My parents, God rest them, knew I was an odd child when I preferred to be indoors after school reading a book, rather than outside playing with the neighborhood kids, as my siblings did. I was also, at the age of 11, immersed in politics, which was weird. My folks didn’t really know what to do with a kid who avidly read the newspaper and was therefore devastated by the assassinations, in quick succession, of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Wasn’t this grown-up stuff? “Put the book/paper/magazine down,” they’d say. “Go outside and play with your friends,” they’d say.
But I didn’t really have friends, not like my siblings did. The kids playing outside made fun of the back of my head visible through the front window, as I read until dinnertime and all day Saturday. My friends were Anne of Green Gables and Anne Frank. My friends were the writers and photographers of LIFE and National Geographic. A few years later, in my teenage years, my friends were Woodward and Bernstein as they doggedly unraveled the Watergate scandal. I baby-sat a neighbor kid whose parents subscribed to The Washington Post, which felt to me like winning the lottery.
I offer this personal history as verification of my status as a fan, not only of the written word, but also of the free press. I’m a huge fan. As an adult I’ve been lucky enough to write opinion pieces for this newspaper and other publications. Talk about winning the lottery. Although I am not a bona fide journalist, I appreciate the fact that I can write what I think and have it appear in print and have other people agree or disagree with me, and I do not have to fear being arrested or executed or otherwise silenced. I am a beneficiary of the founders’ insistence on an American free press.
A free press is so essential to a functioning democracy that it is stipulated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, right alongside protections for freedom of speech and free exercise of religion. You can look it up.
A sampling of quotes from our nation’s founders supporting a free press: “Our liberty depends upon the freedom of the press,” said Thomas Jefferson, “and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
“The liberty of the press is essential to the security of the state,” said John Adams.
“Republics … derive their strength and vigor from the popular examination into the action of the magistrates,” said Ben Franklin. We the people inform ourselves by reading or watching or listening to the news with eyes and ears open, and then analyzing the data with a critical brain. In our age of endless information, we seekers of news are like wine connoisseurs: we must be discerning of the product behind the label. If we hear something about a new law, for example, we are wise to read the actual law, rather than rely on possible misinterpretations, or at least consult carefully sourced reporting. Being informed is not for the lazy, but if we value our democracy, we are required to stay on top of current events, and vote thoughtfully.
The current president has referred to journalists as “enemies of the people” and “dishonest” purveyors of “fake news,” among other insults. He does not seem to comprehend that the press is just as essential to the survival of our democracy as the federal system of checks and balances. The press is not his personal pep squad. The job of a journalist is to pursue and then present the facts of real occurrences in a timely manner. We who get to editorialize rely on the research and findings of those pesky journalists on the front lines. And speaking of front lines, 48 journalists were killed while working in 2016. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 800 journalists have been murdered since 1992. Others are missing and presumed dead. Still, journalists persist in reporting the news. People give their lives so that we can have the unvarnished truth: That’s how seriously journalists take their jobs.
Weird kids who read a lot often grow up to be writers. The weird kids who ask a lot of questions often grow up to be investigative journalists. Even if we are not writers or journalists, however, we owe it to our role as citizens to respect and support a free press; indeed, it is our sacred patriotic duty. The danger of a press suppressed, as we see in history and in our modern world, is the proliferation of propaganda. The free press may be an annoyance to those in power, but it is an integral part of a healthy democracy. The newspaper you’re holding, or the little screen you’re scrolling: This is what democracy looks like.