As an Indian American, I have had the privilege of living in the two largest democracies in the world. One of those democracies — the United States — came into being in part because of the free press. The other — India — was born essentially without a free press.
I came to the United States at the age of 15 to study computer science at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I was awestruck by many things upon my arrival.
One of the most striking was the potency and power of the free press here. Shortly after my arrival, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward won the Pulitzer Prize for their Washington Post exposé on the Richard M. Nixon Watergate scandal. Investigative reporting of that type would have been impossible in my homeland of India.
Over the years, as I became a successful business person, philanthropist and concerned citizen, I have continued to marvel at the substantial accomplishments and contributions of the free press. It helps to ensure that this great democracy works for the many rather than the privileged few, and that ultimately those in positions of power are held accountable for their actions.
As examples of what the free press can do and its impact, consider these Pulitzer Prize winners for 2015. Eric Lipton of The New York Times captured the prize for “reporting that showed how the influence of lobbyists can sway congressional leaders and attorneys general, slanting justice toward the wealthy and connected.” The staff of The Wall Street Journal took home the prize as a result of “‘Medicare Unmasked’, a pioneering project that gave Americans unprecedented access to previously confidential data on the motivation and practices of their health care providers.”
Those winners and many others have been acknowledged for speaking truth to power.
In Washington, D.C., on Pennsylvania Avenue just up the street from the White House, is a wonderful museum called the Newseum. The Newseum is dedicated to free expression and the five freedoms of the first amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.
In the Newseum is the following etched statement: “The Free Press is a cornerstone of Democracy. People have the need to know. Journalists have the right to tell. Finding the facts can be difficult. Reporting the story can be dangerous. Freedom includes the right to be outrageous. Responsibility includes the right to be fair. News is history in the making. Journalists provide the first draft of history. A Free Press, at its very best, reveals the Truth.”
Today, members of the free press, purveyors of the truth, are being demeaned almost continuously for disseminating “fake news.” The irony is that their accusers are the actual source of most fake news.
Freedom House, an organization that rates countries in terms of their freedom of the press, noted last year that in the United States: “Political polarization in the media worsened during the presidential campaign, due in part to the emergence of ‘alt right’ news sites that disseminated highly nationalistic or nativist messages, conspiracy theories, and at times false or propagandistic coverage.”
Those promulgators of fake news are on the attack because they want to delegitimize the free press so that they can construct an alternate reality that keeps or puts them in power. Sadly, they have a fairly large constituency that listens only to them and their falsehoods.
This is dangerous because a sustainable democracy hinges on having informed citizens. In 2009, the Knight Commission issued a report titled “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” It detailed three ambitious objectives:
- Maximize the availability of relevant and credible information to all Americans and their communities.
- Strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information.
- Promote individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.
It proposed 15 specific recommendations for accomplishing those objectives. Given the current conditions, it is time to resurrect those recommendations and use them as a framework for renewing American democracy.
There is a downward trajectory that must be reversed. The next few years will be pivotal.
The Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as its word of the year for 2016. If the United States becomes post-truth, it will also become post-democracy. If the Fourth Estate becomes a fifth wheel, it will stop forward momentum and drive American democracy into a ditch.
The free press is critical to the future of this country and its citizens. That’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Frank Islam is CEO of FI Investment Group and was previously head of QSS Group Inc., an information technology company.
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