Happy Birthday, America, I guess.
You’re old enough to know that you can’t always have a feel-good birthday. And let’s face it: This Fourth of July just isn’t going to be one of them.
How could it be when one of the pillars of our 241-year-old republic — the First Amendment — is under near-daily assault from the highest levels of the government?
When the president of the United States makes viciously personal attacks against journalists — and then doubles down over the weekend by posting a video on Twitter showing himself tackling and beating a figure with a CNN logo superimposed on his head? (Every time you think he’s reached the limit …)
How could it be when the president lashes out at The Washington Post by making a veiled threat against the business interests of its owner, Jeff Bezos, suggesting that his other company, Amazon, is a tax avoider?
(Where have we seen that sort of thing before — Russia maybe?)
Or when the White House plays so many games with its press briefings, taking them off camera and placing conditions on how and when they can run — or, in the case of its rare, unrestricted live briefings, using them to falsely accuse the news media of “dishonesty”?
For those who cherish a robust free press, it’s hard to feel much like partying after witnessing how some cheered Representative Greg Gianforte, Republican of Montana, for body slamming a reporter for The Guardian, Ben Jacobs. His sin: asking unwelcome questions.
The “he had it coming” camp’s celebration of the violence against a reporter seemed out of step with Mr. Gianforte’s own response. He ultimately apologized, pleaded guilty to assault and pledged a $50,000 donation to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Then again, it wasn’t out of step with President Trump, whose weekend tweet appeared to promote violence against CNN — which, some argued, violated Twitter’s harassment policies — certainly undercut Mr. Gianforte’s message of contrition.
Yes, America, all of the attacks against something so central to your identity must have you in quite the birthday funk.
The likely reaction in anti-press precincts to a column like this one will be that mainstream journalists think they’re above reproach, which is nonsense.
When a real news organization makes a mistake, it takes action, as CNN recently did when it retracted an article about the Russia investigation, saying the article had not received the proper vetting. Three people lost their jobs.
The Trump administration torqued it into supposed proof that CNN and much of the rest of the news media — including The New York Times and The Washington Post — are “fake news.”
It was a powerful reminder to journalists everywhere to take the extra time to get it right, to make sure that the processes that ensure editorial quality and accuracy remain intact and strong.
The stakes are higher now, as the anti-press sentiment veers into calls for more action against journalists, if not against journalism itself.
Look no further than the new National Rifle Association advertisement. In it, the conservative radio and television star Dana Loesch angrily describes how “they” — whoever they are — “use their media to assassinate real news,” contributing to a “violence of lies” that needs to be combated with “the clenched fist of truth.”
Given that the ad was for a pro-gun group, this sort of thing “tends toward incitement,” Charles P. Pierce wrote in Esquire. (Added context: The N.R.A. chief Wayne LaPierre recently called “academic elites, political elites and media elites” America’s “greatest domestic threats.”)
The Fox News host Sean Hannity has urged the Trump administration to force reporters to submit written requests in advance of the daily White House press briefing, which, he said, should be narrowly tailored to specific topics the administration wants to talk about.
Mr. Hannity’s good buddy Newt Gingrich went one better, suggesting that administration officials fully close the briefing room to the news media, which he has called “a danger to the country right now.”
What’s most extraordinary in all of this is how many people calling for curtailments on the free press are such professed “constitutionalists” and admirers of the founders.
The founders didn’t view the press as particularly enlightened, and from the earliest days of the republic it certainly wasn’t. (To wit, a passage in The Aurora, an early publication, described George Washington as “the source of all the misfortunes of our country.”)
But they drafted the founding documents to enshrine press freedom for good reason. As the Stanford University history professor Jack Rakove said in an interview last week, James Madison was most concerned about a misinformed public’s acting on misplaced passions, and saw the press as an antidote. Were he alive now, Mr. Rakove said, “Madison would be worried by the idea of government whipping up or exploiting” what he called “badly formed passions.”
Sure, there were the occasional stumbles, like the short-lived Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which banned “false, scandalous and malicious writing” about the government, but they led to stronger free speech protections.
So this, our 241st birthday, seems just the time to invite some of our forebears to remind us — including those at the top of the government — why a free press is so important.
“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” — Benjamin Franklin, 1722
“There is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so justly terrible to tyrants, and their tools and abettors, as a free press.” — Samuel Adams, 1768
“The freedom of speech may be taken away — and, dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter.” — George Washington, to officers of the Army, 1783
“Nothing could be more irrational than to give the people power, and to withhold from them information without which power is abused. A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.” — James Madison, 1822
“There is a terrific disadvantage not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily, to an administration. Even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn’t write it, and even though we disapprove, there still isn’t any doubt that we couldn’t do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.” — John F. Kennedy, 1962
“Since the founding of this nation, freedom of the press has been a fundamental tenet of American life. There is no more essential ingredient than a free, strong and independent press to our continued success in what the founding fathers called our ‘noble experiment’ in self-government.’” — Ronald Reagan, 1983
“Power can be very addictive, and it can be corrosive. And it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.” — George W. Bush, 2017