Founders on “the Press”

The highest duty of the press – is to inform the public about its governors – has defined in the earliest days of the United States by James Madison. In a republic, he said, the people are the ultimate sovereigns; they depend for their information on the press, which must therefore be free to “canvass the merits and measures of public men.”

As much [press] as he received, one wouldn’t think this, perhaps a bit to much, Mr. Madison was something of a romantic about the press. He wrote in 1799: “To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”

The American press has to perform its Madisonian function today in relation to a federal government that Madison could scarcely have imagined. The size of the federal government in his day was considered tiny when compared to what happened during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s; as New Deal programs went into effect, new governmental agencies were born and the government in Washington began to assume responsibilities that had formerly exercised by the States or even by no government at all.

Now the federal government is huge and powerful. Many of its officials often operate in secret, and they are protected by armies of spokespersons. Interestingly a government that George Washington warned of – to avoid foreign entanglements is entangled politically and militarily around the world.

Being able to cope with a government of that character requires press institutions with large resources. It is argued that the rag-tag press of the eighteenth century could not have coped with the likes of the Pentagon, or White House as they are now and even their contemporary equivalents, Bloggers wouldn’t be able to cope either.

However, this is certainly not to imply that good and responsible bloggers may someday carry that weight; nonetheless, unless bloggers reach the institutional size – which we’re sure of that every blogger strives to become – it is duly noted that it took The Washington Post to bring us into the investigation of Watergate; moreover, it was the New York Times who published the Pentagon Papers.

In his opinion in the Pentagon Papers case, Justice Stewart said the role of the press was especially important in matters of national security. In that area, he said, the usual legislative and judicial checks and balances on executive power scarcely operate; Congress and the courts tend to defer to the President. So he wrote, “The only effective restraint upon executive policy and power…may lie in an enlightened citizenry – in an informed and critical public opinion. For without an informed and free press there cannot be an enlightened people.”

By the standards mentioned by James Madison, as well documented by The Washington Post and The New York Times, there should be added an additional dictum – courageousness.

However, by that standard the American press failed sadly when it met its next great test after Vietnam: the government’s policy and power after the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, and the American people.

Within a few months of those attacks President George W. Bush claimed the power to detain any American citizen as an enemy combatant and to hold him/her indefinitely, without trial or access to counsel. Furthermore, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2012 was signed into United States law on December 31, 2011 by President Barack Obama.

The Act authorizes $662 billion in funding, among other things “for the defense of the United States and its interests abroad.” In a signing statement, President Obama described the Act as addressing national security programs, Department of Defense health care costs, counter-terrorism within the U.S. and abroad and military modernization. The Act also imposes new economic sanctions against Iran (section 1045), commissions reviews of the military capabilities of countries such as Iran, China, and Russia, and refocuses the strategic goals of NATO towards energy security.

The NDAA has been in use for each of the last 49 years inasmuch as it authorizes money for the Department of Defense. However, how many of us knew it has been a law for the last 49 years? Be well-assured that the last four years have been under the command of Barack Obama who feels that other provision within that law allows him to act without the normal constitutional processes.

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