The Founders knew the value of a free press in a democratic republic

In addition to being the revolutionaries who demanded independence from Great Britain and the visionaries who drafted the Constitution, many of America’s Founding Fathers were journalists. Some owned and published newspapers, others wrote for them, but all understood the value of a free press to a fledgling democratic republic.

That’s worth a bit of reflection over the Independence Day holiday. While the First Amendment protects the rights of journalists from government interference, hostility to the media — including threats, intimidation and acts of violence — runs counter to the nation’s founding principles and if unchecked will make for a less-informed public and government run amok.


Five years ago this week, a man walked into the newsroom of The Capital in Annapolis, Maryland, and opened fire, killing five members of the newspaper staff and injuring two others. It remains the deadliest act of violence against American journalists.

The tragedy resonated locally. The Capital was owned by Tribune Publishing, which operated the Daily Press since 1986 and had purchased The Virginian-Pilot a month before the shooting. Several journalists at the papers had previously worked at The Capital and knew the victims well.

While the gunman acted alone and was responsible for his actions, the shooting came amid growing hostility toward the press, including from political leaders who opportunistically used the press as a foil. One cannot forget attendees at campaign rallies for Donald Trump threatening reporters, egged on by the candidate.

That continued during his time in the White House and has not ebbed with his departure. His acolytes are all too eager to attack the media, whether warranted or not, and embrace conspiracy theories and falsehoods rather than detailed, factual and straightforward reporting.

That’s not to say the media should be spared criticism or that journalists don’t make mistakes. We shouldn’t, and we do. But by and large, the work being done by American reporters is honest in intention and fair in approach. When mistakes are made, they are promptly and prominently corrected.

That’s especially true at the local level, far away from the chattering heads on national cable news every night. Community newspapers and smaller-scale media organizations work tirelessly to produce valuable, relevant and local journalism that informs the public, holds government to account and holds a mirror to the areas they serve.

What happens in the absence of these news outlets? “In communities without a credible source of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout,” Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications grimly writes in its 2022 “The State of Local News” report.

Yet, in spite of those consequences, the attacks on the press continue: laws that make it harder to obtain public records or attend public meetings, officials who feel entitled to conceal information from reporters and the public, law enforcement and courts which arrest and try journalists, here in America, for doing their jobs.

The founders, journalists themselves, knew that communities with newspapers thrived and prospered from being more informed. They recognized the value of journalism and the power of media to persuade the public. The Federalist Papers, arguing for ratification of the Constitution, are but one example and arguably the most important editorials published in American newspapers.

What would they think of politicians who baselessly attack the press in a cynical attempt to win a few more votes? What would they think of Americans who threaten and belittle journalists? Would they recognize a nation where the critical link between the public and its elected officials continues to weaken and where, in some communities, there is no coverage of civic affairs?

It’s no stretch to believe they would be deeply concerned, if not outraged. And we can hope they would implore their peers in elected office and their fellow citizens to cease dangerous behavior that imperils journalists serving a critical role in our democracy.