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Freedom of the Press: Under Attack

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When will it stop?  The last few years have seen an unprecedented attack against the freedom of the press and those that tirelessly work to protect our freedoms.

Known as the Fourth Estate, the press has the essential responsibility to inform the populace of the functionality of its democracy.   Our Founding Fathers knew the importance of a free press when they established the First Amendment.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states:

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.

In 2018, high ranking members of our government (all branches) now attack and condemn the free press and journalists who play such a vital role in our democracy.  They are called names such as “liars,” and their work sullied by the label “fake news” by politicians who don’t agree with them.  Our government enacts punitive tariffs that are a very serious threat to immediate future of many newspapers.  Journalists now face the most imposing landscape and most perilous career path than in any other time in the history of this great nation.

In October 1996, Fox News entered the 24-hour cable news business.  In an attempt to differentiate themselves from their competitors, they hired Republican Party media consultant Roger Ailes to run the network.  They figured that if they were to base their programming from the conservative viewpoint, they could potentially capture 50% of the viewership.  CNN countered by moving their programming to the liberal viewpoint, and broadcast journalism started to die.  The war for ratings and advertising dollars in a vicious 24 hours news cycle turned these powerful networks into entertainment companies, not news outlets.  They have more in common with Howard Stern than they do with Walter Cronkite.  Fueled by corporate greed, many other national media outlets have dropped the ethics of unbiased reporting and followed down the same path. 

The damage that has been done to journalism is drastic, but not irreparable.  These media entertainments companies are not the source of true journalism in America.  They produce entertainment designed to get ratings, not to tell the public the truth.

At the same time, the exploding emergence of social media has enabled everyone to say anything that they want without fear of real repercussion.  Instead of working together to solve the problems faced by society, we choose to hide behind digital identities and fight with anyone that has a different viewpoint than our own.  We are no different than our politicians, shouting at anyone and everyone that doesn’t agree with us, and approving of everyone that does.  As a society, we have lost our ability to peacefully disagree and then find a common ground from which to work a solution.  We have been polarized into right and left and radicalized in our thoughts and actions by the false security of digital anonymity. 

Additionally, social media is flooded with posts that are created to intentionally deceive the public in thinking they are legitimate news stories.  They are as click bait to generate advertising revenue, and they are shared thousands of times over by social media users who cannot distinguish this trash from legitimate, credible news.  Social media is flooded with actual “fake news” that most people cannot detect as fake.

All of this makes our country a powder keg, ready to explode.

Bipartisan testimony of 20 Congressional members last month before the International Trade Commission in opposition to tariffs on Canadian imported newsprint is a good indicator that not all our government leaders are attacking newspapers.  They fought to reduce or eliminate tariffs put in place that are driving the cost of newsprint and squeezing the profit margins of newspapers across the country.  These men and women know the importance of community newspapers and their imperiled status in modern culture.  They know the men and women who work at the local paper are most definitely not the enemy — nor the problem.

In today’s society, where the “wicked media” is hurled relentlessly on Twitter or cable news channels, real journalists get amalgamated into a cynical act of political theater that’s threatening to the very fabric of democracy.

We as a nation are beginning to give a collective shoulder shrug to the fundamental freedoms in the Bill of Rights.   In a Quinnipac University poll released on 8/14/18, 26 percent of voters polled say the news media is the enemy of the people.  However, 51 percent of Republican voters say that the news media is the enemy of the people rather than an important part of democracy.

These are dangerous times, and we’ve got to snap out of it.

Thomas Jefferson — who had a notably tempestuous relationship with the press — was a president who still often rose to defend it.

He once wrote while serving in Paris as Minister to France:

“The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution…

“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. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

We’ve got to accept that not all news is happy or affirming. We’re not always going to get what we want.

We have to support our local journalism and the vital role they play, even when we disagree with them.  Support your local newspaper, buy a print or digital subscription.  When you disagree, share your opinion civilly with your newspaper.  Let’s change the discussion taking place in our country today. 

If we’re unwilling to accept news that upsets us, or if we’re indifferent to differing views simply because we don’t want to deal with them, we’re essentially giving up on the notion we can ever truly be “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Today more than ever, we should be supporting journalism, and freedom of the press.  We all need to do our part to safeguard this basic freedom.  Support your local newspaper today.

Brian Allfrey is Executive Director of the Utah Press Association. His email address is ballfrey@utahpress.com

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