A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press

A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Esper: Military personnel could help treat coronavirus patients 'if push comes to shove' Schumer calls for military official to act as medical equipment czar MORE is by no means the nation’s first chief executive to take umbrage at the coverage he receives from the press. In fact, presidents from George Washington to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPoll: More Republican voters think party is more united than Democratic voters Can you kill a virus with a gun? Biden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much MORE have complained, sometimes bitterly, about journalists’ critical reporting.

But no president has gone so far as to publicly declare the press, as Trump has, “the enemy of the American people.” “Fake news” — Trump’s derisive term for any reporting he disagrees with — has become a reflection of our inability to even agree on the very facts that help shape our opinions.

In contrast, many presidents have expressed appreciation for the vital role the press plays as a cornerstone of democracy — even when they felt they had been unfairly attacked. So, on Presidents Day, at a time when many tend to see the news through a prism of Republican red or Democratic blue, it seems fitting to note this long bipartisan history.

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The Founding Fathers lived in an era when all the news media was sharply partisan (the notion of an impartial, nonpartisan news media originated only in the early 20th century). In May 1796, in an early draft of his farewell address, Washington wrote that "some of the Gazettes of the United States have teemed with all the Invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent, to misrepresent my politics and affections; to wound my reputation and feelings; and to weaken, if not entirely destroy the confidence you had been pleased to repose in me.” He sent the draft to Alexander Hamilton, who had been his wartime secretary and later his secretary of the Treasury. Tasked with serving as the first president’s editor one last time, Hamilton deleted the passage — and Washington did not restore it for the final version, published in 1796.

Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, became so frustrated with the press that he wrote this in 1807, during his second term: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” Yet in 1823, in a letter to his longtime friend the Marquis de Lafayette that addressed a wide range of subjects, including France’s role in working to defeat a liberal government in Spain and restore the monarchy, Jefferson wrote, “The only security of all is in a free press.” (It was in 1787, while serving as minister to France, that he penned his oft-quoted line: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.") 

More contemporary presidents have also recognized that a free press is essential to ensuring an informed public. Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that freedom of the press was the linchpin assuring other essential American freedoms. In 1940, on the occasion of the first National Newspaper Week, he wrote: "Freedom of conscience, of education, of speech, of assembly are among the very fundamentals of democracy and all of them would be nullified should freedom of the press ever be successfully challenged.” 

Ronald Reagan made this point when signing a proclamation declaring Freedom of the Press Day in 1985: "This flow of information helps make possible an informed electorate and so contributes to our national system of self-government." 

On Feb. 27, 2017 — 10 days after Trump’s “enemy of the people” tweet — George W. Bush offered his thoughts during an interview on NBC’s “Today” show. “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy — that we need the media to hold people like me to account,” he said. “I mean, power can be very addictive, and it can be corrosive, and it's important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power."

So, on this Presidents Day, let’s recall those chief executives who, despite their own fraught relationships with the news media, have recognized that a free press is a pillar of democracy. As the 2020 presidential campaign unfolds, let’s be mindful of their words as we look to the press to provide the information that we need to help us decide who will lead our country.

Alan C. Miller is the founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project, a national nonpartisan education nonprofit. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times.