Today I am side stepping religion to talk about the importance of the free press. This blog joins other sources to write about why the press is not the enemy of the people. We must remember our roots as Americans and what the founding fathers created so that the experiment that started in Philadelphia continues for future generations.
“…the basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and 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. but I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”
“The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom.”
“Our tradition of a free press as a vital part of our democracy is as important as ever.”
Today I am going to do something different. Its out of character but as I blog and write it is something that I feel needs to be done. Today The Wondering Eagle joins hundreds of other news sources in proclaiming the importance of the free press. Its our way of pushing back. This idea came from Marjorie Pritchard the deputy editorial editor of The Boston Globe. She proposed that a large number of newspaper individually publish editorials that criticize Trump and push back on the idea that the free press is the “enemy of the people.” The Boston Globe was joined by the American Society of News Editors, Press Association, and many newspapers. The last I heard the count was around 350 at least. The first significant newspaper that did this was in the United Kingdom. You can read The Guardian’s editorial here. There are a number of editorials that I would recommend. They are The Boston Globe, Illinois Daily Herald, Hartford Currant, San Jose Mercury News, Topeka Capitol-Journal, Swift County Monitor, Fresno Bee, Denver Post, Chicago Tribune, and New York Times. You can read a list of a number of papers that participated.
Why Freedom of Speech is Important
Freedom of speech is a pillar of democracy. Its allowed the United States to be free and to thrive for over two centuries. Freedom of speech that comes through the press has a lot of impact beyond what most people think. Here at this blog I write a lot about religion. I write about Neo-Calvinism, the Evangelical Free Church of America and also atheism as well as secular humanism. This blog leans a lot about the free press. There are a number of articles that I have linked into stories I have written that come from The New York Times, Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. If the press is threatened with censorship to the point that they can’t write that will affect blogs like this one. I will lose a major source of news. Plus if they are threatened with publishing can smaller people like myself also be threatened? As someone who writes extensively that is something that I do not want to see happen. Censorship is one of the first things that happens in a state that becomes a dictatorship, autocratic or totalitarian. From Nazi, Germany to Viktor Orban’s Hungary today the press and media are the first things to be silenced by an autocratic government.
I would challenge you to spend some time looking at the history books. When I graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee I studied German history. I did my graduation essay on the Wiemar Republic and the Dawes Plan. In 1933 when Hitler came to power Germany had 4,700 free newspapers. When Germany outlawed political parties what was also outlawed was the press that went along with them. Germany created their own radio and other forms of communication to compete with the press. The ultimate goal was to silence it. The seized presses of the Communist and Social Democratic Party were given over to the Nazi party. The Nazi media then went over to exert influence on the remaining press. Journalists fled, some to the UK, France or the United States. The Nazis inspired violence to attack the remaining press. Franz Eher, used his influence to buy up the independent press and became an outlet for Germany. Some conservative newspaper practiced self-censorship and agreed to cooperate with the regime. Then you had the foreign press that reported on Germany and the issues within. A notable example that history remembers is that of an American journalist, named Edgar Ansel Mowrer. Mower covered Germany for the Chicago Daily News. He wrote about the rise of Hitler and the effects on democracy. His reporting won him the Pulitzer Prize for correspondence in 1933. Mower published a book that deeply angered Nazi officials, and his friends believed that he was in danger. The German government notified the State Department that they could no longer keep Mower free from harm. When the owner of the Chicago Daily News heard about this he wanted to transfer him as he feared for his life. Mower stated that he wanted to cover the Nazi rally in Nuremberg in September 1, 1933. That never happened, and Mower left early. At a train station in Berlin his Nazi handler asked him when he was returning to Germany. Mower responded by saying, “Why, when I can come back with about two million of my countrymen.” If you want to read more about the press in Germany at the time you can do so in this article. Some of the techniques that were used in Germany are being used in Eastern Europe today as democracy is dying in places like Hungary and Poland. In Hungary the last daily non-government controlled newspaper that was free was closed in April of 2018. It was the Hungarian government that drove it into the ground. The free press is being destroyed and with it the democratic government of Hungary. The free press keeps a check on government and preserves your freedom. That is how our government was designed and what Thomas Jefferson had in mind.
Ronald Reagan Press Conference from September 17, 1985
Freedom of the Press in the United States
Here in the United States the free press was created as a means to have cheeks and balances against the United States government. When Thomas Jefferson was the U.S. Minster to France he wrote a letter to a statesman in Virginia. In it he explained how if he were to chose between a government without newspapers or a newspapers without government he would chose the later. Why? The free press helped keep government free and tyranny at bay. Later on in his career Jefferson was critical of deeply partisan rags that came out from political parties. But Jefferson was a supporter of the press and is remembered for this by history. Another notable point is what President Theodore Roosevelt said about the right to criticize the president. Roosevelt penned the following during World War I. “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.” During World War I some felt that the president should not be criticized during a time of war. This came about due to the Sedition Act of 1918. Roosevelt wrote a column for the Kansas City Daily Star until his death in 1919. In one column he stated that it was a patriotic duty to criticize the president. Another time in the free press was the relationship Ronald Reagan had with the press. Yes you had Helen Thomas from UPI and Sam Donaldson from ABC. In today’s Washington Post Reagan’s daughter wrote about the late president’s relationship with the press. Reagan handled the press with elegance. You can see that in the YouTube video above.
Some Highlights of Investigative Journalism
In United States history there are a number of periods where investigate journalism and the free press shine. These are but some examples that I read in the following Brookings Institute article. In 1906 Upton Sinclair published The Jungle which exposed the issues in the meat packing industry in Chicago. It led to reforms and strengthened safety laws and the handling of food. It was one of the hallmarks of the progressive era. In 1952 Murrey Marder of the Washington Post who helped expose the false claims of Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin about Communist penetration of the government. During the Vietnam War, and to the personal anger of John F. Kennedy David Halberstram of the New York Times wrote and won a Pulitzer Prize for his critical reporting of the Vietnam conflict. Also during Vietnam you had Seymour Hersh who broke the My Lai massacre through the Associated Press in 1969. The best example came with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post who exposed the Watergate cover up which led to the resignation of Richard Nixon. One could go on but what would have happened if the free press did not expose those stories? What if Nixon wasn’t held accountable?What if the meat packing industry wasn’t exposed in the early 1900’s? The free press helped make the United States stronger as a nation.
Journalists Have Served in Combat Zones
Its also important to remember that journalists have served in combat zones and reported on war. For example you can read of Walter Cronkite and Andy Rooney and how they covered World War II and the landings on Normandy on June 6, 1944. If you fast forward and look at the Vietnam conflict there were a number of journalists from ABC, CBS, Reuters and Associated Press who died while reporting the news. Some died in combat others were captured and executed. In the Iraq War there were plenty of challenges. A few years ago the Washington Post wrote about their Baghdad bureau and covering the war, and the risks that staffers faced. These are some of the journalists who died reporting the Iraq War. Know their names, people like David Bloom, Jeremy Little, Alaa Aziz, and Paul Douglas. And who could forgot Bob Woodruff who reported for ABC News. In 2006 he was nearly killed by an improvised explosive device and sustained massive head trauma. And in Afghanistan journalists have been lost reporting the war. On April 30, 2018 the Islamic State conducted a suicide bombing that resulted in the death of at least nine to ten journalists. In the attack the second suicide bomber targeted the press leading to the high fatalities. But as we honor the brave military who serve, may we never forget those journalists who serve and report about war while embedded with the troops.
What Does “Enemy of the People” Mean?
But let’s stop and consider another disturbing phrase. Donald Trump has specifically referred to the press as the “Enemy of the People.” What does that phrase mean? One of the earliest uses of the phrase as from the French government during the reign of terror. The “enemy of the people” were those who disagreed with the French government. This was when the government was executing people in mas by guillotine. In Nazi, Germany the Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels referred to Jews as “sworn enemies of the German people.” But what most people know and remember the phrase “Enemy of the People” comes from the Soviet Union. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 Lenin referred to those who disagreed with the nascent Communist government. Joseph Stalin expanded upon that idea and when the Soviet state designated someone as being an “Enemy of the People” they were designated to be sent to a gulag or labor camp. One of the people who grew deeply disturbed by the phrase “Enemy of the People’ was none other than the successor to Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev. At the 20th party Congress in 1956 in the Soviet Union. On the last day of the Congress Nikita Khrushchev rebuked Joseph Stalin and his personality cult. One of the things he rebuked is when Khrushchev briefly addressed the phrase “Enemy of the People.” This is what the new leader of the Soviet Union said at the time, “The formula ‘enemy of the people was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals.” Its important that people remember this especially as the phrase “Enemy of the People” is tied to totalitarian and despot regimes known for war crimes and tyranny.
The Press is Your Friend and Keeps you Free
I am taking a break form writing about religion for the day to join with those in the free press who are writing editorials about this issue. This blog leans heavily on newspaper articles from the New York Times, to The Washington Post, to The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and Memphis Commercial Appeal. If the media can’t do their job and report the news with freedom, then you can kiss blogs like this or other blogs goodbye. I hope that this blog keeps in check a number of churches in the D.C. area and also inside the EFCA. I have a number of stories I have to report on that will come with time. But its important to remember that the press is your friend, and that it helps keep you free.
Today we are fleeting with violence that has been inspired by a demagogue who has not respect for the office he is in. My fear is that journalists will be assassinated or beaten up at a rally and that Donald Trump will inspire them, This is why I am drawing attention to this issue today. As an academically trained historian I would like to remind you that we should never be complacent. Never assume of state that we can’t lose out freedom here in the United States. Our history is stained with dark days in history that people thought would never occur. For example, when World War II raged in Asia many dismissed the idea that the Japanese could attack the United States. Japan, as some reasoned was too far away. That concept was brutally dismantled on a Sunday morning in December in 1941. The effects are still there to see today some 75 years later with a sunken battleship and 1,177 who were lost in the USS Arizona. Then we could also remember our complacency in the 1990’s. Terrorism was something that happened overseas. We were protected from terrorism, the United States was safe. Oklahoma City bombing was a domestic operation by fringe individuals and the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 was a one time event. We thought we had strong aviation security and safety and that terrorism on a mass scale was not possible. And like another day in infamy on a Tuesday morning on 2001 we watched in horror as planes were turned to missiles that targeted the World Trade Center and Pentagon. We have a history in the United States of becoming complacent and then suffering from something dark. So let’s not dismiss the concern about the loss of press freedom or journalists being targeted. Let’s think about what is being said, and defend and stand alongside the press. And let us remember the wise words of Benjamin Franklin years ago in Philadelphia. At the age of 81 at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 Franklin is reported to have had an exchange. He was leaving the hall where the Constitution Convention was held. One of the people called out, “What kind of government are we going to get?” And Benjamin’s answer was, “A Republic if you can keep it..” And that is the question that must be asked. Are we going to keep that Republic and maintain one of the pillars that allows it to exist? The founding fathers would be troubled that the phrase “Enemy of the People” is being used today. Its a phrase that belongs in the dustbin of history along with the Soviet Union. When our president uses a phrase that has been used by Stalin, Lenin, Mao and others we should categorically reject it. Because after all, this is the United States. It is not Germany during the Third Reich and it most certainly is not the Soviet Union. Let us keep the experiment that was done in Philadelphia and maintain it for future generations. And let as Americans reject tyranny in any form as it pops up.