Stand up for freedom of press

I hope the Centre Daily Times will take an editorial stance with respect to the banning of particular news organizations from the White House briefing on Feb. 24. The banning of these organizations is an attempt to control what they and all other organizations will report. Freedom of the press is a critically important aspect of a free and democratic society.

Why would the White House want to constrain this freedom? Perhaps it does not trust the public to have the judgment required to read and think for themselves? Such paternalism is fundamentally at odds with the value of individual liberty of thought and speech. Constraining or manipulating the press is not just an assault on the press, but on the liberty of all of us. To claim that the press is not truthful is not a reason to limit its freedom. But the claim that the press is not truthful is inexcusable when made by an accuser who has himself shown little regard for the most objectively verifiable truth.

The most uncontroversial example is in the president’s recent press conference, when he wrongly claimed statistics concerning his recent election, and when challenged, tried to excuse himself by saying that was what he had been told. From press coverage of the event we have uncontestable video evidence. First of all, making the untruthful claims is a problem in itself. We must assume that he knew what the facts were because they were both important to him and publicly available. Untruthful claims about objectively verifiable facts, made by the most powerful person in the country, send a message that the truth does not matter. It is hard to imagine a more serious threat to our representative democracy.

His claim that he was somehow unaware of the lie is a lie about a lie. To have him excuse himself by saying that that was what he was told reveals that he is readily capable of casually and publicly deflecting his moral responsibility for telling the truth. To ask us to believe this slippery evasion is to insult us collectively. If we are not insulted by it, we are complicit in the corruption of the republic. He apparently believes that the public does not care whether he speaks the truth. If he is right, it reflects on the moral core of us individually and collectively, as citizens.

If as a public we excuse an evident and objectively verifiable lie, a lie the speaker knows to be a lie, we have lost any ability to hold him accountable to the truth in situations where the truth is less immediately verifiable. We are all still free to determine whether we will excuse lies and even lies about lies. However, without a free press we will not have the freedom to call out even the most obvious lies because they will not be available to us. We must rely on a free press and our judgment about what it reports. Our elected officials must at the very least be accountable to the truth by showing it the respect of paying lip service to its value. By lying about lying, our current president has not even done that. If we do not call lies out for what they are when the truth is objectively verifiable, we have lost our bearings as a society. Without these bearings we have no reason to trust the president when he makes a future decision based on what he claims to be facts.

Without collective public confidence in government decisions, decisions claimed to be based on facts, the government is, in its practice, illegitimate. Not illegitimate concerning the election result, but more fundamentally illegitimate with respect to the values upon which the republic is established. In the absence of confidence about the facts decisions are based on, government decisions either will be, or appear to us to be, arbitrary. The separation from England more than 200 years ago was in response to the exercise of arbitrary English power. And the arbitrary exercise of power is precisely what the framers of the Constitution attempted to avoid in the construction of the new republic.

I want to be clear: My concerns in this essay are not in any way about partisan differences in political philosophy. These policy and partisan differences are important, yes, but without confidence in the truthfulness of government officials, they are but window dressing. As a nation we cannot reasonably debate policy without access to factual information. This fundamental aspect of legitimacy is what our current president risks by lying, and lying about lying, apparently so casually. Is he to be held accountable for this stance toward the truth? Would we excuse it in our children?

Don Thompson is a resident of Harris Township.