts out. Then they can substitute their own propaganda machines for legitimate news media. Who needs sedition laws? Why worry about First Amendment guarantees when disabling legitimate news media is so easy to do?
They’ve had some success. I hear it in comments from Trump supporters demanding to know what makes the legitimate media, legitimate. They’re all liberals, they say, biased against anything that doesn’t lean left. They have no more right, they say, to claim truth than the faux news sources littering the internet, talk radio, and some cable networks. Verifiable truthfulness and well informed, balanced commentary are easily lost in the melee.
They can do what they want. A responsible free press, dedicated to its own public accountability, will continue to do its job of informing the public about issues and policies important to the well being of our society, the preservation of our constitutional freedoms, and our civil rights. The Constitution guarantees it. The American ethos demands it.