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Rolly: Never has a free, independent press been more vital

Published May 30, 2017 8:16 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Never before has a free and independent press been so under attack in the United States as it is now. And never before has the Fourth Estate been more vital in keeping democracy solvent in this country.

That's a bold statement, I know. And, coming from a member of the press, it can seem self-serving.

But recent events culminating from a gradually growing contempt of the media by partisan forces over the past several years should set off alarms among freedom-loving Americans who understand why the country's founders put the protection of press freedom in the First Amendment.

There was the ridiculous behavior of Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, who allegedly slammed a Guardian reporter to the ground for having the audacity to ask a question on the eve of Montana's special congressional election last week.

After the police were called and word of the incident became public, Gianforte's spokesperson Shane Scanlon issued a statement blaming the altercation on the "liberal" reporter for being too aggressive. The statement contradicted an audio recording on the reporter's cellphone as the event occurred and eyewitness accounts from a television crew in the room at the time.

Gianforte won the election the next day, as if we didn't already have enough clowns like that in Congress since the advent of the tea party movement a few years ago.

Gianforte has been charged with misdemeanor assault and has a court date in Montana coming up. But I would argue that the current culture, fueled by the president of the United States, has made politicians like that feel entitled to convey their own hand-spun messages to the public without interference from a skeptical and aggressive news media.

Earlier this month, a reporter in West Virginia was arrested and jailed for shouting a question about the Republican health care bill to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price at the state Capitol.

Last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott joked about shooting reporters while he was at a gun range to sign a bill making it cheaper to get a handgun license. Sure, it was a joke, but it wasn't funny and it demonstrated the scorn held by a growing number of politicians and officeholders.

The idea that the media is the "enemy of the people" was actually popularized by President Donald Trump, who has publicly said that phrase numerous times. He frequently led his crowds on the campaign trail in booing the reporters at the event, calling the media dishonest.

More darkly, since he became president, he reportedly asked then-FBI Director James Comey about the possibility of jailing reporters who publish leaks from informants about what's going on at the White House. He also has talked about initiating laws making it easier for public officials to sue reporters over libel accusations.

That is concerning when you consider that Trump has been one of the most litigious business tycoons in the country, often using the courts as an intimidation tool against competitors.

The attack on the press has aroused warnings from some of Trump's own conservative colleagues in Washington. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the former GOP presidential candidate, told Chuck Todd on NBC's "Meet the Press" after one of Trump's verbal attacks that thwarting the free press is how dictatorships get started. "I hate the press," McCain said, acknowledging the natural conflict that exists between an independent press and politicians. "But we need you."

Indeed, it was Thomas Jefferson, who had his own battles with the press, who wrote: "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."

Now, nearly 240 years after Jefferson wrote those words, these attacks on the press come at a time when the system of checks and balances set in the Constitution by the founders seems wobbly.

The Republican Congress, which tried to block every initiative proposed by former Democratic President Barack Obama, is now reluctant to investigate possible collusion between advisers close to Trump and Vladimir Putin's Russia, where reporters regularly get murdered.

That, some commentators suggest, gives worried insiders no alternative but to leak their concerns to the press.

prolly@sltrib.com —






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