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Guest commentary

Defending news is everyone’s job

President, Bill of Rights Institute

The 2023 raid of the Marion County Record triggered justifiable condemnation from journalists and concerned citizens worldwide.

Newspaper staff members were bullied and had their property seized by authorities who subsequently were accused of abusing their power and intimidating local press.

As president and chief executive officer of the Bill of Rights Institute, a nonprofit that teaches students about our constitutional rights and protections, I found both the images and facts from the raid deeply troubling.

Attacks on press freedom are a direct affront to the principles upon which America was founded, and we must remain vigilant against these attacks as our nation heads deeper into 2024 and beyond.

America’s founders understood that a free press was essential to holding the government and the powerful to account, which is why press freedoms were included in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “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.”

But the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the protections they contain, become what James Madison called “parchment barriers” if we do not sufficiently internalize, believe, and defend those rights.

Journalists, particularly those at community papers like the Marion County Record, are on the front lines every day executing and defending those rights. These journalists need our support as they face increasingly difficult headwinds.

It is no secret that newspapers in many markets across the nation have faced significant struggles over the last 30 years. According to Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative, one-third of the American newspapers that existed in 2005 will be gone by 2025. Many American communities already have lost their local papers.

I believe the loss of local news outlets is unhealthy for our democracy and the perception of declining public support leaves existing outlets and their journalists vulnerable.

Journalists in America are facing increased harassment, particularly since the advent of social media. A 2022 report from the Pew Research Center found that 42% of journalists had faced threats or harassment over the past 12 months, with threats of physical harm being most common.

As we head into a highly contentious election cycle, we must remain vigilant against the harassment and intimidation of journalists. Even when we do not agree with journalists, we must never waver in our full-throated support for their work and their First Amendment protections.

My first job as a child was delivering the Star Tribune newspaper in Minnesota. I saw firsthand how much local news meant to the people in my community, and I was proud to help bring it to them.

Our community papers and their employees still carry out their duties with that same sense of pride. They must never be alone in their efforts to preserve a free, independent press.

The stakes are simply too high — not just for journalists, but for all Americans.

David J. Bobb, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Bill of Rights Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that teaches civics and history — including the importance of a free press.

Last modified March 28, 2024

 

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