Freedom of the press around the world declined in 2016 for the 12th year in a row, according to Freedom House. Between reporters being jailed as enemies of the state and news organizations being shut down completely, journalism today faces a very hostile environment. Our current president’s tweet that the press is “the enemy of the American people” only introduces more turmoil for journalists and emboldens dictators around the world. His claim also couldn’t be further from the truth.
As Ronald Reagan famously noted, America is “a shining city on a hill.” Our experiment with democracy is on full display for the world to see. And one of the more important factors of our success is a free and independent press. Over the course of our history, the world has seen an educated, relentless and free press expose the Teapot Dome Scandal and President Nixon’s Watergate along with countless local cases of corruption and deception. A free press is a bedrock principle of democracy. It provides necessary transparency, helping to educate citizens and fulfilling an important check on power.
On Presidents and a Popular Press
Yet, despite its importance, a recent Gallup poll showed that public approval ratings of major media platforms are at all-time low. It’s worth noting that, in the last 20 years, the media’s approval ratings have never risen above 40% for digital, print or television news. One could argue that if the press isn’t hated, then it’s not doing it right!
Before he became president, Thomas Jefferson was an original proponent of a free press. In a letter from 1787, he wrote “And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” However, during his successful campaign for President in 1800, candidate Jefferson endured heavy scrutiny by the press. By the time he took office, he hated the press or at least what he thought it had become. In his second term, he even ordered the arrest of newspaper editors for sedition. However, by 1816, seven years after he left the presidency, Jefferson wrote in a letter “where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”
Similar, strained relationships with the press continued with later administrations. After the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs, President John F Kennedy stated “…the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily, to an administration, even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn’t write it, and even if we disapprove, there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.”
Declaration of Independence
And just a few days ago, when asked about the role of the news media, former President George W. Bush responded, “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. We need an independent media to hold people like me to account. Power can be very addictive. And it can be corrosive. And it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.” This from a president who lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College. He assumed office at a time when the nation was highly politicized and divided. He weathered withering criticism from the press about his policies, cabinet picks and early missteps.
This is the point: Elected officials and most citizens will never like a healthy press corps. We don’t need journalists to be loved. We need them to be aggressive, persistent and abrasive. In turn, politicians should respect the press’ role in our democracy, not undermine it for their own political gain. Struggling democracies and entrenched dictators around the world are watching our “shining city on a hill.” What do we want them to see?