The notion of freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It is part of this nation’s core values, part of this nation’s history and commitment to the liberty of its people. Because the function of a free press is essential to the functioning of democracy, our first editorial expresses our conviction that a free press is as American as Apple Pie. A free press is essential to informing the American public and gives the public the ability to speak truth to power. We join with many of our other colleagues in the media today in the United States to express these convictions in the strongest terms.
In the U.S., the constitutional democracy forged by our founding fathers created three branches of government: The Executive, the Legislative, and the Judiciary. From our earliest times, a free press was recognized as an essential element of our fully functioning democracy, able to exert an influence on both society and the three branches of government.
This recognition was engraved in the First Amendment to that very Constitution, guaranteeing “freedom of the press” along with freedom of speech and freedom of religion. As such, the First Amendment is arguably the most important element of the Bill of Rights. The press was called the “fourth estate,” essentially an unofficial fourth branch of government whose task was to provide a check on abuse of power by any of the three Constitutional branches. This historical designation recognized the legitimacy and value of a free press to the American system of government, a government by the people, for the people.
So many others before us have so eloquently stated these truths — the founding fathers, statesmen and stateswomen, presidents, justices, and of course lawyers. Their conclusions are the same: when you take away the Press, you take away the people’s liberty. Numerous examples in history make it clear that the way for a despot to subjugate the people and achieve absolute, unchecked power is to control the means of dissemination of information and deprive the people of their ability to know the truth, think critically, or make their voices heard.
Hannah Arednt, a German-American political theorist whose work focused on the nature of power, authority, and totalitarianism, described this as follows:
“The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie — a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days — but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”
Our founding fathers, in designing our then new country’s democracy deliberately to build in a check on the absolute power of any leader, recognized the importance of the free press in calling to account the governing authorities and government officials. The Continental Congress, a convention of delegates called together from the Thirteen Colonies that then became the governing body of the United States during the American Revolution, wrote in a letter:
“The importance of [the freedom of the press] consists, besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general, in its diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of Government, its ready communication of thoughts between subjects, and its consequential promotion of union among them whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated into more honorable and just modes of conducting affairs.”
Indeed one of those founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, thought that the “opinion of the people” was so important to our democracy that he said if he had to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he would choose the newspapers!
“The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and 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.”
Jefferson went on to say that a free press ensures the security of our Nation.
“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
In much more recent times, both democratic and republican presidents have recognized the ongoing need and desirability of a free press and the vital function it performs in democracy. President John F. Kennedy said:
“Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive. . . . And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment — the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution — not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants” — but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”
President Calvin Coolidge said:
“Wherever despotism abounds, the sources of public information are the first to be brought under its control. Wherever the cause of liberty is making its way, one of its highest accomplishments is the guarantee of the freedom of the press.”
One of the most revered U.S. Supreme Court Justices in the 20thCentury, Justice William Brennan, in a case that addressed the limits on the press’s freedom of speech, wrote,
“Debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
Finally, George Orwell, said, “Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.”
The importance of a free press to democracy in the United States cannot be denied. It provides a necessary check and balance on the government. The press is supposed to criticize the government and government officials when they fail to do their jobs or abuse their power. Just as no individual is above the law, no public individual can escape the scrutiny of the press. Transparency and accountability are the names of the press game. Those who disparage the press are ignorant of this country’s history and values. The free press is as American as apple pie.
At Inside Arabia, we not only recognize but are grateful for the fact that we operate in the heart of a nation that embraces such democratic values, ideals, and principles. Our focus is on an area of the world, the Middle East and North Africa, in which press freedom does not exist in many countries. People have only the news that their governing authorities want them to know. The press is state-controlled and state-run. The truth is suppressed. We know that our job is to get at the truth and let it be told. We are proud to be working hard to bring the truth to the American people.
Hannah Arendt, Hannah Arendt: From an Interview. Comments made in 1974 during an interview with the French writer Roger Errera and published in October 26, 1978 issue of The New York Review of Books Interview. Copyright © 1978 Mary McCarthy West, Trustee. Archived via Wayback Machine of the Internet Archive on February 22, 2017.
Letter sent by the Continental Congress (October 26, 1774) to the Inhabitants of Quebec. Source: Journal of the Continental Congress, 1904 ed., vol. I, pp. 104, 108.
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Colonel Edward Carrington (16 January 1787) Lipscomb & Bergh ed. 6:57.
William J. Brennan, Jr., Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 1964).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.