A Fearless and Free Press is Essential to Our Democracy

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

—Thomas Jefferson

Make no mistake about it, the individual sitting in the highest office of our nation is trying to destroy the foundational institution upon which our democracy was founded — a fearless and free press. And why would anyone who swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, including the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and press, do so? Because unlike his ever-changing coterie of hired and appointed sycophants, our 325 million citizens must rely on a free press to sift fact from fiction. And without a free press, the truth is buried beneath the lies that spill endlessly from his lips.

As Trump put it during the misnamed “social media summit” hosted by his right-wing supporters last week: “See, I don’t think that the mainstream media is free speech either because it’s so crooked. It’s so dishonest. So to me, free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposely write bad. To me, that’s very dangerous speech, and you become angry at it. But that’s not free speech.”

Compare Trump’s interpretation with what some of our founding fathers and great minds have said about a free press.

“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.”

—Thomas Jefferson

“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”

—Benjamin Franklin

“The freedom of the press should be inviolate.”

—John Quincy Adams

“When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered.”

—Christopher Dodd

“Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.”

—George Orwell

Why do we need a free and fearless press in Montana?

To tell us the truth when Greg Gianforte body-slams a harmless reporter and then lies openly about it.

To tell us what’s going on as Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency and ARCO-BP try to scuttle out of Butte and Anaconda after 40 years of mostly burying toxic wastes beneath a thin blanket of soil and grass so they don’t have to follow Montana’s Constitutional mandate that “all lands disturbed by the taking of natural resources shall be reclaimed.”

To let us know who is spending how much on which politicians to purchase “the best government money can buy.”

To tell us that the endless string of innocent sounding phrases increasingly used by the U.S. Forest Service actually mean plain old clear-cutting.

To report when they catch highly positioned and well-paid government officials with their hands deep in the public till.

To keep us informed of pending decisions by public policymakers and give citizens the chance to participate in the matters that affect our lives before the votes are cast or the decisions finalized.

To bring us the Opinion Page, where diverse opinions about the current state of affairs can be published and read, letting the public draw its own conclusions.

Our democracy has survived nearly two and a half centuries with our Constitutional guarantee of a free press vital and intact and we will survive this authoritarian and benighted blight on the presidency. And in the final analysis, it is not the free press that is Donald Trump’s enemy — it’s the truth that he doesn’t want us to hear, read or know.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.