The men who wrote the First Amendment were not journalistic innocents, nor were they admirers of journalists. The journalism of their day made no pretense to political objectivity or fairness. It was pointed and partisan, in bad taste and filled with distortions.
And remember that some of the same men who sat in the First Congress later passed the first Alien and Sedition Acts, suggesting that implications of free speech and a free press were still obscure. The Sedition Act gave President John Adams the enormous power to personally define treasonable activity, including any writing he deemed false or malicious.
Move forward to modern history. In 1962, President John Kennedy said, “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people.” Yet, Kennedy was deeply opposed to the Freedom of Information Act.
President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the FOI Act, also didn’t like it or want it, and, according to an aide Bill Moyers, “had to be dragged screaming into the signing ceremony.”
President Richard Nixon turned his Vice President Spiro Agnew loose on the press who formed his own 4-H club, “the hopeless, hysterical, hypochondriacs of history” when speaking about members of the press.
President George W. Bush upset at the New York Times’ reporting on national security called it “disgraceful.” New York Republican Congressman Peter King called it ”treasonous.” And participants on a San Francisco radio talk show in 2006 debated whether the Times’ executive editor, Bill Keller, should go to the gas chamber or the firing squad. Just another day of frivolity on talk radio.
But no president until now has called journalists the enemies of the people, always supplemented with other schoolyard bully language.
These are not accidental assaults. Lesley Stahl, of CBS, said the then newly elected President Trump, said this when she asked him why he continued to attack the press:
“You know why I do it. I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”
It’s effective with a certain group of people. In a recent poll, 29 percent of Americans believe we are their enemies, and one of every four Republicans believe the president should have the power to shutter the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN.
And this rainfall of criticism comes at a time when the world of communications has changed dramatically. Massive changes, yes, but what hasn’t changed is the definition of what we deliver. News is knowledge and intelligence that helps us live our lives and participate as citizens, to make smarter decisions.
That has never been truer than it is today, especially when we have institutions to build and others to rebuild, deep anger and fear to deal with, racial divisions to reconcile, bigotry to erase, and solutions to seek in areas such as health care and education, climate change and criminal justice, the expanding gap between those who have and those who don’t, and so much more.
Dedicated journalists continue to provide a place to come together to share our fears and our pains and to answer our questions.
We see it every day across the globe when reporters and visual journalists risk their lives, and in so many cases give their lives to cover wars or to expose corruption in their countries or to bring light into the darkness of man’s inhumanity toward man; acts of courage, each and every one of them.
Enemies? More like friends.
Gregory Favre, the former executive of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for the McClatchy Company, is a CALmatters board member, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.