Witt: Freedom of press is necessary

Published 9:26 am Thursday, July 19, 2018

Freedom of the press is a fragile thing.

In the long history of this country, that freedom has been tested many times and, on occasion, has come up short of the expectations for it.

This freedom is often easily manipulated, as it was in the late 19th Century when William Randolph Hearst used his newspaper empire to foment the Spanish-American war.

Perhaps one of the most admonitions about freedom of the press was made by Thomas Jefferson: “…were it left to me to decide whether we shall have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

But Jefferson was not totally enamored with the liberties the press of the day exhibited, especially after he became president and was subjected to some pretty scurrilous comments about him.

And so it was some of his other statements about newspapers (not necessarily about the concept of press freedom) included:

“Indeed, my skepticism as to everything I see in a newspaper makes me indifferent whether I ever see one.”

“As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers.”

“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

And, “I deplore … the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity and mendacious spirit of those who write for them…”

There are undoubtedly many people in the U.S. today who would agree with these latter statements of Jefferson, especially those who adhere to the policies of President Donald Trump, who never hesitates to excoriate all the media, including newspapers.

Hopefully, however, there are far more people who would choose to abide by Jefferson’s earlier comments, and believe most of the nation’s newspapers are doing a pretty good job of making sure that the public is well-informed regarding the activities, not only of non-political events, but also of what is transpiring in government, local, state and national.

Criticism of the press will always come from those who disagree with the philosophical position of a paper, such as conservatives bashing the liberal New York Times, or liberals castigating the conservative Chicago Tribune.

But newspapers are typically categorized as either liberal or conservative based upon their editorial opinions, not on the way they report the news.

And this is as it should be.

The news disseminated by newspapers should never be based on the political slant of the paper itself, but solely on presenting factual information.

Yes, freedom of the press is fragile. And it can be abused, and has been. And will continue to be.

But the value of the press goes beyond merely relying on its constitutionally-guaranteed freedom. The value of the press today lies in presenting news in an unbiased manner which then allows the reader to determine for himself or herself whether it is presented fairly.

Each year, World Press Freedom Day is celebrated internationally — and countries with muzzled press are noted — to bring attention to the value of this institution.

May it always be so — with more countries joining each year.

Chuck Witt is a retired architect and a lifelong resident of Winchester. He can be reached at chuck740@bellsouth.net.