The Importance Of A Free And Independent Press
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Politics and Activism

The Importance Of A Free And Independent Press

The Trump administration's hostility toward the press is unsettling.

The Importance Of A Free And Independent Press

I'm in my fourth year of college and I was a journalism major for a semester at MSU. I took a journalism class which required me to write legitimate news articles, abiding by AP Style and real-world journalistic ethics, and including interviews with real people. Though I was good at it, and part of me was passionate about it, I ultimately switched majors because of the anxiety that accompanied interviewing people, and because I'm way too opinionated to be a journalist. In high school, I took a journalism course and developed a passion for journalism, and even had a minor role on the school newspaper for a brief time.

Point is, I have some experience with journalism. So, one can imagine my distress a couple of weeks ago, when a handful of news outlets, including Politico, CNN, the BBC, and the New York Times, were forbidden from attending a White House press conference by press secretary Sean Spicer. This would be disturbing enough if it wasn't reflective of a pattern of hostility toward the press from President Donald Trump and others in his administration. During his campaign, Trump famously threatened to "open up libel laws" against news organizations who cast him in a negative light. Since becoming President, he has labelled prestigious news outlets "the enemy of the American people." That this rhetoric is coming from the President of the United States is profoundly disturbing, because the press has always served as an essential check on the government and those in power.

In retrospect, I've always held the journalism profession in high esteem. I recall being in Freshman U.S. History and first learning about a group of whistleblowers called the "Muckrakers," who were active in the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. Journalists like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell exposed corruption within municipal governments and John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil, respectively. I don't know if all of these individuals could technically be defined as journalists, but they established the importance of investigative journalism, and their exposes of various cesspools of corruption were instrumental in many of the reforms that were enacted during the Progressive Era, which prevented big businesses from becoming monopolies and exploiting average citizens.

Journalism's history of holding those in power accountable goes way back. Another prominent journalist around the time of the progressive movement was Ida B. Wells, whose reporting documented the brutality of lynching in the United States, and how it was used as an instrument of control of African-Americans. In 1954, amidst panic over the spread of Communism in the United States, CBS news anchor Edward R. Murrow ran a famous TV segment exposing Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, who exploited Americans' Red Scare paranoia as a means of gaining power, and ruined the lives of several individuals by accusing anyone who dared criticize him of being a Communist.

In 1969, amidst the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, journalist Seymour Hersh brought into the public consciousness the cover-up of the My Lai Massacre, in which American soldiers stationed in South Vietnam violently raided villages and murdered 300-500 innocent civilians, including children and infants. In the early 1970s, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein investigated the Watergate break-in and discovered its ties to the administration of then-President Richard Nixon, ultimately resulting in Nixon's resignation in 1974.

And the impact of investigative journalism continues to this day. In 2002, investigative reporting by journalists at the Boston Globe exposed decades of widespread child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Boston, and the efforts by the Catholic Church to cover up the abuse. More recently, journalists have been instrumental in keeping the public informed about the Flint water crisis, and the mishandling of the crisis by various government and regulatory agency officials.

Throughout history, when corruption has run rampant, when institutions of power have been able to exploit average citizens and get away with it, it's journalists who have often been the ones to expose them and hold them accountable. That's why their freedom to operate is so important: so corruption isn't allowed to run free in our government.

A free and independent press is a right enshrined by the First Amendment of the Constitution, and is essential for a free society. Not only does it serve as an important check on the government's power, it also helps average citizens remain informed about the inner workings of government, so that elected officials don't get away with actions against the best interest of the American people.

The press is also instrumental in deciphering fact from fiction, which prevents elected officials from lying to their constituents. This is especially important in this day and age, with a presidential administration which has often displayed such a brazen disregard for the truth. Press secretary Spicer has gone on record, in a press conference, on video, and said directly to the American people, "Sometimes you can disagree with facts," while Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway has defended Spicer's spreading of blatant falsehoods by labeling them "alternative facts," and even citing the fabricated "Bowling Green massacre," which never happened, in defense of constitutionally questionable restrictions on immigration proposed by the Trump administration.

Even more problematic is the rise of "fake news" and the increasing mistrust of legitimate journalists, and the perception that "they all lie," a common sentiment repeated by Trump. There is a major difference between outright invalidating news media and constructive criticism of it, which I fully support and believe is necessary for an effective and transparent press. I am perfectly willing to criticize news outlets when they are overtly ethnocentric in their reporting of terrorism, or when they report on an incident of anti-black police brutality and unnecessarily emphasize sordid details of the victims' past, which reflect badly on their character.

But this attitude that "they all lie" breeds mistrust and confusion about what is fact and what is fiction. Few would deny that even the most prestigious news outlets aren't immune to error, sometimes of monumental proportion, but it is highly atypical of news outlets to just carelessly report information without proper verification. They abide by high journalistic standards which place emphasis on reporting the facts fairly, with as little editorializing as possible. Neither the journalists, nor the outlets, nor the standards, are flawless, but they are effective in their end goal: to ensure that the general public has access to information they need to know.

An informed populace must support the press and have some trust of the press. Otherwise, we won't be able to distinguish fact from fiction. And when elected officials catch wind of that, it makes us more vulnerable, and easy to exploit our naivety. Even in a democracy, we are never fully protected from that.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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