America’s Founders did not include freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights so that a journalist could have his 15 minutes of fame in the White House briefing room. They envisioned a body, separate from the government, working to prevent tyranny of thought and information. One of their fears for the fledgling nation was that it would quickly crumble into tyranny of the sort common in other countries around the world, where governments controlled the information that reached the people.
Our founders realized that people are only free when they have freedom of thought and information. That is why they crafted the First Amendment and demanded freedom of the press. They wanted to ensure that the public was informed and the government would be held accountable for its actions. Without it, our nation would cease to function.
In 1971, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black said, “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” The press exists, in part, to curtail government corruption through its unwavering pursuit of truth. If the press is not permitted to admonish, or at the very least question, the leaders of our nation then another form of tyranny arises—one that the framers of the Constitution feared because of the power it would have to transform the character of the public and the nation by controlling the information they received.
Benjamin Franklin, when asked about the nature of the government established by the Constitution, replied that it would be “a republic, if you can keep it.” One way that we ensure that our great nation remains a republic is through the robust efforts of the press to investigate and report on government wrongdoing.
But the press we see today instead performs all sorts of acrobatic feats to catch individuals with inane questions to advance its own narrative. This is not what the Founders sought to protect. The press has strayed from its path of seeking truth over personal or organizational accolades.
To see an example of this in action, we need look no further than the “gotcha” questions White House press members frequently pose to the new Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany. In her short time so far as the Trump Administration’s spokeswoman, she has flipped the script on the press. She is ready with prepared answers, a binder full of data, and a calm, cool, and collected demeanor. So it should come as no surprise that the videos gaining the most attention on social media following each press briefing show her articulate and witty responses to the ridiculous questions she receives each time she stands behind the podium.
When asked if she wanted to take back her comments from February claiming that the coronavirus wouldn’t come to the United States, she fought back asking if multiple notable news organizations would want to take back their false statements as well. The question posed to her served no journalistic purpose other than an attempt to ridicule her.
More recently, McEnany called out the press for its lack of journalistic curiosity over the unmasking of General Michael Flynn by Obama Administration officials. This sort of miscarriage of justice ought to entice real journalists to discover the truth of events.
Journalists sitting in the White House Press Briefing Room have a unique opportunity to pose questions to members of the president’s administration and often to the president himself on matters great and small. Instead, almost every time we watch a press briefing, we see them squander that opportunity. Of what value to us is any of this? How does this advance the freedom of the press?
The Founders did not seek to protect the freedom of the press simply to add to the word count of the Constitution. It is a significant and integral part of our nation and provides the backbone of a society that values public knowledge over government-controlled propaganda.
I want journalists to ask hard questions. I want them to dig deep into the stories they cover and probe for answers. We all benefit from a press that is invested in uncovering information and presenting it with as little bias as possible. We all learn from the stories shared and the insight revealed when journalists choose to put the needs of the American people above pursuing their personal ambition at the expense of journalistic responsibility.
The press can and should raise their level of discourse and restore their sense of journalistic curiosity.