The Real Threat to Free Press

Shortly before my book went to press, the polling group Ipsos came out with a survey tracking Americans’ feelings about press freedom.  It showed that 26 percent of the respondents believed that the president should have the power to shut down press organizations that “engage in bad behavior.” No matter how you feel about the performance of the American press today, it should be chilling to realize that one in four citizens want to give the president the power to put news organizations out of business.

Over the last four years, people have regularly asked me whether we are likely to see a change in the laws that protect the press. Those questions come up whenever the President says we should change libel laws so that powerful figures can sue the press more easily. I got the same sort of questions when the President tried to ban two reporters from White House briefings. And the same concerns are on people’s minds every time we see the government going after leakers who want to tell the world what is really going inside the walls of government.

Those things should not be overlooked, but I don’t believe the real threat to American press freedom today is the possibility of new legal restrictions. The real threat is what I call in my book “the hearts and mind problem.”

The attacks on the press are a concerted effort to undermine the standing and status of a free press in American democracy.  The law can do only so much.  It can give the press the freedom to matter but it can’t make the press matter.  How much freedom the press has in a society counts for very little if the press is not believed.  A distrusted press is little different from a shackled press: It lacks the authority to mobilize public opinion against wrongdoing, corruption, and misguided policy.  It has no voice to hold governments accountable.  It gets ignored.  And I am pretty sure that at some point a disregard for the press will translate into a disregard for the law of press freedom.

That’s a risk we should not be willing to take as a country.

-David McCraw, Deputy General Counsel, The New York Times

David McCraw is the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award honoree for the law category for his book, “Truth in Our Times: Inside the Fight for Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts.”