Constitution Day and the role of the press in our democracy

By Jon Bartholomew , Common Cause

Today is Constitution Day.

221 years ago, the United States Constitution was crafted to guide the great experiment known as American democracy.

Four years later, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, were ratified and became law of the land. The First Amendment does something not found in any other part of the Constitution or its amendments. It protects one particular industry - the press. (Read our media reform plan for a new administration)

Why?

Simply said, a democracy can not function properly without the press informing the public, exposing voters to the marketplace of ideas, and holding public officials accountable.

But here's how the founders of our country put it...

The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) proclaimed that "the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments."

Thomas Jefferson said: "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; 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." (Jefferson wrote a lot about this subject)

Benjamin Franklin, who largely is responsible for creating the modern press in America, wrote "An Apology for Printers" in which he states, "Printers are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter..."

The founders of our country based their opinions largely on the ideas of John Milton's central argument for a free press, which was that the individual is capable of using reason and distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad. In order to be able to exercise this ration right, the individual must have unlimited access to the ideas of his fellow men in "a free and open encounter." From Milton's writings developed the concept of the open marketplace of ideas, the idea that when people argue against each other, the good arguments will prevail.

Thus the founders felt it was critically important to protect the press.

But has the press kept its side of the bargain?

When you consider that consolidation of the media into the hands of corporate giants has homogenized local media markets, decreased local reporting, turned cable news into a lowest-common-denominator pander fest, and that the media gobbled up spoon-fed propaganda from the administration regarding the Iraq war, then the answer is no.

The press needs to do a heck of a lot better to earn its special protection in the Constitution.

This is why Common Cause opposes media consolidation and supports media diversification. This is why Common Cause supports meaningful public interest obligations of broadcasters. This is why Common Cause supports protecting the Internet as a tool of citizen journalism. And this is why Common Cause supports putting the media in the hands of the public through community television and Low Power FM radio.

The media CAN do their job enhancing and protecting our democracy if the structure of the sector is set up properly. But big business sees the media simply as just another way to make money. The founders of this nation did not protect the press in the Constitution because it was a great way to make money - they did it for the role the press plays in a healthy democracy. And at this time, it's up to "We the People" to ensure the press can perform their intended role.

article originally published at .

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey