The Press and the Republic Rise and Fall Together

The Press and the Republic Rise and Fall Together

By Tom Rosenstiel
Eleanor Merrill Visiting Professor on the Future of Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

As the young country began to debate the proposed Constitution, it quickly became clear that the states would not ratify the document unless it added a missing element–a citizens’ Bill of Rights.

As James Madison set to work on the addition, he drew on the work of state constitutions, particularly those of Virginia and Massachusetts. And the first of the rights he amended to the Constitution was the inviolable guarantee that a free press, alongside freedom of speech and of religion, could not be constrained by government.

In the language of the time, a free press was considered an essential “bulwark” of the new country’s fragile liberty.

Journalism was not yet a profession. The Revolutionary press lacked common ethics, standard methods of reporting or verification. Most papers were mouthpieces of the emerging political factions in the country. Yet even then (newspapers had only begun to appear the previous century), the printers who published these papers espoused aspirations to accuracy and to serve as a watchdog over the powerful.

One of the defining moments in journalism’s history had already occurred, even before the Revolution. In England, libel laws held that the more truthful a criticism of the government, the greater the harm. When the royal governor of New York sued a printer named John Peter Zenger, the colonial court ruled something new: journalists could not be held to have committed libel if what they printed was true.

The centrality of a free press to the American experiment was probably most succinctly phrased by a publisher who, like Zenger, was an immigrant, Joseph Pulitzer: “Our Republic and its press,” he wrote, “will rise or fall together.”

Today journalism in America sits at a crossroads. As advertising dollars have shifted from the producers of news to the platforms that distribute it, particularly Google and Facebook, the economics of news have been profoundly disrupted. The advent of new technologies has splintered audiences and buffeted journalistic norms.

But journalism has adapted to cultural and technological shifts before. The telegraph led to the advent of wire services and the beginning of journalistic independence. As the cost of paper dropped in the 19th century, and a popular press emerged, papers finally freed themselves of party control. The addition of photographs in newspapers created sudden concerns around privacy. Radio allowed people to hear the news for themselves, leading newspapers to become more interpretive. Television allowed people to see the news for themselves, leading most American cities to have only one newspaper–and in almost every case the best newspaper in the city survived.

With each turn, journalism quality ebbed and flowed. The tabloid era of the 1920s gave way to a more serious press of the Depression and World War II. The rise of the nightly network newscasts and the cultural shifts of the 1960s gave rise to a more skeptical press and the introduction of the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The 1990s saw a new era of sensationalism in the “OJ-ification” of news. September 11 and the war on terrorism largely ended that phase.

Journalism faces new crises now. The profession is contending with “filter bubbles,” audience biases, the attention marketplace, propaganda websites posing as news, and the search for a new economic model.

The same technologies that have created those crises, however, have put new innovative tools in the hands of a new more diverse generation of innovators and citizen sentinels armed with video cameras.

Western civilization has produced one idea that surpasses all others: the prospect that people can govern themselves. As that idea took root, one institution emerged organically so that citizens could have the information to make self- governance possible: a free press.

That is why it has been called the Fourth Estate. An independent press is the essential addition to the three branches of government. At a time when American democracy feels threatened once again, the centrality of that remains unchanged.

The Fallen Journalists Memorial recognizes those who have paid the ultimate price to aspiration, who died trying to be the eyes and ears of their fellow citizens. They ran to the sound of the guns, into the fire, and faced down the violently corrupt so that others would know.

That notion–a press that is free so people will know the truth–is not just a bulwark of liberty. It is also a promise of “preeminent and lasting historical significance.”

Tom Rosenstiel is one of the world’s most recognized thought leaders on journalism, media, technology, and the intersection of media and politics. He is currently the Eleanor Merrill Visiting Professor on the Future of Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill School of Journalism and a senior non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is also a member of the Board of Advisors at the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation. Previously, as the Executive Director of the American Press Institute, he helped news organizations adapt to unprecedented technological, economic, and political disruption. He founded, and for 16 years was the director of, the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., and co-founder and vice chair of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. He is the co-author, with Bill Kovach, of The Elements of Journalism, now in its fourth edition, which has become the authoritative textbook for most journalism schools in the U.S. and elsewhere.