A Free Press

Today some 100 newspapers and other legacy journalism operations around the country joined together in concern regarding the administration's sustained attacks on a free press. (This is today's New York Times editorial page.) I hope to add my small voice as a media historian and incoming president of the American Journalism Historians Association. Many Americans seem to have forgotten that without free speech and an independent press democracy cannot exist. I say many because polls show 42 percent of Americans today believe the president should have the right to shut down any news organization whose criticism he finds offensive. This is a definition of dictatorship.

It seems not enough today to point out that those at the highest levels of government who heap scorn on journalists who report facts that they do not like are trying to discredit a cornerstone of the Republic. Many in America have joined in these malicious and repeated attacks. Clearly they wish to destroy the concept of a free press without apparent understanding of what that means.

Many in America today have little knowledge of world history. They don't think history is relevant. They think that the freedoms they take for granted today always existed and will always exist. That "progress" is inevitable because in their lifetimes it has always been so. But historians know that is not true. Progress is not guaranteed. We can slip back. Democracy is fragile. It has been tried over and over, around the world and throughout human history, only to shatter against the appeals to fear, greed, war and inequality so toxic to democratic ideals.

What if your political opinions cost you your job? What if your criticism of government on social media put you behind bars? What if you could be fined for starting a news website without express permission of the government? What if censors came to your home to review every single word you wrote before you uploaded them to your blog?

This is not far fetched at all. This is how the entire world viewed freedom of speech and the press throughout most of human history. And it's still how many countries in today's world view it. It can happen here. It can happen to you. Democracy is never, not ever to be taken for granted. And those in power who abuse our rights as American citizens and human beings must be held to account, beginning with our right to speak out--the right to a free press.

Ross F. Collins
Professor of Communication, North Dakota State University, Fargo

August 16, 2018