Democracy in the Information Age Still Depends on the Free Press

The founders of our country recognized the fundamental relationship between freedom, democracy and the free press.  The relationship between democracy and the free press has never been more clear than it is today.  The press is leading the investigation into the ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian effort to influence the 2016 election.

It is important that we do not forget how the press was complicit in the Russian effort to influence the election.  As The New York Times eventually reported on December 13th,

Every major publication, including The Times, published multiple stories citing the D.N.C. and Podesta emails posted by WikiLeaks, becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence.

The press may have an added motivation to lead the investigation into the election.  It gives the press an opportunity to correct a serious mistake in judgement.  It also gives the press an opportunity to focus the public’s attention on aspects of the scandal that do not involve the press.

It is important for us to understand our democracy depends on human institutions that are imperfect and subject to all sorts of pressures.  The press is in the process of dealing with a move to the online consumption of information.  This process has been devastating to newsrooms around the country, leading to dramatic reductions in the reporters covering stories.

In spite of these limitations and challenges, the news media has led the way in the investigation of the ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.  The investigations conducted by congress have not been as productive to this point.

The investigation conducted by the House Intelligence Committee held one productive pubic hearing.  But as soon as this committee began to make progress, it’s chair, Rep. Devin Nunes, engaged in a bizarre charade that clearly appeared to distract attention from the legitimate work of his own committee.  As a result of his behavior, he was forced to recuse himself from the investigation.

The Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senators Richard Burr (republican) and Mark Warner (democrat), made an effort to appear bipartisan as the committee began its investigation.  They gave everyone the impression they realized they were the only real hope for a bipartisan congressional investigation.

However, three months after the Senate Intelligence Committee launched its investigation we now have evidence it has made little progress.  Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News reports April 24th,

More than three months after the Senate Intelligence Committee launched its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — including allegations of collusion by associates of President Trump — the panel has made little progress and is increasingly stymied by partisan divisions that are jeopardizing the future of the inquiry, according to multiple sources involved in the probe.

The committee has yet to issue a single subpoena for documents or interview any key witnesses who are central to the probe, the sources said. It also hasn’t requested potentially crucial evidence — such as the emails, memos and phone records of the Trump campaign — in part because the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has so far failed to respond to requests from the panel’s Democrats to sign letters doing so, the sources said.

“The wheels seem to be turning more slowly than the importance of the inquiry would indicate,” said Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the 9/11 commission and former Watergate prosecutor, one of a number of veteran Washington investigators who have begun to question the lack of movement in the probe.

As Congress returns from its spring recess this week and Trump approaches his 100th day in office, the panel has no further public hearings scheduled, even as the House Intelligence Committee — torn by its own partisan wrangling and internal turmoil — shows some flickering new signs of life. The result has caused growing frustration among the Senate committee’s Democrats, who are privately complaining the probe is underfunded, understaffed and too timid in pushing to get to the bottom of one of the most explosive political stories in years.

On the same day Yahoo News published Isikoff’s report, CNN reported the Senate Intelligence Committee hired two staffers for the investigation — two.

The free press, on the other hand, has not been hindered by the same limitations.  The GettyImages-502431942-1280x720Washington Post and The New York Times have regularly been breaking stories that make fundamental contributions to the investigation and they have three and even four reporters on the byline.  The movie Spotlight demonstrates how a team of four investigative reporters worked together effectively to uncover how the Catholic church hid the sexual abuse of its priests.  The Post and The Times have assigned multiple “spotlight” teams to the investigation of the ties between Russia and the Trump campaign and administration.  Their work has led the investigation and  fundamentally transformed the Trump administration.

New York Times Carlos SlimOn February 9th, The New York Times and The Washington Post published articles reporting Michael Flynn talked to the Russian Ambassador about sanctions before Trump took office.  The Washington Post went on to publish an article reporting Pence did not learn that Flynn misled him on Russia until February.  Flynn resigned February 13th.   The reporting of the Times and the Post clearly played a fundamental role in his resignation.

On March 1st, The Washington Post broke the story Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, met with the Russian Ambassador during the election in spite of his claims he did not while being questioned in the senate.  The next day Sessions recused himself from any investigation into the ties between Russian and the Trump campaign.

Each week we learn more from the investigation being conducted in the press about Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Michael Flynn and their interactions with Russians.  It is the story that looms in the background of all political stories.  After the press reported on the lack of progress made by the senate investigation, the senate committee hired two investigators.  The investigations being conducted by the press are driving the investigations being done by congress.

Here I think we see the press serving the role intended for it by the framers of the constitution and the first amendment.  We can also see something that fundamentally distinguishes our democracy from the Russian federation.

There is a big difference between RT (Russia Today) and The Washington Post.  The U. S. intelligence community’s January 6th public briefing states (page 9),


Simonyan shows RT facilities to then Prime Minister Putin. Simonyan was on Putin’s 2012 presidential election campaign staff in Moscow (Rospress, 22 September 2010, Ria Novosti, 25 October 2012).

RT Editor in Chief Margarita Simonyan has close ties to top Russian Government officials, especially Presidential Administration Deputy Chief of Staff Aleksey Gromov, who reportedly manages political TV coverage in Russia and is one of the founders of RT….

The Kremlin staffs RT and closely supervises RT’s coverage, recruiting people who can convey Russian strategic messaging because of their ideological beliefs.

Think of where our country would be right now if president Trump could tell The Washington Post what to report.  This is something that fundamentally distinguishes our country from the Russian Federation.  The president of our country does not have the ability to tell The Washington Post or The New York Times what to do.  This is one of the things Thomas Jefferson thought distinguished a free society.

We need to support the free press in our country now more than ever.  Like any other human institution, the press is not perfect.  Journalists have made mistakes that have put our democracy in jeopardy; but right now they are also leading the way in its defense.


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