As journalist Daniel Ellsberg waited on the Supreme Court to issue a ruling in the case of the New York Times vs United States in 1971, he contemplated the very real possibility of long term incarceration.
“I expected to go to prison for life,” Ellsberg later said. But in the landmark ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment right of journalists to publish top-secret government documents, known as the Pentagon Papers. Their publication, deemed a national security disaster by then President Richard Nixon, helped bring an end to the Vietnam War. The expose on government deception over Vietnam changed the course of American history.
But governments are not the only ones who have lied to the American people. In 1906, Upton Sinclair went undercover to work at meat packing plants in Chicago, and he wrote a book on the experience called “The Jungle.” Of the companies who sent processed meat to millions of Americans Sinclair wrote, “The great corporation which employed you lied to you, and lied to the whole country — from top to bottom it was nothing but one gigantic lie.”
The unsanitary conditions exposed by Sinclair helped facilitate passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the enforcement of which saved millions of consumers, including children, from illness and death.
For journalists, the weapon of choice is the truth. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, for whom the law school at the University of Louisville is named, understood the practical value of the truth: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
I want to believe that the oft-cited public anger at the media is based on nostalgia. People are angry because they want the media they used to have, not because they don’t believe in free speech. The current distrust and disappointment, properly read, is itself a testament to the value of an independent and free press. But that doesn’t excuse the president of the United States calling the press “the enemy of the American people.”
Journalism is no stranger to blunders or outright fabrications. In 2014, “Rolling Stone” published an explosive story claiming fraternity members had committed rape as part of their initiation ritual. Pieces of the story began falling apart due to errors almost immediately, and by 2015 the publication retracted the entire story. They later received Columbia Journalism Review’s designation as the “Worst Journalism of 2014.”
Yet, a free press is a vital asset to our country. It is not now, nor could it ever be, our enemy.
In Galatians 4:16, Paul asked, “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” In some cases, the answer is yes. Because the truth can be unpleasant and is often unwelcome.
Abraham Lincoln understood the natural human inclination to shy away from unpleasant truths, in a story he told about an old farmer’s dilemma about a tree: “One morning, while at work in his garden, he saw a squirrel run up the tree into a hole and thought the tree might be hollow. He proceeded to examine it carefully and, much to his surprise, he found that the stately tree that he had valued for its beauty and grandeur to be the pride and protection of his little farm was hollow from top to bottom. Only a rim of sound wood remained, barely sufficient to support its weight.
“What was he to do? If he cut it down, it would do great damage with its great length and spreading branches. If he let it remain, his family was in constant danger. In a storm it might fall, or the wind might blow it down, and his house and children be crushed by it. What should he do? As he turned away, he said sadly: ‘I wish I had never seen that squirrel.’”
We need journalists because we need to know which trees around us are hollow, and because we are so busy working we don’t have time to inspect each one. America has too many drug dealers and not enough truth dealers.
Don’t be angry at those squirrels when they show you a hollow tree; be thankful they alerted you to danger before it fell on your house. Even if their chattering sometimes gets on your nerves.
Jason Belcher of Harold is an entrepreneur and former Air Force officer.