Today more than 300 news organizations across the country write with diverse voices but one message: A free press is essential to a healthy democracy. Recent attacks on the media by President Donald Trump and those who emulate his position undermine that goal. All who value the free exchange of information should think long and hard about what America, Washington and Spokane might look like without watchdog journalists.
The president has called reporters “the enemy of the people.” He slams unflattering coverage as “fake news.” And he barred a CNN reporter from a White House event because she had the audacity to ask some tough questions.
Such efforts to diminish trust in the media do not befit a democratically elected leader. They are not the wise words of a president but the sort of rhetoric the world heard from 20th century despots. And yet, on the heels of these comments, an alarming number of Americans now believe that the press really is the enemy.
Presidents, both liberal and conservative, have at times disliked the press. When you’re the most powerful person in the country – and in recent decades, the world – you are under constant scrutiny. It’s an uncomfortable position, and every small infraction is magnified. Nevertheless, in their more reflective moments, most presidents conceded that a free press is necessary to a free state.
Democracy cannot function without an independent, trusted media. The nation’s founders knew this. That’s why a free press is included in the First Amendment. Americans need a reliable source of information to judge their elected officials and become informed voters. If the only news comes from press releases rife with partisan spin, it is just propaganda.
Imagine a world without a free press, or a Washington without a Spokesman-Review. Important stories would be lost, and public discourse would wane. Just this year, several impactful stories have held government accountable, often much to the chagrin of government officials.
- In February, Olympia reporter Jim Camden covered an attempt by state lawmakers to create a loophole in Washington’s Public Records Act to hide their activities from public scrutiny. Only after intense pressure from advocates of transparency and news organizations – including this editorial page – did Gov. Jay Inslee veto the bill. Lawmakers backed off. Had it not been for a free press, secrecy would have ruled in the Capitol.
- In March, reporter Amy Edelen covered a development project in Spokane’s Ponderosa neighborhood that didn’t align with city code and was in a floodplain. The Planning Commission and a hearings officer sided with the developer, but ongoing news coverage heightened public attention. A large public turnout convinced council to reject the project. Without coverage like Edelen’s, that development and others like it could slip by without public scrutiny.
- In July and August, reporter Kip Hill covered the debate about an advisory vote for a new stadium. We weighed in with an editorial on that one, too, and council wound up reversing itself. Had the reporting not been there, the council would have quietly squelched the vote.
- And there were others, from Ferry County reversing course on a plan to require voters to pay for postage in primary ballots after Camden reported on it, to changes at the Spokane County Jail after several suicides were brought to the public’s attention by reporter Chad Sokol.
Government officials and those who seek to curry their favor benefit from keeping the public in the dark. After a decision has been made, it’s usually too late for people to object. Good reporting provides facts and insights the inform civic conversations so that the people have a chance to be heard.
The media doesn’t always get it right. Sometimes, we make mistakes. We’re human. But when we do err, we correct it. We are honest with readers and trust that transparency builds credibility.
To buy into the “fake news” and “enemy of the people” rhetoric of the president is to reject all of that. As an independent press, we shed light on elected leaders to hold them accountable, and in doing so, empower readers to do likewise.