Why a Free Press Matters

Journalists have been keeping a check on power since the creation of the First Amendment. Now they’re being tested.

Mark Peterson / Redux

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.

This article is adapted from What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism.

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.

The most immediate threat comes from the dangerous political moment in which we find ourselves. We have seen individual journalists and some of our best press institutions singled out for attack by the highest of elected officials for reporting truths that the powerful would rather remain hidden; for pointing out lies as lies; and for questioning motivations that deserve scrutiny. It would be easy to fill this essay, and indeed entire volumes, with examples of these recent outrages against the press and to call out the chief culprits in these assaults on our constitutional freedoms. I suspect much scholarship in the future will be dedicated to just such topics. But I am less interested in naming names than in explaining the larger forces at play, which have been years, if not decades, in the making.

Of course there has always been friction between those in power and the journalists tasked with covering them. George Washington complained that the press treated him unfairly, and I imagine every president since then has felt similarly at some point in his tenure in office. But if you wish to serve as a public official in the United States, you agree to subject yourself and your actions to scrutiny. And for most of my early life and career, I had a sense that politicians, especially those at the national level, understood this compact. Even as they tried to hide things or shift attention away from scandal, they knew they could not afford to disengage from the press.

The presidency of Richard Nixon was different and became an inflection point in the history of the free press in the United States. That he was ultimately brought down by investigative journalism does not diminish the damage done during his tenure in office. In the decades since, we have learned of the lengths he was willing to go to in secret to undermine the press, including tapping into reporters’ phone lines and pressuring their corporate bosses. But even Nixon’s public statements, as well as his public actions, made clear his antipathy to the Fourth Estate. He attacked the press, disengaged from them, and instituted a strategy of sidelining national media outlets in favor of staged events and interviews with local reporters—reporters who, in what would likely be their one and only interview with a president, were less willing to ask hard questions.

The ignominy with which Nixon left office should not detract from the effectiveness of his press strategy. And it is not an accident that one of the architects of this strategy was a young Roger Ailes, who would advise future Republican presidents and then monetize the demonization of a supposedly biased press by creating Fox News. Ailes understood that millions of Americans felt persecuted by liberal elites, and by extension the national press headquartered in places like New York. This antagonism was not theoretical and could be violent. Senator Joseph McCarthy tarred journalists during his Communist witch hunts (during which time CBS was called the “Communist Broadcasting System”), and later local and state politicians attacked the press for its coverage of civil rights (and CBS gained the nickname the “Colored Broadcasting System”). But Nixon was the first to do it on the national level—and win the presidency. I don’t think those of us in the press grasped, at the time, the full import of what had happened.

None of us could have predicted how technological and regulatory changes would usher in a new media landscape that, building on the Nixon legacy, would transform the very nature of news. In 1987, under President Ronald Reagan, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) abolished the fairness doctrine. In place since 1949, it had stipulated equal airtime for differing points of view. In this environment where media outlets felt less compelled to present balanced political debate, AM radio stations in particular started to switch to a lucrative form of programming best exemplified by Rush Limbaugh—right-wing talk radio. For hours on end, Limbaugh and others who followed his lead would present their view of the world without rebuttal, fact-checking, or any of the other standards in place at most journalistic outlets. Often their commentary included bashing any media coverage that conflicted with the talk-radio narrative.

In the 1980s and ’90s, the advent of cable television broadened what had been a limited number of stations into a diverse lineup of niche networks. Into this business opportunity stepped Fox News and Ailes. The sales pitch here was subtler than talk radio; Fox News portrayed itself as a full-fledged news outlet that was a corrective to the liberal press. There are some fine journalists who have worked and continue to work at Fox News. But the majority of programming is opinion rather than news, and this opinion is often in service of conservative political objectives regardless of the facts.

More recently, the entire journalism business model has been upended by the rise of the internet and, even more recently, social media. Suddenly anyone can be a news publisher, regardless of their expertise, sense of fairness, or motives. In this digital free-for-all, the Times can seem like just another website alongside a propaganda outfit like Breitbart News. And “fake news” from individual or state actors can spread like wildfire through Facebook, Twitter, and other similar outlets. In 1984, George Orwell could only imagine a tyrannical central government having the power to systematically undermine objective truth. Today we see that process happening organically through millions of social-media shares.

I know my critics will claim the narrative I have laid out above is proof of my own liberal bias. It is a charge I have heard for decades, a personal echo of the larger attacks on this nation’s major journalistic institutions. I do not think the bias attack against the American press holds up to scrutiny. Reporters by their nature tend to be suspicious, especially of accrued power, and that usually extends to party politics. Democratic presidents have had to withstand withering press coverage, from Lyndon B. Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War to Jimmy Carter’s reputation for ineffectualness. And with some of this coverage, like the overblown Whitewater scandal during Bill Clinton’s term and the distortions around Barack Obama’s health-care bill, Democrats have argued that they have been treated unfairly by the press—with some justification. I have no doubt that many conservatives believe that the press is biased, but I believe the political leaders and activists who assiduously stoke these fears are doing so cynically. They see attacks on the press as a way to rally their base and distract voters from the weaknesses of their own candidates, without having to answer specific allegations.

The effects of the sustained attacks on the press have become cumulative, intimidating reporters—and, more importantly, editors, publishers, and owners—in newsrooms across the country. Despite the negative perception in some circles, almost every American journalist I have ever met is at the core patriotic. We wish our fellow Americans well. We hope our government leads with moral clarity and wisdom. And we want it to succeed in making us a more peaceful, prosperous, and just country. Nevertheless, our constitutional role often puts us in an adversarial position to our government. These days, I fear that the pull of our inborn patriotism combined with a fear of being labeled un-American clouds that role, with real and potentially corrosive effect. These are forces every journalist must be aware of, and on guard against. But often our individual defenses fail, and sometimes they fail en masse with disastrous consequences. I consider my biggest journalistic failure to be one in which I unfortunately was not alone. In the lead-up to the second Iraq War, when the American public needed a strong and independent press, too many of us blinked and the nation was far worse for our drifting from our core purpose.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, as I rushed to the CBS News broadcast studio, I could see the columns of smoke rising amid a brilliant blue sky. I knew that our country was facing a bloody and tragic test, the depths of which would be unknowable for some time. It is easy to forget what those days, weeks, and months that followed felt like. Al-Qaeda became a household word, and there was palpable fear that another large-scale attack was imminent. The immediate task in newsrooms like ours was to make sense of the moment. Reporters worked long, difficult shifts chasing down the names of the victims and telling the stories of the families they left behind. We investigated how the horrific terrorist plan had come together, and how it was executed. We provided context by examining al-Qaeda attacks of the past, and we explained the rise of Osama bin Laden. The American public was contending with waves of sorrow, pain, fear, and anger. It was hungry to know more about what had happened.

The focus shifted almost immediately to Afghanistan, where the masterminds of the mass murder of 9/11 had found sanctuary. And when American men and women in uniform headed to Afghanistan to fight, reporters were embedded with units to cover the story. In general, there was not enough skepticism at the time in our reporting. We should have asked harder questions about whether we were committing enough resources to the war, and whether the special operations–led campaign was the right approach.

Then, almost immediately, we started hearing from high-level officials in the George W. Bush administration, especially Vice President Dick Cheney, of a place that had been off the radar of most Americans for some time: Iraq. And soon we were at war with another country.

By all assessments, the Iraq War was a bloody and costly conflict that was poorly planned and poorly executed, not so much in the initial military campaign but in the rationale for invasion in the first place and then the management of occupation. Almost all of the press, myself included, accepted the selling of the war around “weapons of mass destruction” with far too little skepticism. The term WMD was a brilliant marketing campaign by the Bush administration to conflate the Armageddon scenario of a nuclear weapon (something most experts believed Iraq didn’t have the capability to produce) with the specter of chemical weapons, which, while horrific, are much more limited in scope. This wasn’t simply a vague case of “fake news.” It was subtle propaganda, with just enough of an air of plausibility to lull a nation into a war of choice. And yet the press continued to use the term WMD up to and after the war. Meanwhile, the supposed links between Iraq and al-Qaeda involved so much nuanced explanation of people and groups with foreign names that it was easy for the administration to sow confusion to sell its policies. And the press didn’t do enough to try to explain the differences. As the military effort in Iraq became an increasingly fractious occupation, the press began to ask harder questions, despite the predictable blowback from the administration. Much of what we now know about what happened in Iraq is because of great journalism. But the policy decisions had already been made and the damage had already been done.

The war destabilized a region that was already unstable. In the intervening years, we have seen Iran rise in power, Syria descend into a horrific civil war, and ISIS and other terrorist groups emerge. The Iraq War cost roughly 4,500 American lives, with thousands more severely injured, not to mention those lives lost by our allies and the large numbers of Iraqis who died since the invasion. Estimates put the financial cost to the United States at around $2 trillion. It is a troubling lesson about the dangers of unintended consequences. And the press played a part in turning a blind eye to the government policies that were responsible for the tragedy.

In wartime, the American people tend to give an administration a lot of latitude in waging the fight, and for good reason. Wars are difficult affairs, and it is easy to be an armchair general. It is not the role of the press to suggest military strategy or to actively undercut the commander in chief. Our job is merely to ask questions, and if the answers are unsatisfactory, it is our responsibility to follow up with more questions. However, in times of patriotic fervor, asking a question can be spun as unpatriotic. And the Bush administration, along with its allies in the conservative press, did not hesitate to hang a “bias” sign on those who were seen as confrontational or even skeptical of the story line the administration was putting out. It wasn’t overt, but there was a feeling that we shouldn’t be making too many waves. Were we really going to say that the administration was playing games with reports from the intelligence community? After all, it was plausible that Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction; he had used chemical weapons in the past. Were we really going to ask too many questions about the tenuous links between Iraq and the terrorists who struck on 9/11? Wasn’t Hussein a mass murderer and an avowed enemy of the United States? And when American troops are fighting in foreign fields, do you want to stand accused of not supporting them?

These are not excuses, but simply an effort to explain—however feebly—what much of the press was thinking as the Iraq War started and progressed. It must be noted that while there was wide press failure in these times, some reporters and outlets stood firm with investigative reporting that called the entire rationale for war into question. They faced tough criticism at the time, and they deserve our unmitigated appreciation.

The problems with the press leading up to and during the early years of the Iraq War were also fueled by the changing economics of the American media landscape. The business models that had sustained journalism—primarily print journalism, but also electronic media—began to crack under the stress of new technology. At the time of the Iraq War, news outlets that had already been contending with shrinking revenues, job layoffs, and general uncertainty now faced the challenges posed by the internet. The rate at which this digital revolution has upended the model of journalism cannot be overstated. And as journalistic operations were consolidated into large corporations, reporters increasingly felt the pressure not to pursue unpopular story lines that might incur the wrath of the administration and thus harm the bottom line and shareholder value.

The technological challenges to a sustainable business model for journalism have only grown since the early years of this century. There is a lot of good, detailed scholarship on this subject, but suffice it to say that all sectors of the media have been hit hard. We have seen how online advertising has proven elusive and disappointing, and efforts such as paywalls have not proven generally effective, as consumers can readily find news online for free. Newspapers in particular have suffered. Many of the reasons that people had for maintaining their subscriptions to a paper—to check the weather and stock quotes, to get box scores and read about their favorite teams, to get a sense of the big headlines—can now be satisfied elsewhere, instantaneously, and also, of course, for free. Meanwhile, cash cows like classified advertisements, which used to generate billions of dollars in annual revenue for newspapers, have largely dried up thanks to sites like Craigslist. And if this environment weren’t hard enough, the rise of social media as a primary news source has put further pressure on bottom lines. All these trends are important and worthy of study by those who understand the world of business far better than I do. But most importantly, our evolving media landscape has made it more difficult for television-news networks and newspapers to have the resources to employ editors and reporters. And that has had a seismic effect on our democracy.

Simply put, we have more people talking about news and less original reporting. Whether on television or online, there is no shortage of analysis. But analysis is only as good as the information that supports it. The deep cuts to newsrooms in print and electronic media have resulted in far fewer reporters waking up each morning deciding what story they will chase. There is less investigative reporting and international coverage. At the height of CBS News, we had around 20 foreign and domestic bureaus robustly staffed. Most of those have withered or long since been shuttered. What has gotten far less attention but has perhaps been the greatest loss to our democracy is the decimation that has come to local newspapers. These were always the engines that powered much of American journalism, as great local reporting would bubble up to the national newspapers and television. Local newspapers also provided a check on local and state governments, reporting on mayors, city councils, school boards, and statehouses. This is where much of the governing of the United States takes place, but a lot of it now occurs with little or no coverage. It is as if public meetings are happening behind closed doors. And with no coverage, no one is keeping the people who work for us—on those school boards or city councils—accountable.

The promise that came with the digital age is that we would have more access to information, and that is undoubtedly true. We can read journalism from around the world, we can easily share articles with friends, and we can search for both breaking headlines and the archives of the past. But to create all this content, especially important coverage like investigative journalism, isn’t free, nor is it cheap. Investigative reporters can dig for months and come up empty. Yet that is the journalism that keeps our democracy honest.

I don’t profess to know how to fix the business model, but I am encouraged that long-form journalism is flourishing online, from traditional outlets like The Atlantic, which has adapted to the digital age, to innovative news sites like Vox. And we have seen individuals with deep pockets get interested in journalism, like the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who bought The Washington Post, and the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who has given money to investigative journalism. There are many who believe that a benefactor model could be one solution, but it comes with its own vulnerabilities. I hope we can find a sustainable means to better support online journalism, perhaps through micropayments or bundled subscriptions. And we have to connect the explosion in the consumption of news on social media to the funding of the outfits that actually do the original reporting. Anyone who cares about a free press should play a part. If you value quality journalism, support it through donations and subscriptions.

In recent years, too many of those who covered politics in Washington, D.C., fell into a Beltway mind-set of coziness with politicians of both parties and reporting that succumbed to false equivalence, as if every issue had two sides of equal worth. This helped pave the way for our current political situation. But I have been heartened that the press is emboldened with a newfound resilience for investigative journalism and truth telling. There is an almost daily competition for blockbuster headlines among the Times, the Post, and many other print and electronic outlets. This is how we have learned about cover-ups, shady dealings, bad policy, and outright lies from our elected officials. The responsible press has been hit with the ludicrous mantra of “fake news,” but I believe these insults will only strengthen journalists’ resolve.

Imagine where we would be today without the press working with dogged determination to hold those in power accountable. We are seeing living proof of the wisdom of our Founders, who conceived of the First Amendment as a check on tyranny. But while these may be heroic times for journalists, the outcome of the battle between propaganda and deception on the one hand and unbiased reporting on the other is far from clear. No one has a monopoly on the truth, but the whole premise of our democracy is that truth and justice must win out. And the role of a trained journalist is to get as close to the truth as is humanly possible. Make no mistake: We are being tested. Without a vibrant, fearless free press, our great American experiment may fail.