“In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” Those are the words written in 1971 by Judge Hugo Black in the 6-3 (New York Times Co. vs United States) landmark Supreme Court decision on the First Amendment.
That essential role in our democracy is to make sure our government agencies and elected officials are transparent in their actions. It is a role that President Donald Trump continues to bash with every opportunity he is given.
Do we make mistakes? Yes. We are humans, but we strive to be accurate.
When we, the media, make a mistake, it doesn’t take any time at all for our public servants to point out our error. Our hope is that we are quick and transparent in admitting those mistakes, even when they are hard for us to admit. But, to be human, to make a mistake, is to be real.
Does that mean you, the reader, will agree with everything that we write? No. While accurate reporting of this community is our goal, whether we are fair is always an opinion that differs from one individual to another.
We respect our public servants. Theirs is a hard job, one that not many of us, journalists and citizens alike, would want for ourselves. Who wants a job where probably 30 percent of the population disagrees with your decision as a public servant, regardless of what you do? Facing that number of unhappy constituents is never easy, particularly in small towns where everyone seems to know one another.
Sometimes the goal to be accurate in our reporting, coupled with the responsibility we have to make sure our elected officials and government agencies are transparent in their work, will create conflict between the newspaper and our public servants. That dynamic tension between the press and politicians is part of the long-held democratic vision of America, going back to our Founding Fathers.
There are those who suggest the news media, large and small, report fake news. Some refer to the news media as an enemy of the people, an enemy of the state. Those people aren’t hurting the news media. Instead, that hateful speech actually encourages people to consume more news. Readership is actually up at most news outlets, as it is here at the Highlands News-Sun.
Calling our work fake news or the individuals who work here the enemy of the people is not a successful attack on the media. It is an attack on how our democracy works. This fake news rhetoric is an attack on the vision of our Founding Fathers. The enemy of the state rhetoric weakens our democratic notion of checks and balances for future generations.
More of Judge Black’s iconic decision as quoted in Meryl Streep’s “The Post” earlier this year. “The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people …”
That “government” includes the local council that oversees even the smallest cities and towns, their employees, and our elected officials all the way from the local mayor to the President of the United States of America. The news media always has had an important role to play in holding accountable our public servants.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”
This fake news rhetoric is good for our business, but it is bad for our democracy.