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Bill Sargent, Mark Mansius and John Gay are writing columns on important issues for today.

The Search for Truth:
The 1st Amendment

September 30, 2013

Last week, we wrote about the freedom of religion.  The Amendment continues ”Congress shall make no law… … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”  Of this right, Jefferson wrote, "No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him, all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press.”

The idea was if the press is watching the government and reporting the truth about what it’s leaders are doing (1) the leaders would be more apt to do an honest and competent job and (2) when this is not the case, the newspaper’s readers (or in today’s terms readers/viewers) would know about it and act appropriately (e.g., vote the “scoundrels” out of office)!

To our founding fathers, freedom of writing was about obtaining, understanding, and holding onto the truth.  Jefferson continued, "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it."  They viewed an unabridged right to print as being critical to maintaining the truth. The founders had experienced the results of a press controlled by dictators and monarchs seeking only to protect their own power and futures. They foresaw the result of a media being guided by those with a specific message in mind.   

What do we see today?  Many of our schools of journalism seemed to have moved away from teaching fledgling reporters to seek the truth and toward conveying a message.  Some media outlets have made up stories only to be found out and forced by viewers to admit their errors and take action, Dan Rather losing his job being an example.  Because some are not getting what they want from their regional media outlets many have turned to the Internet and social media as sources for news. 

Look at the reporting we see today.  Instead of keeping reporting to the facts (e.g., the truth) of what happened (the who, what, when, where, and why) we often see an agenda in the news we read.  We often hear comments like “You can’t believe what you read in the ________(fill in the blank)!”    

Is there a place for “investigative journalism?”  Absolutely, but true investigative journalism is about seeking truth based upon facts and not looking for facts to line up with a preconceived storyline.

But our concerns go further.  We would suggest that some in the media are responsible for the great divide we see in our nation.  If the media would return to telling us the “honest truth” without inserting their own personal bias two things would happen: first people would come to trust them again and second journalism would cease to be a tool used to manipulate its audience.  The members of the press have a serious role to play in keeping government honest.  That is why the first amendment protects them.  At the same time, those to whom this freedom has been guaranteed carry a larger responsibility to tell the truth free of bias. 

Mark and Bill and John