The Importance of the Free Press

By: Samantha Bernstein-Naples

The cornerstone of every democracy is a free press. The media’s ability to exercise this right allows for the free flow of information without government censorship, providing citizens with open access to information and the unbridled capacity to gain knowledge about the world in which they live. Without a free press, democracy simply cannot function. Government interference with the media leaves citizens with a warped and narrow view of their country and an inability to freely express themselves. The ability to openly criticize a government on platforms that can reach people across a nation at its peak can spur revolutions in times of injustice and when citizens are faced with an oppressive government. At its very core, it allows those with opposing views to openly and freely express their standpoints and report on the government without fear of punishment or of having their voices stifled. 

Ever since the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, the right to a free press has been protected under the law within the United States. Thomas Jefferson, our third president and the man who inspired the drafting of the Bill of Rights, once declared that “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.” The founders of this nation were acutely aware of just how crucial a free press would be in building a successful, democratic government. However, in recent years, specifically under the leadership of President Donald J. Trump, the First Amendment right to freedom of the press and freedom of speech has been tremendously disrespected and thrust into harm's way: we seem to have forgotten just how crucial the free press is to democracy and just how easily our rights can be abridged. Trump’s series of ruthless attacks on the media and attempts to call the reliability of the free press into question has sent cracks through the very foundation of our democracy. In early 2017, outgoing President Barack Obama warned Americans not to take democracy for granted; after four years under Donald Trump, these words could not ring any more true. Whether it has been his lying to the American people, withholding knowledge regarding the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, or his alleged use of his position as president to advantage himself, threatening to withhold congressionally approved military aid from Ukraine in exchange for dirt on presidential candidate Joe Biden, Trump has undoubtedly exhibited signs of a dictator. However, no act has more seriously threatened to cross our beloved country over from democracy to dictatorship than Trump’s vicious attacks on the media. Through declarations such as “fake news,” and “enemy of the people,” in reference to news outlets that are respected worldwide such as CNN and the New York Times, Trump has greatly damaged the trust between the media and his followers. Trump ensures that anyone willing to take his words to heart will disregard criticism of him as untrue and assertions that they dislike as fake news. As emphasized by the Editorial Board of the New York Times, “insisting that truths you don’t like are “fake news” is dangerous to the lifeblood of democracy.” A country in which the words of one man are declared fact and opposing views are ridiculed and discarded as wrong and untrustworthy is not a true democracy but a country teetering on the brim of becoming a dictatorship. 

The spreading of the rhetoric that proven trustworthy news outlets are spreading false information hinders the ability of the media to fulfill their duty to the people, to keep us informed, and to provide us with guidance in times of crisis; this rhetoric is greatly harmful as purely scientific facts, specifically regarding climate change and the Coronavirus, are being increasingly undermined, and subsequently, doubted. Scientific information is being ignored by millions of Americans, specifically, those who still have faith in President Trump; fellow citizens are paying with their lives as a result, while the planet’s life span deteriorates right alongside the state of democracy within this nation. Innocent Americans who looked to the President for leadership and bought into the idea that information on the severity of the Coronavirus pandemic was fake news have subsequently and heartbreakingly had their lives cut short. As for our planet, the home of every living creature in our universe, scientists, and world leaders alike agree that climate change is the “greatest threat to humanity” (Prince Charles, 2020). President Trump, on the other hand, has repeatedly insisted, “I don’t believe in climate change” (Donald Trump, 2012). With conflicting views regarding something as undeniably important as the future of our planet, the free press is more important than ever. With the President so greatly harming the trust Americans place in the free press, he is inhibiting the ability of scientists and world leaders to educate American citizen’s on the dangers of climate change and the need to take action, causing the future of our planet to grow dimmer and dimmer. Trump is destroying the guide that Americans need the most, the media, as a deadly virus continues to ravage the planet. We must not allow false accusations of fake news to cut us off from the platform that we, our country and our planet need, quite literally, to survive. 

Beyond accusing news outlets of being “enemies of the people” and perpetuating “fake news,” Trump has hurled insults at our media so crass that the fact that they are coming from the leader of a nation would be almost laughable if it wasn’t so disturbing. Trump has referred to news reporters as “scum” “slime” and as “lying, disgusting people.” While these character assassinations may seem trivial and harmless at first, they are actively destroying the trust between the American people and their platform for free communication and expression. The fact that our president is attempting to silence those unafraid to express criticism regarding how the current administration is being run and is willing to stoop to such low levels to do so is humiliating and truly terrifying. Trump has even gone as far as to, “blacklist...reporters and entire news outlets from campaign events” (Brian Tashman, Political Researcher and Strategist, 2017). Not only that but he has refused to answer the questions of certain news reporters and has denied them access to the newsroom. In doing so, the President is blocking the free press from operating the way our founding fathers intended it to.

While disinformation campaigns do exist, such as the false charges of election fraud, we as a nation need to separate the deliberate lies and half-truths that are spread over social media from the established media that engage in fact-checking as part of their routine way of covering the news. When the president himself is a verified liar, do not allow his words to dictate who you can trust. Instead, take the power back into your own hands and investigate! Decide for yourself what sources you are comfortable placing your trust in, beyond party lines, beyond the words of the President. The free press is far too vital to our democracy for us to lose faith in it. The free press is our primary method for communication. It is how we are able to obtain knowledge, and it is what gives us a platform to make our voices heard when faced with injustice. Now, more than ever, we must remember just how important the free press is to the functioning of democracy and to the heart of our nation and work together to protect our First Amendment right. 

Image Citations

  • First Amendment of the U.S Constitution (first amendment.co) 

  • AP News, David Bauder