Guest Editorial: You can’t have democracy without a free press

There’s a reason we need a free press. Democracy won’t work without it.

Gene Policinski

The grand experiment in self-governance that is the United States is rooted in trust and confidence we all will work toward the greater good. But the nation’s founders had experience with kings and dictators and their expected benevolence — and what could happen when things didn’t work out.

So, they provided for three branches of government to balance each other, along with periodic elections and the rights for us to assemble and seek change when we think things have gone astray.

All that’s fine, but these are also relatively long-term solutions. How do we know what our government is doing, how well it is operating or whether our elected officials are up to no good?

Enter the only profession mentioned in the Constitution – a free press, to serve as a watchdog on government – a free press the government cannot control, to offer an independent, regular update on behalf of the rest of us.

Throughout our nation’s history, it has been a free press that has probed, prodded and produced safer food and medicines and helped reveal waste, fraud and abuse of public trust. Reporters ask the questions we would ask if we could be there.

Reporters uncover these stories only by poring over records, reviewing court documents and interviewing sources — activities most of us don’t have the time, skill or opportunity to do.

Ironically, the newest source for news and information – social media – has helped create some of the greatest threats to a free press in the nation’s history.

The web has decimated financial support for traditional media. This results in “news deserts,” where no regular, reputable sources of journalism exist.

The free press in all forms has been weakened by cuts in staff, with surveys showing the ranks to be less than half of what they were 20 years ago.

Not all the news about a free press is bleak. New attention is focused on re-growing the ranks of local journalism. But more is needed, from increased public support to new revenue sources.

On March 16, we celebrated the birthday of James Madison, the principal author of the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights. He called a free press “one of the great bulwarks of liberty.”

This generation, perhaps unlike any other, is being called on to defend that bulwark and, in the process, protect our liberty.

Gene Policinski is a senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum.

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