Founding Fathers Got It Right on Press Freedom

My friend and former Senate colleague John McCain was asked in 2017 whether he regards the press as the enemy of the people. “I hate the press,” responded McCain, perhaps tongue-in-cheek. “I hate you, especially. But the fact is, we need you. … If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you need to have a free and many times an adversarial press.”

McCain’s comment on NBC’s Meet the Press symbolized the Arizona senator’s on-again, off-again relationship with “the media.” But more importantly, it reflected the tension and hostility between government and “the press” that was anticipated, accepted and encouraged by our founding fathers when they adopted the First Amendment as the cornerstone of American democracy. As we honor Senator McCain’s life, it is also fitting to reflect on the audacity of the founding fathers in their embrace of free speech as a core principle of a new nation.

As a recovering politician-turned-advocate for local broadcasters in Washington, I come to this debate with a perspective from both sides. In my 16 years as an elected official — the last 12 as a U.S. senator from Oregon — I was occasionally frustrated by “the media.” But I came to understand that unfriendly press coverage, either real or perceived, comes with the territory when you become a public official. And I believed then and believe now that press criticism, fair or unfair, is the essential lifeblood of our liberty.

Disagreeing Agreeably

Today, we watch a scorched-earth battle in Washington between some in the media and the Republican Administration, and between others in the media and Democrats in Congress. Allegations of bias fly in every direction. What the combatants are really underscoring is the point Senator McCain was making, not just with the remarks on Meet the Press, but with his entire life. He understood that it is precisely our ability to freely disagree that underscores the greatness of America. The essence of our democratic experiment is this: It no more matters what the president thinks is news than what other Americans think. When the press is being attacked, its value is being affirmed. And so too are the underlying values of America.

As head of the National Association of Broadcasters, I’ve witnessed firsthand the remarkable work of local radio and TV journalists and their broadcast network colleagues dedicated to fact-based news reporting. Among these journalists are fierce patriots who embed with U.S. troops abroad. They risk their lives reporting on wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes. They’ve saved the lives of hundreds of children with Amber Alerts and coverage of the opioid crisis. Broadcast groups have doubled down on credible investigative journalism that exposes fraud and corruption at the local, national and international level. I may not agree with every perspective or story, but my consent is not required for free voices to speak out.

Much of what riles passions today is opinion journalism that would remind Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton of the partisan pamphleteers of the late 1700s.

Today, only the platforms have changed. Raucous voices on social media and commentary-based cable programming may pervade and dominate our daily discourse. But viewers and listeners should try, always, to distinguish between fact-based reporting and editorial commentary. They are not the same. The broadcast journalists that I know hold themselves to a higher standard. They report truth as best they see it, without fear or favor. Some of their reporting may not please the president. Some of their reporting may not please Democratic leaders in Congress. Thankfully, the consent of the political class is not required for reporters to do their jobs.

Enduring Principles

That our founding fathers grudgingly accepted withering press criticism and sustained journalism attacks, there can be little doubt. They did so because they understood that government efforts to delegitimize the role of the journalist constituted an attack on democracy itself. For more than two centuries, little has changed in the adversarial relationship between reporters and politicians in power. The enduring constant has been the First Amendment, and our forefathers’ fundamental embrace of freespeech principles that preserve America as the last best hope on Earth.

Gordon Smith has been president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters since 2009. He is a former two-term Republican U.S. senator from Oregon.