Although U.S. presidents often espouse genuine respect for and commitment to First Amendment liberties, history demonstrates that it’s not entirely uncommon for the country’s leader to wrestle with the press from time to time. Certainly power abhors criticism, but a commitment to sound principle can mitigate power’s worst excesses.
It is both troubling and damaging to hear President Donald Trump suggest the licenses of certain broadcasting companies be called into question for their reporting on his administration. Such comments from the White House exacerbate what already is a dismal understanding of the Constitution among rank-and-file Americans.
No sooner had the president spoken than an Indiana state lawmaker, Jim Lucas, filed a bill that, if passed, would attempt to require journalists there to pay to be licensed by the state police.
And if those journalists find corruption within the administration of the state police, what then?
The Founders put five human freedoms in the First Amendment — religion, speech, press, assembly and the petitioning of government for the redress of grievances — because they understood the misery and human suffering that result when governments suppress these rights.
Since their day, world events have reinforced this wisdom repeatedly as dictators and despots have, at various times, clamped down on criticism and religious expression after assuming power. In the most extreme (though sadly not rare) cases, citizens and journalists in many countries have paid with their lives.
Recent events in Malta, where an investigative journalist was murdered by a car bomb, and off the coast of Denmark, where police found the remains of a Swedish reporter, show that deadly threats to the press still exist even in established nations.
Unlike in many countries, Americans are free to say what they think of the president and other officeholders. Media outlets, regardless of ownership, are also largely free to report on the workings of those in power. A vigorous media market made up of multiple, competing news services allows for a variety of voices and provides an additional check on those in authority.
That is the marketplace of ideas. It can be a confusing place for consumers to navigate, especially in today’s world, where those consumers can narrow their media choices to echo their own thoughts and views, and where media itself is a fractured landscape.
To overly restrict or license that marketplace would be to suppress not just ideas, but the pursuit of truth, which sometimes hides in unpopular places.
Amid the relentless charges of “fake news” from the White House, it may be easy to forget the past. The Founders understood the power they had unleashed with the First Amendment. Some of the nation’s earliest political tracts were among the most vicious and demeaning in its history.
Yet Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Edward Carrington in 1787 that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government,” he would “not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. ” He also wrote that, “The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution.”
That didn’t keep Jefferson and those who later occupied the White House from expressing their own harsh views of the press at times. Franklin Roosevelt complained about the “poisonous propaganda” of newspapers and radio. Lyndon Johnson threatened to destroy the reputation of Morley Safer after his critical reports from Vietnam. Johnson’s supporters took to calling CBS the “communist broadcast system.” Democrats in 1952 were outraged at what they considered press bias against their presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson. Richard Nixon battled the press until accurate reporting proved his downfall.
At present, the White House is rebranding critical media as fake news, calling reporters “the enemy of the people” and now questioning whether the press should have the right to report what it wants.
The right to free expression extends to every American, including the president of the United States. But his duty also requires that he “protect and defend the Constitution.”