The most encouraging part of the 2018 State of the First Amendment survey is the public’s embrace of the ideal of the media serving as the watchdog of a free society. The American public recognizes the essential importance of a vibrant and free press to serve the interests of the public as a check against government.
According to the survey, nearly three-fourths of those surveyed (73%) either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement – “It is important for our democracy that the news media act as a watchdog on government.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart recognized this concept well in a speech he delivered in 1974 at Yale Law School. He stated: “The primary purpose of the constitutional guarantee of a free press was to create a fourth institution outside the government as an additional check on the three official branches.” Stewart resonates the idea of the press as a fourth estate, serving as an additional check on the other three official branches of government.
Famous politicians have extolled and excoriated the role of the press. Before he became President, Thomas Jefferson famously said: “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.” More recently in the 21st century, President Barack Obama stated: “Government without a tough and vibrant media is not an option for the United States of America.”
Politicians also have attacked the media through American history as well. Jefferson changed his views on the press when he was Chief Executive, stating: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” Former Vice President Spiro Agnew created the infamous alliterative depiction of the media as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” President Donald Trump has called some members of the press “enemies of the people” and purveyors of “fake news.”
The news media is not without fault. Some members of the press long have served as shrills for particular political parties in American history. Some journalists certainly have an agenda. Tabloid journalism and privacy intrusions into private lives have infected some of the industry.
But, who could ever doubt the importance of investigative journalism at its finest? Ida Tarbell exposed the excesses of Standard Oil; Ida Wells laid bare the awful reality of lynchings; Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein revealed the Watergate scandal that led to the toppling of a President.
But, the ideal of the press as a fourth estate and a watchdog of a free society should never be lost. Perhaps the most eloquent statements on the need for a free and vigorous press came from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in his separate opinion in the Pentagon Papers case, New York Times v. United States (1971). Black wrote:
“Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”
“The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to bare the secrets of government and inform
Justices Stewart and Black had it right – that the press is a necessary force in a free society to watch the government. The American public had it right in supporting the watchdog ideal. Let’s hope the press lives up to the ideal.