A direct line connects a free and independent press to the rule of law. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson understood the importance of a free press and democracy. His wisdom is proving correct every day — here and in parts of the world where the media is stifled and journalists are either jailed or killed.
Sunshine Week is especially important these days. The week is sponsored annually by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Its purpose is to celebrate and preserve open government. The lesson should be taught in schools with a refresher course for elected officials across the spectrum, from those holding office in small towns and villages to the person seated in the top executive’s office in Washington, D.C.
A free press is one that is able to operate in the open, demand public documents from public officials and publish the information. That’s sunshine, exposing deeds and misdeeds.
Absent an independent press, committed to its readers and viewers, unscrupulous actors would be able to ply their self-dealing trade. Some of the worst examples of such suppression can easily be seen in places like Russia and China. Mexican journalists have been killed at an alarming rate. Those who have escaped injury have to worry about being spied on by a paranoid government. These are examples of countries where journalists are not free to dig, question, expose wrongdoing and perhaps shepherd democracy and change.
Freedom of press is not just a slogan. It must be championed at the highest levels and exercised at the lowest. When a journalist walks into Town Hall and is told that the public documents she seeks are not available, it is a form of suppression. It is an effort by local officials to keep from the public important information. How is that different from far-away places?
Americans are fortunate enough to live in a country in which criticizing the government does not put them behind bars. They are also fortunate enough to be exposed to the truth that journalists uncover. Not everyone celebrates these freedoms.
When the president of the United States makes incendiary statements about the press, it is a form of backlash that reverberates and endangers not only the individuals but the institution. It is wrong, and dangerous. Today’s Viewpoints cover story offers a detailed analysis on that subject made last month by Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron.
President Trump made a recent surprise appearance at the 133rd annual Gridiron Club Dinner. The Gridiron Club is an organization of Washington, D.C., premier journalists and Washington bureau chiefs. The dinner is a chance to set seriousness aside and through satire poke fun at themselves and the establishment.
Presidents have frequently appeared at the dinner and joined in the fun. After refusing to attend last year, Trump – to his credit – joined in last Saturday to the delight of a receptive audience.
Trump has lodged some of the worst verbal attacks against the press. Who could forget his now infamous comment in October that it was “frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write?” First of all, it’s not true. Second, it’s meant to intimidate.
But as someone known to surprise – perhaps even himself in this case – Trump set aside his disdain for an industry he views since the presidential campaign as a sort of public enemy. The breaking of bread and telling of jokes even at his expense hopefully offered the salve needed to heal wounds and perhaps reach a greater understanding.
A free and independent press and democracy go hand in hand. The Founding Fathers understood this, and it is as important today as it ever has been. Sunshine Week offers an opportunity to celebrate that essential freedom – and to acknowledge the threats against it.