Constitution Day: The people, the press, and the public’s right to know
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In the summer of 1787, the nation’s most influential lawyers, generals and politicians gathered in Philadelphia with a single purpose: To create a government that was ruled by the people instead of ruling them.
The first words of the Constitution underscored this principal: “We, the people, of the United States of America…”
To protect the people’s power, our founding fathers carefully divided the government into three branches. With this system, no one person or governmental branch could ever rule with absolute authority.
The checks and balances provide a framework for the government. However, the cornerstone of our democracy is the unique privilege and responsibility of every citizen to be engaged through voting, public offices, representation in Congress and myriad other ways.
For a society to be responsible and powerful, it must be informed. Our free press, protected by the first Constitutional amendment, plays a critical role in ensuring that every American has constant access to important and trustworthy news.
Thomas Jefferson once 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. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
As he emphasized, this free flow of information to the public is essential to preserving our American democracy. In addition to educating and reporting, the press serves as the public’s independent watchdog, charged with keeping governments, businesses and other organizations in check.
What other institution has the power to talk to key leaders, inspire social change and uncover corruption, while analyzing and providing context for major global events? Thanks to diligent reporting, citizens are empowered to take a stance on critical issues, enact change and demand the best from their leaders.
Recent headlines have demonstrated that we can’t take the power of the press for granted. After it was revealed this summer that the government secretly obtained AP phone records and the email content of Fox News reporter James Rosen, while also ruling that New York Times reporter James Risen must disclose his confidential sources, it became clear that confidential sources and the integrity of the newsgathering process must also be specifically protected.
Without a free press that can defend its sources, American democracy will suffer. The Newspaper Association of America applauded the vote last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee to approve the Free Flow of Information Act for vote in the Senate. This bill represents a critical step in preserving the public’s right to know while still ensuring effective law enforcement.
While we celebrate this, we know that news organizations and the government itself comprise only a piece of the equation. To have a strong democracy and educated citizenry, it is up to you to take advantage of your opportunities to be engaged. It is up to you to stay informed by reading newspapers, visiting their websites or accessing their news apps, and up to you to show up at the polls on November 5.
The Constitution was ratified on September 17, a day that we continue to commemorate every year as the birth of our uniquely American government. There is no better way to honor our Constitution and our founding fathers than by exercising our individual right to be informed.
Caroline Little is president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America in Arlington, Va.