As a public official, I have been on the receiving end of tough questions from the media. While I cannot say it is always fun, there can be no doubt that a strong and free press is necessary for the well-being of our citizens and for the stability and strength of our democracy.
Our nation’s founders understood that self-governance requires an independent press in order for citizens to engage in free debate, exchange ideas, make informed decisions, and hold government accountable.
But today, the freedom of the press as enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution is under an unprecedented array of attacks. There has been a rise in claims of “fake news” against legitimate news organizations, and also a rise in actual disinformation, created by provocateurs, partisans, foreign nations, and conspiracy theorists. Newsrooms are being depleted – especially at the local level. And perhaps most troubling of all, this president has called the press the “enemy of the American people.”
It would be a mistake to consider these attacks as only focused on a single reporter, news outlet, or even just one industry. No, these attacks on the freedom and vitality of the press are attacks on the very core of our democracy – our freedom, and our capacity for governance. Thus, they are attacks on each and every one of us.
Despite the significance of the threats facing the free press, it has been nearly ten years since the United States Senate conducted a serious review of the state of our media and considered how best to rebuild and sustain a free and vibrant press in the future.
In 2009, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on “The Future of Journalism.”
While there were certainly structural challenges facing news organizations back then, a tremendous amount has changed in the years since 2009. Newspaper circulation has declined by an average of 4.2 percent per year in the past nine years. The percentage of adults who use at least one social media website has increased from 38 percent to 68 percent, and the percentage of adults who primarily receive their news from social media is at a record 62 percent.
That is why, this week, I am hosting a panel discussion in the Senate on the challenges facing the media industry and the future of the free press.
In this age of division, where we have the ability to self-select our news and block out information that is inconsistent with our worldview, we must have a serious discussion about the role of journalism and the media in our democracy and in our society. A recent Gallup poll showed that 43 percent of Americans believe that the news media is doing a poor job supporting our democracy. Additionally, the United States’ standing in a recent survey of global press freedom has once again fallen, while animosity toward journalists around the globe has grown.
How can we ensure that our citizens have the tools and skills that they need to differentiate between real news and fake news? To differentiate between uncomfortable facts and statements that are not based in reality?
We need to have a national discussion about how to support journalism not just in Washington, D.C., but also in state capitals and towns across our country.
And in the face of various attacks, we must reaffirm our commitment to protecting the freedom of the press as part of the very bedrock on which the United States of America is built.
To continue as a free and strong country, we must do better. We must rediscover and recommit ourselves to the value of truth, so that Americans trust the organizations that are working to ensure that our people are free and the powerful are accountable.
I am going to continue to push for a robust dialogue in Congress to ensure that we have a viable free press, and that we end the ongoing attempts to undermine a fundamental plank of our democracy. Each public official has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution – including the freedom of the press – and it is essential that we honor and protect that ideal.
Hassan is a member of the Senate Commerce Committee.