NPQ today joins in solidarity with hundreds of other news outlets in urging our nation’s president to put an end to his administration’s irresponsible attacks on our free press. We do so out of devotion to democracy and with the understanding that there is a rich, longstanding conceptual and practical interconnection between an active democracy, the news media, and nonprofits in this country.
Both nonprofits and the media are creatures of the First Amendment, in that a “free press” and a people’s “free and active association” are both considered to be essential for a healthy democracy and an informed citizenry.
Democracy cannot exist without a free press, an independent press, a press that is willing to question power and authority at its highest level. Democracy cannot exist without journalists who are willing to ask the challenging questions, listen to and amplify people whose voices are unheard by those in positions in power, and investigate avidly protected secrets.
Journalists are not, as the president might have you believe, “enemies of the state”—they are, rather, necessary to the very public discourse that exemplifies our democracy and, as such, they require our jealous protection against the odd totalitarian impulse, even when it comes from the very top of the turtle pile.
Independent journalism has overcome many threats to its existence over the years, even when those threats came from “inside the house” by owners who placed profits over integrity or investigative effort. Of late, the voices of journalism have moved from the few to the many, even as corporate media consolidations have progressed, and the industry has shifted from almost entirely for-profit to increasingly nonprofit, where presumably it can act more for public benefit by design. At the same time, journalists continue to place themselves in harm’s way in their pursuit of truth.
The right to a free press is not a given. This rare national treasure should be valued by our elected leaders as core to the very democratic system that we hold so dear. That is why it is so deeply dissonant to hear multiple, repeat vitriolic attacks on the press from the White House, attacks that invite supporters to join in and pile on. A president who claims that questions are belligerent and criticism is unpatriotic shows not strong leadership, but something quite weak and yet dangerous.
This dynamic threatens our freedoms to their core and is antithetical to an active democracy, which requires informed challenges being surfaced so that the public is able to hold government and corporations accountable.
No media outlet tells the whole truth. Nor can any single media outlet represent comprehensively the range of perspectives and lived experiences in a society as pluralistic as the United States. The reasonable response to these limitations is to remember that while one might disagree with an individual news outlet, we believe deeply in the institution of a free press. Questions about truths, perspectives, and critical outlooks should serve to strengthen our national dialogue, not to weaken it.
As activist scholar Robert McChesney said in an interview with NPQ in 2005, we need a free press that provides three things:
- a rigorous accounting of people in power and people who want to be in power;
- a wide range of informed opinions and analysis on the important social issues of the day, so that people have the capacity to understand what is going on and not have to hunt for information; and
- a way to ferret out liars so the truth can rise out and people who lie are exposed and their points dismissed
We would add the amplification of unpopular or marginalized issues and voices.
In this statement, NPQ, whose explicit mission is to promote active democracy, joins with the Boston Globe and hundreds of other news organizations today to urge the current administration to end its ugly drumbeat about this nation’s press corps and instead adopt a rightfully grateful stance for journalism and journalists as one of the indispensable pillars of our democratic system. They may not always throw rose petals in the president’s path, but they will help all of the institutions of this democratic state, including the presidency, remain accountable to the public good—and isn’t that what we need?