Unfair Questions or Democracy At Work ?

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” -- The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Thirty-four percent of Americans believe the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, according to a survey by the Newseum Institute, a non-partisan educational group on First Amendment rights.

The same survey found that 47 percent of Americans identified freedom of speech as their most important freedom , followed distantly by freedom of religion (10 percent), freedom of choice (7 percent) and the right to vote and the right to bear arms (5 percent each). Freedom of the press, which also is safeguarded as part of the First Amendment, was valued as the most important freedom by only 1 percent of survey participants.

As we find ourselves embroiled in another contentious U.S. presidential election, it is a good time to evaluate the critical importance of the freedom of the press in a democratic republic.

In an instantly connected world in which a news site (Politico) can blast a presidential candidate (Dr. Ben Carson) for lying about receiving a West Point scholarship one day and then retract the article the next day, it is easy to dismiss the press as something that gets in the way of the truth.

However, it is examples such as this one that actually emphasize the need for a free press. The fact that the press – or the media, a better term for the 21st century press – sometimes gets it wrong does not take away from the importance of questioning the details in the first place. If reporters are not there checking the facts and digging into the details of our candidates’ lives, then who will?

Freedom of the press guarantees that Americans can read a variety of facts and opinions so that they can make up their own minds on who want to lead their country, their states and their communities.

Clearly, it is not an easy process. For example, at the Oct. 28, 2015 Republican debate, several of the candidates complained of harsh questioning by CNBC moderators Becky Quick, John Harwood and Carl Quintanilla. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio bristled when Quick asked him about his personal financial background and when Quintanilla asked him about his poor Senate voting record.

While candidates like to dodge these sorts of personal questions and stick to policy questions and stump speeches, they are precisely the kinds of questions the media should be asking. Character matters in an election, and the ability to answer tough questions is a necessary part of a modern campaign.

It was tough questioning that got President Bill Clinton to admit to the Monica Lewinsky affair. It was tough questioning that forced President George W. Bush to admit Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. It was tough questioning that got Hilary Clinton to admit she had a private email account as Secretary of State.

And perhaps the strongest example is the tough reporting and tough questions that ultimately resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Now is the time for Americans to take a closer look at the importance of a working free press, as a key part of their First Amendment rights. The freedom of the press and the freedom of free speech are so closely aligned that even the courts have long struggled to differentiate between the two.

Having the freedom to say and to write what you like without worry of government censure is never more important than in a presidential election year. The media -- for good and for bad, and there are plenty of both -- gets people talking. Those conversations around the water cooler, around the dinner table and around social media get people thinking and questioning.

It is this questioning and answering (or dodging, whatever the case may be) process that allows Americans to have a government that is accountable to the people.

We must remember that accountability is a two-way street. It is incumbent upon the media not to abuse the privileges of freedom. But it is equally important that the media does not back off from asking the really tough questions which provide the facts and information needed to make informed decisions. Anything less than this standard is a barrier to an informed citizenry and a blight on democracy.

So, the next time you hear a reporter asking the tough questions of a candidate or any other official, pay attention. Those tough questions represent freedom at work.

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