Role of the press is vital as ever

When John Hooper went to the stake in 1555 because he insisted on speaking his mind about “Bloody Mary” Tudor, he didn’t know his martyrdom would spark a progression of officially heretical men and women who openly defied Queen and Parliament. They were martyred because of a law requiring that “nothing should be taught or maintained contrary to the King’s instructions.”

It was during this time of religious persecution that a “Sacke full of Newes” first appeared to “speak truth to power” about the executions. Hooper and his fellow martyrs were English products of the Reformation, but the editors gathered here this week for the American Society of Newspaper Editors national meeting are heirs to the brave tradition of publishing defiance and independence first stirred by the bloody executions 453 years ago.

Sadly, in some respects, things haven’t changed that much in the years since. At least 95 journalists died while doing their jobs around the worldlast year. Even so, here in America, government officials know they can’t control what is published on the news or opinion pages of the great daily newspapers or anywhere in the news media, old or new. The Founders well understood the terrible consequences that attend government control of the press, as was still the case in Britain during the American Revolution in the 18th century.

As Patrick Henry said in 1787, “the liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” That is why we have a Bill of Rights, the first article of which guarantees every person the rights of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

As Freedom Forum scholar Ronald K. L. Collins noted, the First Amendment is more revered today than ever before in both law and practice, but, human nature being unchanged, the old urges to censor and suppress “bad news” often reassert themselves.

Editors and reporters often must still overcome official obstacles to get the facts about stories that directly affect the daily lives of millions of people.

But most of the time, despite their many foibles and flaws, the men and women in the nation’s newsrooms do overcome the obstacles and get the real stories behind the spin on everything from whether the local police or schools are doing their jobs effectively or how a proposed new development will affect commuting time, to whether a congressmember is taking bribes for his votes or how a federal tax hike will hurt the family budget.

Their determination and independence is something to be very thankful for every day.

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