A Free Press Must Be an Accessible Press

When our Bill of Rights talks about protecting a “free press,” it means a press that is free of government intrusion. But the fact that the fourth estate was granted such protection indicates that our founders understood what a central role it plays in a democracy.

What hasn’t typically been part of the conversation about a free press is the accessibility of that information to the assumed end user – the American public. But that was the basic point behind John Heltman’s article in the current issue of the Washington Monthly titled: Confessions of a Paywall Journalist.

Today, Pew Research released an updated report that backs up Heltman’s concerns.

Reporters for niche outlets, some of which offer highly specialized information services at premium subscription rates, now fill more seats in the U.S. Senate Press Gallery than do daily newspaper reporters. As recently as the late 1990s, daily newspaper staff outnumbered such journalists by more than two-to-one.

Conversely:

…the rolls of the Regional Reporters Association – a group of Washington-based reporters that produce local and regional coverage – sit at 59 in 2015, down from around 200 in the mid-1990s.

The result:

For the American public, this translates to more digital options for coverage at the national level as well as options for those who have access to trade publications and specialized information products, but also a continuous chipping away at the number of reporters on the Hill covering the federal government on behalf of local communities.

Or as Heltman put it:

The rise of the paywall press and the decline of mainstream media coverage of government aren’t causally connected. But the two trends coincide with a palpable populist outrage, in which average Americans are suspicious of how their tax dollars are being spent and observe Washington insiders operate at ever-greater levels of power and secrecy. The irony is that policy journalism in Washington is thriving. It’s just not being written for you, and you’re probably never going to read it.

Heltman is right to tie all this to the “palpable populist outrage” we’re currently witnessing. As I noted in my review of his book, Stan Greenberg identifies distrust of government as a key barrier faced by Democrats in winning the votes from the white working class. Because the public doesn’t get enough useful information about what does/doesn’t work in government, too many people are susceptible to the Republican mantra of “government as the problem, not the solution.” Most of that is based on political spin rather than actual reporting.

My mantra has always been that the best case for liberal policy is government that works. To the extent that we have information about what is/isn’t working, we can build on our successes and correct our errors. That’s what makes a “free press” that is accessible to the public the cornerstone of democracy.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.