As we head into what is going to be a truly historic election, we must remember the importance of the freedoms granted by the First Amendment and the value of the free press. For many years – but especially in the last four years – journalists in the United States have been literally under attack for doing their jobs. A fact that has conveniently been forgotten as of late, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives journalists the right to do their jobs without fear of being physically harmed. We are once again calling for these attacks to come to an end, and for freedom of the press to be enforced at the highest levels of government – allowing journalists and others working at news organizations to do the incredibly important work of providing important news and information to the public.
Attacks on the press are nothing new. As CNN Chief International Anchor Christiane Amanpour noted in a recent interview, “Political leaders don’t like journalists. Even in democracies we don’t exist in a warm bath of love.” Journalists are watchdogs for their community, and part of their job is to hold those in power accountable, reporting on corruption by government officials. Regardless of the contempt with which some of those officials regard the media, reporters have continued to work tirelessly, serving as the eyes and ears of the public to ensure our rights are represented.
Often, as part of their job, journalists must put themselves at risk, such as reporting from the front lines of war, or from a hospital experiencing an outbreak of the coronavirus. They should not, however, expect to be harmed or even killed while in their own office newsroom, such as was the case of the five employees of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, who were killed by an armed gunman in 2018. Or while reporting from peaceful protests, such as those following the killing of George Floyd this summer. Nonetheless, journalists covering the protests in many towns across the country were shoved, arrested and shot at with pellet guns by law enforcement. Physical attacks on members of the press are not only criminal acts, they constitute a direct assault on freedom of the press as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Journalists realize they have a great responsibility to the public, and as such are held to a higher standard than your average citizen. Just as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is not protected under the First Amendment, professional journalists are held to a set of ethics and standards to ensure that they are using their Constitutionally protected rights for the betterment of society, and in hard news reporting, to provide a balanced and accurate portrayal of all sides of a story.
Without the ability, via journalists, to question authority and speak truth to power, America would be a very different place. In fact, it is our nation’s belief in speaking truth to power that allowed for the birth of the United States more than 200 years ago. It is impossible to support the First Amendment and freedom of speech without also supporting the freedom of the press, but we see that very brand of hypocrisy growing every day.
This election season and beyond, our democracy depends on free speech and a free press. In this ever-changing world, where we are faced with new threats every day, from viruses to systemic racism to voter suppression, we need our press now more than ever.
David Chavern is former President & CEO of the News/Media Alliance. Chavern has 30 years of experience in executive strategic and operational roles. Prior to the Alliance, he completed a decade-long tenure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.