The debate surrounding the adoption of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights clearly demonstrates the thinking of the Constitutional framers. Giants, such as Thomas Jefferson, perceived the people as the government. The people were the substance. The actual structure of government and the holders of office were merely the form. If the people were to govern wisely, they must be made aware of the continuing nature of law, economics, foreign affairs, domestic policies. They must also be accurately informed as to the activities, performance and probity of those acting as their representatives in government. The only practical way in which the people could. gain this knowledge was and is through the press. The more the press ignored the form of what it was reporting and concentrated on substance, the more wisely the people could govern. Hopefully, the press would report not just what others proclaimed to be the truth, but also the truth itself.
As Emerson so aptly phrased it: “Truth is the summit of being. Justice is the application of it to affairs.”
But it is the nature of government to be self-perpetuating, eventually arrogant and imbued with a sense of self-preservation. If the press were to fulfill its role in truthfully reporting to the people, it was inevitable that the press would occasionally pose a threat to government and those in similar positions of power. It is also natural to assume that government threatened by the press would seek to interdict the press. And it was precisely because of that eventuality that freedom of the press was emphasized by specificity in the Bill of Rights. For, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt remarked: “Truth is found, when men are free to pursue it.” Freedom of the press, our forefathers were convinced, was quintessential to government by the people.
So, in the pursuit of truth and in the performance of public service, we have produced our honor role of heroes and organizations. It is a list studded with familiar names and situations: Pulitzer, Steffens, Watergate, Tarbell, Mollenhoff, Nelson, Hersh, The Boston Globe, Newsday, The Chicago Tribune, Fred Friendly and Edward P. Murrow, Radio Station KOY-Phoenix, Horace Greeley, and the Sacramento Bee. Large and small, all have had their moments. When the founders of our government chose to emphasize freedom of the press, there was a non-articulated but clearly expressed faith that our press would be worthy of that freedom and would accept the enormous responsibility that it entailed. This responsibility was noted by the late, Zechariah Chafee, Jr., a prominent Boston lawyer and Harvard professor. Said Chafee:
“Freedom from something is not enough. It should also be freedom for something. Freedom is not safety, but opportunity. Freedom ought to be a means to enable the press to serve the proven functions of communications in a free society.”
Despite our honor role, have we merited this unique freedom? In balance, I would think not. There is hardly a college in this nation that has not produced a long succession of journalists. But less than a handful can boast a journalistic alumni with the courage and tenaciousness of an Elijah Parish Lovejoy.
In an age when more and more of our newspapers are being purchased by corporate conglomerates our value too often is judged not on editorial excellence, but in multiples of annual earnings. And, in pursuit of those earnings, we put increased emphasis or what the public wants to know instead of what it ought to know. On the corporate reward scale increased circulation figures, jumps in Nielsen ratings and surges, in ad linage, overshadow Pulitzer prizes and Peabody awards. It is no wonder in these circumstances, that S. I. Newhouse, Ruppert Murdoch and Roone Arledee play powerful roles in the industry.