Historically, the best manuscripts or writings — those we consider classics including The Bible or the works of Shakespeare, Mark Twain and so many others — never seem to age or lose their relevance.
You can add the U.S. Constitution to that list, specifically the First Amendment.
Just as a refresher — and it seems necessary as recent surveys have shown the average American can only name a couple of the freedoms included and are often hard pressed to explain what they actually mean — here are the words that serve as the foundation of our democracy.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Here are some numbers to consider:
• 48% of Americans were able to name Freedom of Speech as one of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment
• 15% of Americans were able to name Freedom of Religion
• 14% of Americans were able to name Freedom of the Press
• 10% of Americans were able to name Freedom of Peaceable Assembly
• Only 3% of Americans were able to name Freedom to Petition the government
Many times, we defend these rights only when we agree with the message or the messenger. But that isn’t how it works. Free speech, free press and the others are vital even when we don’t like what is being said.
When it comes to free press, the national media gets beat up quite a bit. Some of it is deserved and some of it is not.
Fox News and MSNBC are both equally awful when it comes to objective reporting. The networks — and what they try to pass off as balanced reporting — often seem like matching bookends of extremism to those with unbiased or moderate views.
Print newspapers often don’t have the resources to do the level of investigating that they once did. The focus on reader-submitted journalism has also somewhat damaged the credibility of newspapers in some areas.
But technology has given us the opportunity to be a better-informed public — if we truly want to be. That often leads to an open and transparent government, which can translate to a better government.
Regardless, the role and importance of a strong “press” hasn’t changed. Buried in the partisan-slanted propaganda and the entertainment gossip, real journalists are still doing good work to which the rest of us can aspire.
Maybe we can learn from a fictional journalist as well.
I was re-watching the HBO series The Newsroom recently and was reminded of a great monologue by fictional TV anchor Will McAvoy, portrayed by Jeff Daniels, as he talked about what made our country great.
“We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons, we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and we acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t scare so easy. And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. …”
Unfortunately, that level of engagement and informed public is changing. People are disconnecting from their media, from their community, from their freedoms.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
There is still time for people to pick up their paper, their phone, their tablet, their computer or some other device that hasn’t even been imagined yet.
Informed citizens and the freedoms of the First Amendment work together to create a country in which we can all be proud.