The job of the free press is to find out stuff the public needs to know, make sure it’s accurate, and then share that information with the people.
A lot of times the mission means upsetting the powerful and those who support them. These days, it means enduring taunts of “fake news” and people who believe reporters deliberately publish fiction designed to destroy, in this case, President Donald Trump and his administration.
To some, the “media” is even a faceless, soulless agent of the deep state out to ruin the country, but it is none of those things. It is the firewall that protects democracy from the scoundrels and con artists.
So, that’s why Florida Politics has joined with newspapers, online outlets, and other media around the country to denounce what The Boston Globe has called a ‘‘dirty war against the free press.’’
Trump started that war while still a candidate for the most powerful office in the world. As president, he has declared the press is the enemy of the American people. That’s not exactly upholding the oath of office he took, the one where he promised to “preserve, protect and defend” the U.S. Constitution.
The First Amendment to the Constitution clearly states “Congress shall make no law … “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”
The Founding Fathers understood that absolute power corrupts and that an unfettered press is a vital check on lawmakers who believe rules don’t apply to them.
But it’s not just about keeping Washington honest.
This past week, the Tampa Bay Times illustrated what the free press means to our local community.
The Times, with painstaking research and reporting, uncovered that top officials at the Hillsborough County School District knew about a widespread problem of lead in the drinking water at multiple schools for over a year, but didn’t share that information with the public.
They came clean only after reporters at the Times began nosing around and asking tough questions. Without the effort and skill of the local newspaper, no one might have ever known what was going on.
The recent attack at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md. resulting in six deaths illustrates that this can be a dangerous mission. The International Federation of Journalists reported that 62 journalists have been killed around the world thus far in 2018.
Several of those deaths occurred while reporters were trying to cover bloody conflicts in war-torn areas. At the Tampa Tribune where I worked for more than 40 years, we learned the cost that can come with reporting dangerous but important stories.
An ambitious young reporter named Todd C. Smith used vacation time in 1989 to travel to Peru so he could report on drug trafficking. He never got to finish the story. He was kidnapped by Shining Path guerrillas, tortured, and murdered.
Do journalists get it wrong sometimes?
And for reputable publications, there are consequences for that — unlike some of the conspiracy sites out there masquerading as real news. Reputable sites admit their mistakes and correct them. They hold reporters to high standards of honesty and accuracy.
An editor at the Tampa Tribune once spoke of the “multiple layers of inspection” a story had to undergo before it reached your doorstep the next morning. Real editors challenge reporters to prove that what they submitted is the truth.
That’s really what it’s about.
That can be lost when many in the public get their news from Russian bots and Facebook memes. All the press can do to combat that is to stay in the game, keep uncovering facts and sharing it with its audience, follow the stories where they lead, and never allow itself to be intimidated.
Trump is not the first president hostile to the press and he won’t be the last. But the work reporters do and the valuable part they play in our democracy won’t change.
It can’t change.
The Founding Fathers understood that, and a free press is more important now than ever.