"The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe." -- Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Charles Yancey, 1816 (all quotations from Jefferson are from the University of Virginia's Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive)
The first tendency of all autocrats is to clamp down on a free press. That's what has always made the American form of government so unusual. In no other nation in the world -- in the history of the world -- are the concept of free expression and the right of the press to publish freely enshrined so unambiguously as they are in the First Amendment, along with three other basic rights necessary for true freedom to exist:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
It is no accident that press freedoms were among the first protected by the Founders. They knew that a free press was essential to protect the American people against government excess and to keep it informed about what its government was up to.
"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people," Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Edward Carrington before the drafting of the Bill of Rights. "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 and be capable of reading them."
The Bush administration, unfortunately, seems not to agree. Led by a president who proudly asserts his ignorance (on more than one occasion he has said he does not read the papers and relies on functionaries to keep him informed) and a vice president who watches nothing but Fox News (the closest thing we have to state-run media), the administration has gone out of its way to demean the press and diminish its ability to do its job.
The list of offenses is pretty extensive: There were payments to supposedly independent commentators for administration-friendly commentary; production and distribution of stage-managed and biased videos to local television outlets; and the issuance of press credentials to a Republican operative who posed as a newsman during press conferences and who asked the softest of questions of the president and his cabinet.
Most significantly, the administration has made it a practice to attack the press and question the motives and patriotism of reporters when they do their jobs.
Like when the New York Times published a story in late June detailing the Bush administration's use of a Belgian banking cooperative to track the international financial transactions of Americans suspected of having ties with al Qaeda. The program, the story said, stirred some concerns within the administration about privacy and the potential for abuse, but appears relatively benign.
But that hasn't stopped the Bush Administration and the folks on its periphery from taking aim at the paper. The president called the Times story "disgraceful" and said that publication "does great harm to the United States of America." Vice President Dick Cheney and Treasury Secretary John Snow both called the story horrible security breaches, while US Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and several other Republicans in Congress are seeking a federal investigation.
The attacks on the New York Times continue a narrative that equates not only press criticism of the administration, but all independent reporting, as unpatriotic and treasonous. It is intimidation, pure and simple -- and dangerous, given the important role a free and unfettered press plays in the health of our democracy.
US Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black put it best 35 years ago in his opinion on the Pentagon Papers, a case in which the court upheld the right of the press to print information in the face of government opposition:
"In my view," he wrote, "far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly."
Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press. Email email@example.com or see his blog at www.kaletblog.com.
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