“One of the things I’m going to do if I win, and I hope we do and we’re certainly leading. I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they (the press) write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.” — Republican front runner Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Fort Worth, Texas.
Political candidates are notorious for making promises during campaigns that can in no way be logically or realistically implemented or upheld. It’s a part of the process. But not in recent memory has any candidate or sitting politician ever made as brash of a statement as Trump did in Texas when he essentially threatened the free press of an entire nation …
… Except when earlier this year Rep. Mike Pitts did the same thing by introducing a bill that would require journalists to “register” with the state of South Carolina.
Pitts would later go on to claim he was merely trolling the media, that his original intention was to draw eyes to what he called a double standard when it came to constitutional amendments: namely, freedom of speech vs. the right to bear arms.
“It strikes me as ironic that the first question is constitutionality from a press that has no problem demonizing firearms,” Pitts said. “With this statement, I’m talking primarily about printed press and TV. The TV stations, the 6:00 news and the printed press has no qualms demonizing gun owners and gun ownership.”
But Pitts’ claim that it was all a joke and never intended to be taken seriously falls short. At the end of the day, let’s be clear; this was a real bill that was introduced. It was presented to the House on Jan. 19 and is currently sitting in the House Committee on Labor, Commerce and Industry.
What neither Trump nor Pitts seem to realize is that a free and unrestricted press is essential to keeping government and other large institutions honest. Newspapers and other media outlets have played an integral part in uncovering some of the largest scandals in our nation’s history.
Watergate was uncovered by The Washington Post and resulted in the resignation of a United States President.
The Catholic priest child molestation scandal was broke by The Boston Globe. The resulting fallout shook the entire Catholic church to its core.
In a paper that can be found on the National Bureau of Economic Research’s website, MIT’s James Snyder Jr. and David Strömberg of Stockholm University produced evidence asserting the effectiveness of the press’ role in acting as a “watch dog.”
Essentially, the paper claimed that journalists begin a cycle: they cover politics, which in turn educates voters, who then pressure the politicians, which results in policies more in line with their constituents’ wishes.
The Columbia Journalism review took note of the same paper: “House of Representatives members who aren’t scrutinized by hometown reporters, Snyder and Strömberg find, work less for their constituencies — they testify at fewer hearings, serve on fewer committees, and vote more often along party lines. As a result, federal policy tends to break unfavorably for their constituents, and federal spending is lower in their districts. When politicians do receive coverage, they offer testimony at almost 50 percent more congressional hearings and slice off 10 percent more pork for their districts — roughly $2,700 a person — than colleagues the press ignores,” the review writes.
No matter whether you agree with it, an integral part of democracy itself is the free press. If the ability to criticize the government, or its leaders is curbed, you lose a part of what it means to be truly free.
As the quote usually attributed to Voltaire goes: “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”