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Just what is Freedom of the Press

By Staff | Aug 19, 2018

“And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

You would think a famous newspaper publisher said that. But no, it was Thomas Jefferson.

You remember Jefferson, don’t you?

He was one of the main authors of our Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. A farmer, a statesman and one of the Founding Fathers of our country.

Oh yes, he was also our third president.

You would think that Jefferson was a friend of the press and newspapers after reading that opening quote. However, that is not quite true. Actually he was not a big fan.

In fact, Jefferson was often criticized by newspapers and literally was often blasted by the press. Back in those days newspapers were openly biased and editors filled their columns with propaganda for the political sides they favored.

And, yet, no matter how much he hated what they wrote about him, Jefferson still felt a free press, that was a watchdog over what the government and its officials were doing, was an important component to democracy.

Fast forward to today, 200 plus years later.

The current president, Donald Trump, our 45th president, is also warring with the press, calling most of what they say or write “Fake News.” He certainly has a right to have his own opinions of the press.

But unlike Jefferson, Trump not only hates the press, but also has gone so far as to call the press the “enemy of the people.”

And the problem is, people believe him, when actually the opposite is true.

This week hundreds of newspapers across the country are writing editorials about President Trump, “Fake News,” and Freedom of the Press.

My feeling is (and yes, I know I am a bit biased on this point) that most mainstream newspapers today are filled with dedicated journalists and follow journalism ethics more so than any other time in our history.

Yes, there is an official Journalism Code of Ethics. Most of us, even we small town community newspaper editors, try to follow it.

It is a voluntary thing, because to be truthful, there are no official rules in the newspaper world. The First Amendment to the Constitution says “Congress shall make no law respecting… the freedom of speech or of the press…”

Basically that means anyone can publish a newspaper. You don’t need a license or permit. And it means you can put anything in your newspaper you want to. Real news or fake news or just nothing but your own personal opinions.

Most mainstream newspapers these days strive hard to bring real news to their readers. And by mainstream I mean most of the big city daily and small town weekly newspapers in our country.

To be honest, President Trump is not wrong about there being “Fake News.” A lot of that is on cable television networks, where there is about five-percent news and then 95-percent commentary about the news.

And then there are those grocery store tabloids that have headlines such as “I am having Elvis’ baby” and the like. And there are all those bloggers out on the Internet, writing and commenting about anything and everything, whether it is true or not.

But most newspapers, most real newspapers, strive to report the news to the best of their ability, and to keep their opinions confined to the editorial and op-ed pages.

Now just to be fair, and before someone else points it out to me, Thomas Jefferson also is quoted as having said “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”

However, while Jefferson probably was not in love with what the newspapers were writing about him, he still knew the press was an important part of having a free democracy and that people had a right to say and print what they felt about him and the new country known as the United States of America.

And journalists today take their role of “watchdogs” of the government very seriously.

Even here at the Faribault County Register, we feel it is important to write stories about what your city council, school board and county board are doing, just to let you know what they are up to. And we try to do it with as little amount of bias as we can.

No fake news here. Only real news.

Well, except for that issue of the Register which comes out around April 1 each year.