Letters: The Power of the Press

Readers respond to an essay on the test journalists face in the current political landscape—and the importance of the First Amendment.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Why a Free Press Matters

Updated on September 10, 2018

The American free press is in a state of crisis, Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner argued last month. The threat, they wrote, has been “years, if not decades, in the making.”

“Why a Free Press Matters” is an impassioned piece from people who obviously care a great deal about their institution and the valuable role it plays. I agree with much of what they say, but at the same time, this piece highlighted to me some problematic aspects of the press that I believe many people are now reacting to.

The authors focus on concentrations of power and the unique role of the press in providing a check on these. “Imagine where we would be today,” they ask, “without the press working with dogged determination to hold those in power accountable.” Indeed. However, the press itself also has power. As the authors so adamantly argue, their institution plays a critical role in our society and is capable of breaking up a corporation, stopping a war, and bringing down a president. The press is extremely powerful.

Ask any American and they’ll tell you that Donald Trump and Elon Musk have a lot of power, but I guarantee they’ll also tell you that The New York Times and CNBC have a great deal of power, too. And yet the press can sometimes seem to be composed entirely of people who fashion themselves as heroic little ants up against the massive gears of the powerful. A lot of people are turned off by an arrogant, entitled attitude that essentially seems to say, How dare you criticize us, we’re the media!

With power comes responsibility. I would like to see major media sources acknowledge the powerful positions they are in and take corresponding steps to be accountable. Many people can see how the press so often grossly mischaracterizes or distorts in order to push one narrative or another. There is a well-deserved lack of trust among many right now for the media. No one can ask for perfection, but given all the feedback from all sorts of people who are dissatisfied, just one time I’d like to see a media leader get up to say, We messed up X, we’re going to do better, we apologize. It might go a long way.  

Ultimately, it is unclear exactly what the authors are referring to in this piece. They vaguely contend that a “free press” is under attack. Personally, I would take it case by case. Certain press restrictions may indeed violate our norms for the role of the media (though the daily anti-Trump coverage seems to undercut the idea that free press is threatened). But critical tweets from Musk (or, gasp, even President Trump) most certainly do not. Freedom of speech (something else the Founders believed in) means that you are free to criticize the media. When attacked, you are free to counterattack. By the authors’ own logic, this freedom should greatly strengthen our society. I’ve had it with the self-righteous outrage of the powerful press—they can be as accountable, and as thick-skinned, as the rest of us.

Sam H. Maslin
Seattle, Wash.

Thank you to The Atlantic for publishing Dan Rather’s excellent article about press freedom.

America faces an existential dilemma. Liberty depends on free speech, but the enemies of freedom have taken advantage of the free press to spread the lies and pathology of racism being promoted by a shameless narcissist. Millions of otherwise patriotic and literate people are following Trump down a slippery slope that could end in the demise of the American experiment.

The Federal Communications Commission’s abolition of the fairness doctrine may come to be viewed as the worst policy mistake in American history.

Douglas Kneeland
Fort Collins, Colo.

Having Dan Rather defend the integrity of the press is very ill-advised. The Killian documents controversy did as much as anything to cast doubt on the credibility of the mainstream media.

Credibility is earned, not given, and having someone like Rather write this piece only gives Trump more ammunition.

M. Devellis
New York, N.Y.

Outstanding essay from one of the foremost journalists of our time. Dan Rather ranks with Walter Cronkite and that stalwart Edward R. Murrow. We need to take to heart everything mentioned in his essay and remind ourselves that, in spite of all the competition from those who attempt to dislodge the professionals from doing their job, whether elected officials or amateur reporters with no credentials, there are those who see through the illusion of fake news and social media. Those are journalistic veterans like Rather, who was on the ground in Vietnam and on the floor of the convention in Chicago. More men of his caliber need to take a stand and rid the nation of pseudo-journalism. Thank you, The Atlantic, for printing this quality essay.

James C. Langelle
Incline Village, Nev.