Presidential administrations and the media have had an adversarial relationship from the beginning. Our first president, who now is almost universally revered, had his own struggles with America’s “Fourth Estate.” During his first term, this quintessential American icon suffered repeated attacks by the press. By the end of his second term, these attacks evolved into personal assaults on his character with some aiming to discredit Washington’s integrity, including his military renown.
Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of our hallowed Constitution, is quoted saying, “[o]ur liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” However, after serving as our 3rd president, his love for the press vanished as his presidency endured constant criticisms.
No president was spared from the press and its cynical inquiries nor should any have been, not even our beloved founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin, a long-time member of the press corps, once wrote, “[i]f all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.”
The primary function of the free press is to question those we have elected to govern us and the intentions of every policy, not to nurture their egos. Furthermore it is their duty to be entirely skeptical of government leadership, never giving to the treasonous crime of complacency by giving the benefit of the doubt to anyone. Unlike our justice system, which shrouds every accused person under the veil of innocence, the press must investigate with the presumption of guilt until proven otherwise. The world we live in is a cynical, unforgiving one and though we have great capacity for kindness, it is more than matched by our malicious, deceitful nature.
Deceit is one of man’s most powerful weapons, forged and perfected over millions of years to ensure the human race’s survival in a hostile world. In other words, it is a hard habit to break and if left unchecked and unchallenged, we only need look to our past to see what to expect.
Enter the great weapon that is the free press. A weapon designed to protect us from ourselves and our own duplicitous nature. The founders of this nation, knowing the dangers of placing governing powers in the hands of others, ingeniously framed our constitution with a shared balance of power equally distributed by three federal branches, then further checked by an outside force composed of the governed free citizens, our Fourth Estate.
Love it or hate it, a free press is an absolute necessity to our way of life as Americans, “[t]he liberty of the press is essential to the security of the state,” said John Adams. Franklin called it, “a principal pillar of free government,” and went on to say, “when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved.”
This isn’t to say that the press is infallible and just as prone to mistakes and even deceit. It is after all, a human creation and subject to our ever-present moral shortcomings. However, when used in conjunction with the other three branches, each pulling against the other, a balance is found and our free society endures. When one branch becomes overbearing and overreaches while at the same time another branch is weakened, a real failure can occur which is why ensuring the strength of each individual estate is critical. A strong and independent free press is vital to our national security and crucial to every citizen.
When President Trump tweeted that all negative polls are fake news, this is clearly an attempt to weaken the powers of a free press through discreditation. He continued by naming most of the major media outlets as being not his enemy but the enemy of the American people. This is dangerous territory and a statement that is absolutely false. The enemy of the American people is that which threatens to destroy our freedoms, such as freedom to criticize and question our elected authority.
Whatever your political allegiances, we all share a devotion which supersedes the political: our loyalty to this nation and the divinely inspired ideals it was founded on centuries ago. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson announces the equality of mankind as self-evident and divinely endowed. But these God-given freedoms must be actively defended by every generation and often against the very leaders who we’ve elected to govern. Jefferson outlined this responsibility which states, “[t]hat whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,” a powerful statement then and now.
In this powerful statement, it is clear that we must ensure that freedom lives on, by all means necessary. Like those who came before us did for us, we must secure it for those who come after. Jefferson charges every generation with this sacred obligation so that a government of the people, by the people and for the people will never perish from this earth.
No one among us is above criticism and no one has earned our unfailing devotion or approval, we all are finite beings burdened with our imperfections of character. As such, we must question the intentions and decisions of those we have empowered regardless of how well-intentioned they may appear. George Washington summed it up well when he said, ““If men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences that can invite the consideration of mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter.”
President Trump may want to rethink his position on the Fourth Estate and perhaps study its importance to our fragile democracy. Until then, I urge him to meditate on the words of one of his more revered predecessors who said, “You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time.” Wise words that remain as relevant and true today as they were over a century before.
Featured image courtesy of AOL.