In addition to being the revolutionaries who demanded independence from Great Britain and the visionaries who drafted the Constitution, many of America’s Founding Fathers were journalists. Some owned and published newspapers, others wrote for them, but all understood the value of a free press to a fledgling democratic republic.
That’s worth a bit of reflection so close to Independence Day. While the First Amendment protects the rights of journalists from government interference, hostility to the media runs counter to the nation’s founding principles and, if unchecked, will make for a less-informed public and government run amok.
Five years ago last week, a man walked into the newsroom of The Capital in Annapolis, Md., and opened fire, killing five members of the newspaper staff and injuring two others.
While the gunman acted alone and was responsible for his actions, the shooting came amid growing hostility toward the press, including from political leaders who opportunistically used the press as a foil. One cannot forget attendees at campaign rallies for Donald Trump threatening reporters, egged on by the candidate.
That continued during his time in the White House and has not ebbed with his departure. His acolytes are all too eager to attack the media, whether warranted or not, and embrace conspiracy theories and falsehoods rather than detailed, factual and straightforward reporting.
That’s not to say the media should be spared criticism or that journalists don’t make mistakes. We shouldn’t, and we do. But by and large, the work being done by American reporters is honest in intention and fair in approach. When mistakes are made, they are promptly and prominently corrected.
That’s especially true at the local level, far away from the chattering heads on national cable news every night. Community newspapers and smaller-scale media organizations work tirelessly to produce valuable, relevant and local journalism that informs the public, holds government to account and holds a mirror to the areas they serve.
What happens in the absence of these news outlets? “In communities without a credible source of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout,” Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications grimly writes in its 2022 “The State of Local News” report.
Yet, in spite of those consequences, the attacks on the press continue: laws that make it harder to obtain public records or attend public meetings, officials who feel entitled to conceal information from reporters and the public, law enforcement and courts which arrest and try journalists, here in America, for doing their jobs.
The founders, journalists themselves, knew that communities with newspapers thrived and prospered from being more informed. They recognized the value of journalism and the power of media to persuade the public.
It’s no stretch to believe they would be deeply concerned, if not outraged at the current attacks on journalism. And we can hope they would implore their peers in elected office and their fellow citizens to cease dangerous behavior that imperils journalists serving a critical role in our democracy.