There is only one private enterprise sanctioned in the Constitution. It comes in Amendment I: “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise … of the press.” Newspapers are given the absolute right to circulate opinions in print without censorship by government.
The press has a duty to shoulder this awesome responsibility with the utmost care and deliberation. They not only distribute opinion, but also facts–critical information–told fairly and clearly so we citizens can be the decision makers we need to be to contribute our part in sustaining the republic.
In oppressive governments, the press is not independent, but rather operated by the government, disbursing only what government wants publically seen. Quashing what the press is able to print puts citizens in jeopardy. We need look no further than the events in 1930s Germany. The lack of an adversarial press caused millions of ordinary people to either comply or turn a blind-eye while their government exterminated millions of humans simply because they were not like themselves. A strong push-back from the press may have been able to avoid the Holocaust. The Russian government has ruled its media for a hundred years. By doing so, the government has been able to direct wealth and power into the hands of only a few, keeping the masses from achieving their natural potential.
The consequences of a regulated free press are dire.
Many of you are not reading a traditional print copy of a newspaper, and that is fine. The news industry is struggling to find its place in an electronic age. I’m certain that they will eventually stabilize their commercial way. So, I’m going to concentrate on the fact that the news media are the champions of truth regardless of the format.
The Washington Post is one of our largest, most popular, most vocal, and most established publications. It is unique because it operates within our government district and reports about government doings. It was established in 1877 and has won 47 Pulitzer prizes, second only to The New York Times’s 122. They earned a whopping six Pulitzers in 2008, one less than the NYT’s record seven in 2002. It, along with the Gray Lady, are national treasures.
When newspaper reporters are mentioned, the names of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward often come to mind. These two novice reporters along with their editor, Ben Bradlee, and Post owner, Katherine Graham, got hold of a minor story in 1972 and stuck with it, digging deeper, keeping the public up to date, and ended up two years later finishing the job by exposing a corrupt president, forcing him from office. Just prior, in 1971, the Post, along with the NYT, fought for and won the right to publish the “Pentagon Papers” that were discovered to show the government was lying to us about the Vietnam War.
Both of these stories are shining examples of the media at its best. But, it is not in successes that we find proof of how devoted the press is to the American public. In their effort to get news printed, they not only work hard, but work fast. News becomes stale if left to steep. We all know that haste makes waste and media are not immune from this axiom. We can read any edition of any paper and generally around page two or three, below the fold, there is a list of corrections that needs to be made from the previous edition. Many are minor but some are doozies.
In 1980 the Post hired a young, promising reporter, Janet Cooke. She was a rising star in the company. On September 28, 1980, a story titled “Jimmy’s World” was published under Ms. Cooke’s by line. It was the story of an eight-year-old boy who, she reported, was a third-generation heroin addict. Ms. Cooke spent weeks researching and following leads about the boy she kept hearing stories about in the streets. She finally finished her work and published the moving story of the youngster, already deeply scarred with needle tracks in his arms. It was an amazing story and on April 13, 1981 Janet Cooke and The Washington Post won a Pulitzer for her efforts. Immediately, problems in the story started to surface and soon Ms. Cooke admitted she had fabricated the story. Jimmy was an urban legend.
This was an epic fail by the newspaper. As soon as possible, Ms. Cooke was fired and the Pulitzer was returned. But the real issue here is how the Post handled its embarrassment. This retraction wasn’t buried below the fold. This retraction/apology ran on the front page with over 17,000 words. This column is about 900 words. The Post’s retraction was nearly 20 times longer.
The Washington Post did not hide in the shadows or make excuses. They owned up to their mistake and promised to continue to try their best to earn the public trust. It is in failure that we can see how much we can trust our media. News gets published that isn’t accurate every day, but it is not done with malice. We can and need to trust that the press is on our side. The media may be enemies of those in power, but they are not the enemies of the people. Indeed, they are all that stand in the way of tyranny.