It’s often said that the media are the fourth branch of the United States government. They report. They reflect. They respond. They represent. Individuals comprise the media. It is important to make that distinction. Donald Trump often reports that the media are the enemy of the American people. He paints them as this malicious, vile entity, the Ares of America.
However, the media are not here for the bloodshed of American public thought. Journalists are warriors, but they are fighting for the state of democracy in this country. A frequent conversation among political pundits is this notion that democracy is dying. We are facing a constitutional crisis. Fascism is pervading our borders. Foreign collusion in elections is prevalent. These conversations permeate the political landscape because of the media. The counter hegemonic conversations by the media put a check on the government. It’s imperative for the media to continue doing this to have this engagement in the public sphere. Opinions and participation are essential to a democracy, and the media are there to commence that conversation with the public.
In Chapter 4 of Freedom for the Thought That We Hate, Anthony Lewis writes about seditious libel, a limitation to the press. In 1964, the New York Times Co. v Sullivan decision in the Supreme Court shifted the responsibility from the press to the officials to provide proof of falsification in publications to call for seditious libel. The Supreme Court had granted the press a freedom that allowed reporting that did not anticipate an immediate lawsuit. Since this case was ruled during the Civil Rights movement, the coverage expanded. This decision later paved the way for New York Times Co. v United States in 1971 when Justice Black wrote in his opinion that the press was protected by the First Amendment to “bare the secrets of government and inform the people.” An official’s darkest secrets that motivate political intentions are buried inside of them. Outright public confessions or documentations are not always available to hold an official accountable. These Supreme Court decisions remind us of the role of the First Amendment, to ensure that speech remains unfiltered and that the government cannot infringe on our right to criticize.
It’s often said that the media are the fourth branch of the United States government. However, I disagree. The media are not an extension of the federal government. The Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2010 established corporate personhood. It gave corporations the same rights as individuals. In this case specifically, the decision honed in on campaign expenditures, according corporations the right to spend as they please on candidates during elections. This notion of personhood, I believe, belongs to the media as well. The Constitution protects rights from the government. If media are the fourth branch of government, it would imply that people need protection from this unofficial branch. This is not the case despite President Trump vehemently believing so.
The media have the right to speech protection by the First Amendment, just as individual Americans do. They report on issues important to them that they believe should be important to others. They reflect on words of political officials that reveal issue stances and intentions. They respond and offer their own thoughts on the contemporary political discourse through opinion pieces and commentary. They represent because they have the platform to use their voice in a public sphere that informs, educates and explains complex issues in a vernacular which Americans can understand. President Donald Trump fails to understand that the media are not fake news and untrustworthy. The media are not immediately guilty of seditious libel for speech inconsistent with what Trump perceives to be the truth. The media are not the Ares of America, they are the foundation of what makes this country what it is, a free democracy.