Journalists Keep The Flame of Democracy Alive

Journalists Keep The Flame of Democracy Alive

By Michael Beschloss
Presidential Historian

Since the United States was founded, our Nation has honored eminent historical figures with memorials that recognize their contributions to American democracy — Presidents, other political leaders, religious figures, military heroes, teachers, physicians and others. Just as important as these patriots, but too seldom noted, are the journalists who have risked and sometimes given their lives so that we and our heirs could have the chance of living in a free and open society.

Freedom of the press is, of course, protected by the Constitution, yet I would speculate that if a representative group of Americans were asked to list the people who deserve credit for helping to protect and expand our democracy, not many would mention journalists, and even fewer would know many of the names of those who have fallen in the line of duty.

A national memorial in a prominent and visible location would help to rectify that. It will not only give those journalists who have made that sacrifice the honor and prominence they deserve – just as, for instance, we honor all of those who gave their lives at war in Southeast Asia with the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall. It would also honor the central role that our Founders, our Constitution and other traditions envisioned for a free press as a guardian of American democracy.

In Europe, the press was sometimes described as the “Fourth Estate” – as it still is today – to convey the expectation that journalists would have the same important influence on society and politics as other “estates of the realm,” such as the clergy, nobility and citizens. In an interview, President John F. Kennedy once said that although it was “never pleasant to be reading things that are not agreeable news,” a free press was “invaluable” to government and, for the Presidency, “a check really on what is going on in the administration, and more things come to my attention that cause me concern or give me information. . . .There isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.” Kennedy could not know that he would soon have to give his life for his country, but he knew that this danger was always present, and he accepted it.

The same profile in courage applies to journalists in Americansociety. All journalists write or say things that may anger a substantial number of people. While campaigning for President in 1968, Governor George Wallace, from the stage, would list names of what he considered to be hostile reporters who were present, and some of the attendees worried that the angry mob would physically endanger those whom Wallace had singled out as enemies.

Those reporters who cover a war, a domestic disturbance, a street crime, or a political event that could turn unexpectedly violent know that at any time, they could be killed, yet the importance and nobility of their work impel them to make that sacrifice. Reporters who brave a hurricane, a wildfire, a rockslide or a pandemic in order to inform the public and show people how to protect themselves and their families and friends know that those natural furies could kill them.

Before the American Revolution, reporters who described and warned of British atrocities knew that their journalistic service could cost them their lives. So did those who reported on our Revolutionary War and described the evils of slavery or the plight of children forced to work in dangerous factories. Ernie Pyle, described as the most famous American war correspondent of World War II, was killed by Japanese machine guns as he reported on the closing chapters of that conflagration.

Muckrakers bravely defied corrupt city bosses to expose political corruption. Throughout American history, there is evidence of political leaders on both the local and national levels privately discussing the possible murder of journalists who questioned what they were doing. In the Civil War, Spanish-American War, two world wars and later, journalists resisted efforts by political and military leaders to conceal their mistakes and excesses by official censorship, and courageously showed Americans where their leaders were falling short. By exposing atrocities in such places as My Lai and Abu Ghraib, reporters reminded Americans that even our justly venerated military heroes will not always act with perfect wisdom.

Our Founders felt strongly about freedom of information. They wanted the American system to be the opposite of those closed societies of Europe, where the King or Queen made the decisions, disagreement was silenced and documents that showed their mistakes and shortcomings were destroyed or covered up. The American Founders believed that we could only achieve the society they dreamt of if there was open and available information that would show Americans both the mistakes and the accomplishments of earlier generations of Americans and those of their own time.

Without courageous journalists willing to risk their lives, if necessary, American leaders would not have access to the full information they need to lead, citizens would lack the facts they need to participate in the democratic process and historians like myself would lack the written and spoken record we require in order to describe for later Americans our successes, our errors and our tragedies in order to help future Americans to create a better society.

Throughout our history, brave journalists have been so essential to keeping the flame of American democracy alive that it is astounding to me that, before now, they have never been properly honored by a national memorial. As many of our Founders said, American democracy will always be fragile and will always require constant vigilance. I believe that an important part of that vigilance is to remind both Americans and others around the world how central a free press is in guarding our democracy. An inspiring national memorial in a location of prominence would do that. I hope that we rise to this challenge.

Michael Beschloss is an American historian who specializes in the United States presidency. He has authored nine best-selling books on the presidency, chronicling the terms of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, among others. Beschloss also serves as Presidential Historian for NBC News and is a contributor to The PBS Newshour. A master in his field, he is well-versed in the critical role that a free press and the First Amendment have played throughout United States’ history.