America’s Founding Fathers, after breaking free from monarchical subjugation, were determined to construct a government of checks and balances on absolute concentrated power. So they created a federal system that differentiated between state and national control, as well as three branches of government with distinct powers and responsibilities that had to answer to one another. But, not satisfied that that was enough, they added 10 amendments to the Constitution. And in the very first of those amendments, they established what has become an insurance policy for the continued health of the republic: a free press. As a working journalist, I know I have a stake in this concept. But as a grandfather who wants to see his grandchildren live in a country at least as free as the one I have enjoyed, a free press is even more relevant now than ever.
The role of the press is to ask hard questions and refuse to be deterred even when someone powerful claims, “Nothing to see here.” At first glance, it might seem as if the press is a destabilizing force: It can undermine the credibility of our elected officials and ultimately our confidence in government. It can drive down stock prices and embolden our nation’s critics and enemies. It can uncover inconvenient truths and stir divisions within our society. But our Founders understood that long-term accountability is more important than short-term stability. Where would America be without the muckrakers of the progressive era, like Ida Tarbell, who uncovered the perfidy and immorality of the Standard Oil monopoly under John D. Rockefeller; without The New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the lies around the Vietnam War; without the dogged work of The Boston Globe in documenting sexual abuse within the Catholic Church? Because of the press, powerful institutions were held accountable for their actions, and we became a stronger nation.
The institution of a free press in America is presently in a state of crisis greater than I have ever seen in my lifetime, and perhaps in any moment in this nation’s history. The winds of instability howl from many directions: a sustained attack on press freedom from those in political power, crumbling business models, rapidly changing technologies, and some self-inflicted wounds. This is a test, not only for those of us who work in journalism, but also for the nation as a whole.