April 13, 2024

A free press is essential to democracy

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BY LEE HAMILTON

Indiana University Center for Representative Government

The value of a free, independent press to representative democracy is incalculable. Our system of government relies on the people knowing what their elected representatives say and do. The best check on every elected official is an active news media looking over their shoulders. 

Autocrats know this as well as anyone. Witness what happened when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a brutal war against neighboring Ukraine last month. One of his first actions was to clamp down on the last vestiges of a free press in Russia, replacing news with propaganda. A week into the fighting, Putin signed a law that effectively criminalized honest reporting about Ukraine. News media couldn’t call the war a war; they had to use the Kremlin-approved term “special military operation.” Violators could face 15 years in prison.

Russia’s independent media, weakened by 22 years of Putin’s rule, effectively folded. Upstart radio and TV stations suspended operation. Russia’s last major independent newspaper deleted content about Ukraine to protect its staff. By most accounts, the Russian public is being kept in the dark. 

It’s no wonder America’s founders, with their distrust of government power fueled by resentment of the excesses of English colonial rule, valued a free press so highly.

The First Amendment to the Constitution enshrined fundamental freedom of the press, along with freedom of speech, religion and assembly and the right to petition the government. George Washington said that, without freedom of expression, the public could be led “like sheep to the slaughter.” Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “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.”

American officials haven’t always lived up to those ideals. News organizations and reporters have been censored during wartime. From the Sedition Act in the 1790s to the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s, the government has tried to block publication of unflattering information. Fortunately, courts have largely upheld the right of the press to report the news, provided it’s not false and libelous.

Today, America’s news organizations produce outstanding work, and professional journalists hold elected officials accountable every day. At Indiana University, I have been privileged to present public service fellowships to distinguished journalists like Maggie Haberman, E.J. Dionne, David Ignatius, and others. 

But we have seen an undeniable decline in local news. According to the Pew Research Center, paid circulation of local newspapers has declined by half since a generation ago. Two hundred U.S. counties are “news deserts,” without a daily or weekly newspaper. A decline in local news means a decline in civic engagement. Fewer people run for office, and fewer people vote.

Increasingly, local newspapers and radio and TV stations are part of nationwide conglomerates. The people who make decisions about news coverage and the allocation of resources may have sound journalistic values, but they cannot focus on every target.

I believe we need journalists looking into every nook and cranny of what government does. When we lose that, we lose a lot of the strength of American democracy. Fewer reporters covering local news means less attention paid to school board and city council meetings, less oversight of local government spending and less accountability. That’s bad for all of us.

Ukrainians are reporting that relatives and friends in Russia don’t know there’s a brutal war going on. Those friends and relatives think Russian troops have crossed the border to help Ukrainians, not to kill them. That’s what they’re hearing from state-controlled media.

The decline of local news in the United States is a far cry from what’s happening in Russia, but it’s cause for concern. A dynamic, free press is essential to a free nation. This can’t be emphasized enough.

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