Privacy Policy

As I See It: 

The Free Press, a Pillar of Democracy

November 1, 2018

When I was growing up, Americans got their news very differently than we do today. The newspaper was a central part of every day; in our house, the Detroit Free Press was delivered in the morning and the Detroit News in the afternoon. Both ran stories by local beat reporters and from wire services around the globe. Weekly magazines, like Time and Life, featured in-depth stories and photojournalism on major events. The New York Times was the newspaper of record with its motto: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” There were only three television networks — CBS, NBC, and ABC — and most Americans stopped their day to watch the evening news. And while Republicans and Democrats had deep disagreements on issues and policy, they based their thinking on an understanding of the same basic facts. 

Today, most of us get our news from our mobile device, often curated for us by an algorithm created to show only what we like to read or agree with. Often, the content comes without the benefit of an editor, a fact-checker, or a responsible news organization. In some cases, our “news” may actually be propaganda from a campaign, from a political party, or even from a foreign adversary. Accordingly, our political disagreements may not even be based upon the same “facts.” This represents a growing challenge for democracy, dependent as it is upon a citizenry informed by fact and truth. It also underscores the vital role played by professional news organizations. They may be more critical today than ever before. 

America is indebted as a democratic nation to the free press for truths it has uncovered, for truth it has disseminated, and for falsehoods it has repudiated. The press uncovered the government’s lies about the war in Vietnam; it exposed Watergate; it opened our eyes to the sexual abuse of children by priests; and, most recently, it shed a light on the sexual assault by numerous men in power. The free press dispelled the false conspiracies about the 9/11 attacks, President Obama’s birth, and Joe McCarthy’s lurking communists. The work of a free press is essential. 

A lesson evidenced by the Arab Spring and by the pseudo-democracies of Venezuela, Russia, and China is democracy and freedom cannot be permanently established in the absence of the basic institutions of freedom, perhaps most notably a free press. If a free press is absent, the door to true democracy is quickly closed. This realization now forms an important part of our national foreign policy. 

The President tweeted this week, “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People...” He was referring to “CNN and others in the Fake News business,” not foreign provocateurs. 

Surely every president has endured stories that he knew were inaccurate and has chaffed at one or more news publications. George Washington was routinely brutalized by a newspaper that had been anonymously funded and founded by his own Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. But no American president has ever before vilified the American press or one of its professional outlets as an “Enemy of the People.” 

Attacking the media or publications that lean in a different direction than the Republican Party is decidedly good politics. We conservatives have long suffered from the left-leaning attitudes and reporting of the media. But today, if we don’t like one outlet, there are others from which we can—and do—choose. And, more importantly, denigrating the media diminishes an institution that is critical to democracy, both here and abroad. As a political tactic, it may be brilliant, but it comes with a large cost to the cause of freedom. 

At one of my recent campaign events I was asked whether I would, “take action to shut down ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and the New York Times.” When I responded “of course not,” and that, in fact, I would do everything in my power to preserve freedom of speech, the person persisted by arguing that these outlets purvey fake news. I found this deeply disturbing. How different from when I was growing up; no one then would seriously consider stifling the free press for publishing the news and opinion as they saw fit. 

My questioner, however, did raise a valid point: isn’t the media biased? Of course it is. Humans are biased and the media is populated by humans. The founders knew that the media would be biased; because humans are involved, there is no other way. We can and should call for accuracy and responsibility in reporting from every member of the press. But a free press, even if biased, was guaranteed in our Constitution because it is critical to the preservation of the Republic. 

I sometimes become irritated by stories I know are wrong, especially when they are about me. But I cannot conceive of thinking or saying that the media or any responsible news organization is an enemy. The media is essential to our Republic, to our freedom, to the cause of freedom abroad, and to our national security. It is very much our friend.