If all printers were determined not to print anything until they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.” So said the venerable Benjamin Franklin. From my time writing for Lagniappe, I’ve found this simple, yet oddly paradoxical statement to be true; many public officials don’t like public scrutiny.
Yes, I know you may ask: “But they voluntarily sought public support to be elected to a public position, and work on behalf of the public’s interest, why would they not want their actions publicly examined?” That’s a good question.
But for some reason there are elected officials, at various levels of government, who operate with the belief that if you question their actions you are somehow biased or unfair. Pointed or nuanced questions and penetrating analysis are, in such politicians’ mind, evidence of an orchestrated effort to undermine them. Rather than viewing press scrutiny for what it is, a routine and necessary part of public office and public interest, they see it as an unwanted intrusion.
Well, here’s my take: If you’re in public office and you have a problem with your actions on the people’s behalf being publicly scrutinized, then you should go back to private work. Period.
It’s of late been implied that our founders favored a press whose message could be controlled or perhaps saw its value to society as minimal. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was our second president, John Adams, who stated, “The liberty of the press is essential to the security of the state.” Also, as one of the principal individuals involved in our founding, with great authority he noted, “But none of the means of information are more sacred, or have been cherished with more tenderness and care by the settlers of America than the press.”
It must be remembered that the press during the early years of our nation had very little oversight, and sharp personal attacks as well as outright partisanship were common in newspapers. Someone who suffered greatly as a politician from this “wild west” type of media environment was Thomas Jefferson. However, even though he weathered some very pointed attacks and at times complained of these, he never lost his faith in the importance of a free press and how dispensable it was to a democracy.
Jefferson observed: “The only security of all is in a free press. … The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary to keep the waters pure.” He further declared, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”
Today, although the right of a free press is guaranteed by the First Amendment, news organizations can’t just publish whatever they want without consequences. The rights of the libeled or slandered are often held by the courts today to be more important than those of other parties’ rights to freedom of speech or expression.
This was not so much the case during Jefferson’s time. Yet, as one scholar vividly made clear, Jefferson remained firm in understanding that “A press that is free to investigate and criticize the government is absolutely essential in a nation that practices self-government.”
Jefferson was so convinced of this belief that he declared, “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 … I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
Astonishing. The president who suffered at the hands of the press didn’t advocate destroying it, or government controlling the flow of information to the people. No, he understood that if any one of those two options ever happened, America’s attempt at self-government would be over.
Jefferson knew that a government that can’t be questioned is no true government of the people. Accordingly, he was well aware that any people who would consent to live under such a government are no longer fit to govern themselves. They deserve the tyranny that is sure to follow.
The press was never meant to be the politician’s friend, but his or her conscience. It’s meant to be that entity which functions outside the realm of government, but is so essential to the honest and transparent operation of government. All political leaders should understand this.
Unfortunately, individuals are drawn to the power and visibility of public office, but are annoyed and in some cases angered by the accountability that comes with it. When a public official tries to diminish or subvert the transparency and accountability that should be a part of holding a public position, that’s a really good indicator that such a person is operating more out of self-interest than the public interest. It should serve as a huge red flag of warning.
Regardless of whether one is serving as a politician on the local level, in a state position, in Congress or as president of the United States: Stop whining about the press doing their job and just concentrate on doing yours. Besides, openness and transparency have never been an enemy to a political leader seeking to do good.