Staff Editorial: Role of a free press

Since February of 2017, the online masthead for the Washington Post has read “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” The phrase, originally coined by U.S. Appellate Judge Damon J. Keith, is a fitting indictment of the times we find ourselves in. It serves as an important reminder of the critical role that journalists and a free press play in illuminating the darkness that threatens to overwhelm democratic societies. With the celebration of Constitution Day this past Monday, let’s take a moment to reflect on the implications of our First Amendment right prohibiting the abridgement of a free press and the norms it asks us to uphold today.

In recent years, we as a nation have grown disenchanted with the state of our democratic institutions. Gripped by a growing sense of distance from the powers that govern our lives, we feel incapable of reaching the decision makers who hold the keys to the kingdom.

Democratic institutions from Capitol Hill to City Hall are built on our collective participation. To do so, we need access to accurate and detailed information that is disseminated freely. This informs us of lawmakers’ decisions and gives us the opportunity to meaningfully participate.

Without access to such information, isolation and political apathy grow and power runs unchecked. Totalitarian regimes thrive in environments such as these, when common people become alienated not only from avenues to power but also from the information necessary to critique those in power and reassert their role as democratic decision makers.

When a free press falters or is suppressed in its mission to report on the workings of governing bodies, these institutions can more easily overwhelm the common people and subvert the proper functioning of democratic systems.

Clearly, those in power have a vested interest in discrediting and otherwise silencing the institutions that would seek to dilute their capabilities. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, news outlets accused of “divulging state secrets” were violently censored by the Bolsheviks, sending the fragile young USSR headfirst into totalitarianism. In Nazi Germany, journalists critical of the regime were slandered as Lügenpresse, “lying press.” Today, the term “fake news” is carelessly tossed around as a pejorative meant to denounce facts that are inconvenient to those in power.

The story is nothing new, but our commitments to rigorous fact finding and critical reporting must always be reaffirmed if we are to accept the responsibilities of self-governance in opposition to totalitarianism — democracy dies in darkness.

To be certain, we are far from impeccable. Sometimes we ask the wrong questions or misallocate our time and attention while a more important story slips away. As ever, true objectivity is a sheer impossibility — we are humans stocked with the prejudices and biases that humanness implies. But for all the missteps, melioristic good faith journalism is still our best defense against abuses of power, both public and private.

When James Madison proposed that the press be protected under the First Amendment, he did so knowing full well that it would license both serious institutions committed to the truth and hacks intent on pumping out yellow journalism. But he also understood that the contributions of a check on power that came from the people would enable each of us to participate more fully in self-governance.

A rich tradition of journalists working to expose rampant corruption at the highest levels of government and private industry, from Gilded Age muckrakers such as Nellie Bly and Julius Chambers to Watergate investigators Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, has vindicated the position.

In a post-truth era of mass disinformation, the press can never grow complacent in its mission to seek out and present the truth. It’s no surprise that accusations of Lügenpresse have resurfaced in recent political discourses. A creeping darkness of half-truths, bureaucratic doublespeak and outright lies threaten to overwhelm clarity in debate and decision making.

Against that darkness, the responsibility falls on the free press to uphold the highest standards of rigorous reporting and brighten baffling times. It’s no easy task, but it’s precisely what the authors of our founding documents envisioned, and it’s exactly what the preservation of democracy requires. And it’s this responsibility to which we, the free press, remain committed.

This article was collectively written by the Newswire editing staff.