The Press Protects Democracy By Making Government Transparent and Accountable To The People

As a member of a historically oppressed group, without a doubt, my favorite Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are the 13th (freed the slaves), 14th (introduced equal protection under the law) and the 15th (guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race). Along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they form the foundation of not only my freedom as a Black man living in a nation shaped since its founding by White Supremacy, but the freedom of all Americans either directly or indirectly.

Close behind those three post-Civil War Amendments and seminal pieces of legislation passed during the century-long Black Freedom struggle, my next favorite is the 1st Amendment: 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The press clause acknowledges the critical role that the press should play in American society. The architects of America’s founding documents clearly understood the importance and public purpose of the press and explicitly protected it in the U.S. Constitution. Former Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, made this point quite clear: “That the First Amendment speaks separately of freedom of speech and freedom of the press is no constitutional accident, but an acknowledgment of the critical role played by the press in American society. The Constitution requires sensitivity to that role, and to the special needs of the press in performing it effectively.”

What the Framers of the Constitution and Justice Stewart understood is that there is no democracy without a free and independent press for everyone. The media today – print, radio, television, and the internet – play an extremely important role in American society. The press helps protect American democracy in many ways, but perhaps its most important protections are making government transparent and holding government officials accountable. What this means then is that the public needs non-government sources of information that they can trust.

Beginning in the 1990s, many newspapers began to lose their profitability, and since then, the newspaper business has been in severe decline. Many newspapers either folded or switched to an internet-only delivery systems to survive. The loss of local media across the country is making government less transparent and leaving many Americans woefully uninformed. School board, city council, and boards and commissions meetings are going uncovered. Overstretched reporters working to meet deadlines have little time to do deep investigative journalism. Newspapers have become thin and publish irregularly.

Giant corporations or hedge funds are stepping in and purchasing an increasing number of struggling newspapers, radio, and television stations. But media consolidation under the control of a few mega conglomerates focused primarily on the profitability of their investments is having a devasting effect on local media and undermining the credibility of the news.

When local media disappears, democracy suffers. There is nothing more important in a democracy than an engaged and knowledgeable citizenry. The press provides citizens with the information they need to make informed decisions. Americans need local media that can report on issues important to the public.

While I believe a well-funded and independent press can provide the public with the kind of information that our democracy needs and depends on, I am not uncritical of the role the press currently plays in shaping our public discourse.

The press, even the so-called “mainstream media,” is not the neutral observer and presenter of facts and events it often claims to be. Unarticulated, often unconscious, underlying ideological assumptions and hidden agendas frequently shape what kinds of issues are covered, the questions asked, and the narrative being told. It is perhaps inevitable, for example, that a reporter’s worldview – the overall perspective from which she sees and interprets the world – may conceal or even justify the centers of power and privileges currently operating in American society.

One recent example jumps out to me.

Classified government documents are turning up everywhere. Hundreds of classified documents were improperly stored by Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Classified documents were found at President Joe Biden’s home and private office from his time as vice-president and senator. Former vice-president Mike Pence had his own stash of classified documents at his home. The news coverage about Trump’s mishandling of government secrets, brazen refusal to hand them over to the National Archive, and now his indictment under the Espionage Act is being extensively covered by the press.

But they are not focusing on an equally critical issue, the problem of growing government secrecy.

Rarely scrutinized by the press is all this government secrecy. No one knows the actual number, but it is estimated that the federal government classifies more than 50 million documents a year. It is impossible to keep track of all of them. Experts estimate that probably five to ten percent warrant that classification.

With all this secrecy, the public does not know what its government is doing. If the media’s job is to help make government more transparent and accountable to the people, rather than see the growing problem of overclassification of documents to protect government secrets as a necessary evil to keep our country safe, reporters should be asking tough questions about why there is so much government secrecy and whether it is really necessary to classify so many documents. But as newspapers crumble and good journalist leave the field, this will be harder and harder to do.

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