“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.” – Thomas Jefferson
First, a little bit about Thomas Jefferson. I think most of us know a lot about him, that he was brilliant, a student of many things in life. He was also a poor businessman, on the verge of bankruptcy many times. That doesn’t play a part in this story.
I’ve long liked this quote:
“I want to tell you how welcome you are to the White House. I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
JFK said it when he was president, speaking at a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners. I will admit that this statement is a bit confusing, that if taken out of context it would make no sense. I’m including it here as a reference to recognize the generally understood brilliance of Jefferson.
Jefferson believed in a free press. That was clear. He also saw divisiveness and destruction that can come from it when it’s used for partisan causes. Fox News comes to mind. A press that is unbalanced, that only presents a biased perspective, is worse than no press at all. It speaks to already closed minds, further serving not to enlighten, but harden opinions, to further divide. The tweets of the president fit into this category as well.
There are numerous examples in our recent of a free press uncovering corruption. Woodard and Bernstein on Watergate and The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team on Catholic priests abusing minors come to mind. Every single government that we’d categorize as evil came to power by stifling dissent and the first voice they had to quiet was the press. Democracies like ours only survive with a free press. A free press is often seen as a fourth branch of a democracy, adding a check beyond the distribution of power between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches. Because of this power the press is often called “The Fourth Estate”.
The Trump attack on a free press needs to be seen in this light, as an attempt to not only discourage dissent, but to hide the truth. Corruption and evil survive in darkness. They wither under direct light, when exposed, seen and confronted.