Freedom of press does not mean taking orders

by | Sep 17, 2023 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Years ago, during a sports writing assignment, I interviewed Detroit Tigers pitcher Willie Hernandez. I taped our conversation. I wrote exactly what he said. After he read the column, and his quotes, he found me in the locker room and dumped a bucket of ice water over my head.

Apparently, Willie thought the press was there solely to make him look good. When his own words did the opposite, he took it out on me.

There seems to be similar confusion going on these days about the role of the media — not with athletes, but with our government.

Last week, in a story that should have been on the front page everywhere, a federal appeals court ruled that the Biden administration colluded with tech platforms to suppress free speech.

Yes. A federal appeals court. One step from the Supreme Court. In a ruling that largely confirmed a lower court’s decision, the 5th Circuit found the government guilty of coercing tech platforms to remove posts, flag users and de-platform individuals, all because they disagreed with or were critical of certain government actions or policies, particularly on COVID-19 or election issues.

This is the stuff of dictatorships, not America. Shutting people down? Silencing them for disagreeing? Threatening them if they don’t comply? What’s next? Buckets of ice water as punishment?

The appeals court found that the Biden administration had “coerced the platforms … by way of intimidating messages and threats of adverse consequences.” As a result, it said, around 50% of what the government objected to was removed.

That’s a pretty high batting average. And we should be outraged. You may be reading this in a newspaper, but chances are your kids get their news via Facebook, Twitter (X), YouTube — all places the government was found guilty of meeting with regularly, and coercing into falling in line.

What those platforms should have said, what all journalists should say, is what I told Hernandez after I dried off from the ice water.

We don’t work for you.

And our job is not to make you look good.

Don’t tell us how to do our jobs

Now, this is not to say that false and misleading claims were not posted on the internet — and aren’t still appearing there regularly. But it is our responsibility as Americans to navigate that. If you let the government determine what you see, you can kiss goodbye seeing anything that criticizes it.

And being able to freely criticize the government is a cornerstone of American democracy.

Yet the current administration — and the previous one under President Donald Trump — seem to equate criticism with heresy. Disagree with us, there is something wrong with you.

Incredibly, just five days after the landmark 5th Circuit decision, the Biden administration sent a letter to major media outlets, urging the press “to ramp up its scrutiny of House Republicans” now that they have launched an impeachment inquiry of the president.

“Covering impeachment as a process story — Republicans say X, but the White House says Y — is a disservice to the American public,” the letter said.

Are they suggesting we only cover what the White House says?

The brazenness is eye-opening. A Democrat presidential administration tells the media where and how to focus on Republicans? This letter reportedly went to places like CNN, CBS, the New York Times and Fox News.

And while those places have different slants, their response should have been uniform, and again mimicked my response to Hernandez:

We don’t work for you.

Don’t tell us what to focus on.

Instead, there was remarkably little blowback. Just as there was negligible coverage of the 5th Circuit decision. The New York Times placed that story on page B4. Not exactly front page, bold type, is it?

When did the press become so soft in its own defense? Since when does the government silencing people get the back page treatment? Since when does the White House send letters insisting media outlets focus on their rivals — and not get a fiery “thanks but no thanks” response?

Aren’t we supposed to trust our news sources to focus on the story, not a suggested roadmap from one political party or the other?

The fourth estate must remain vigilant

The fact that there has been little objection to either of these startling developments suggests a media that has already — outwardly or inwardly — chosen sides in our current political divide. Why else is there no outrage at Biden or the Democrats for strongarm attempts to influence coverage?

Why is there no outrage from the conservative media when Trump last week told Megyn Kelly she’d asked “a nasty question” when she’d inquired about his misogynistic comments during the 2015 debates? Or when Trump makes endless accusations of “hostile” media — including Fox — because they dare use his own words and actions to report on him?

Trump has long acted like a king who gets to declare “off with their heads” at the slightest unpleasant media remark. But few in conservative media dare reply, “We’re not part of your court.”

Enough. Once and for all. The press is supposed to be unbiased. The press is supposed to be free. The press must be allowed to pursue the truth without threats. And the people of this country must be allowed to express themselves and determine their own minds.

I’m not making this stuff up. It’s in the founding documents of this country. Do we live up to the best of these ideals? No. We often fall way short. But that doesn’t mean you throw the ideals away. It doesn’t mean presidents and government agencies step in to “guide” us simpletons to the proper judgment.

Most people know the First Amendment. Fewer realize that before it was written into the Constitution, it was molded by James Madison, who originally proposed a more detailed definition:

“The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”

Inviolable. Never to be broken. It’s a word that people back then understood.

Too much of our government today does not.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Follow him @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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