On Tuesday, March 16, America will celebrate the birthday of James Madison, the principal author of The First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights.
Madison characterized the essential need to have a free press as “one of the great bulwarks of liberty.”
Madison’s remarks are exceptionally important this week as members of the press conduct various activities in celebrating Sunshine Week, a week set aside to support and shine a light on the importance of a government that is open to the public and the press and is conducted in public.
A free press that cannot be controlled by government is essential to a democratic society. Without a free press to act as a watchdog on government, government is left to do as it pleases.
And we’re not necessarily speaking of national media outlets such as The Washington Post, The New York Times or any of the national television news networks. More than 24,000 local journalists live in, and are a part of, the communities they write about.
Take, for example, last February’s announcement that Fairmont Regional Medical Center was closing in 60 days and would layoff more than 500 employees.
Our staff hit the pavement talking to elected officials, business owners, health care workers and others in the know. At each point, we found it was our reporters who were the ones informing those we interviewed about the closure.
Without a free press, can you imagine how news of the hospital’s closing would have been handled?
And, the story did not stop there. For what seemed like the next two months, we published story after story including officials from as high up as Gov. Jim Justice on down to local businesses that would feel the impact of the closure. The Times West Virginian was there, reporting and telling the story.
Without a free press, that would not have been possible.
Throughout the history of the U.S., it’s the free press that has poked, prodded and produced eye-opening, and oftentimes life changing reporting that would not have happened if such an ideal were not written into our nation’s most precious document — The U.S. Constitution.
Many of our readers can remember seeing film on the evening news of the river in Ohio that was on fire for days due to pollution from a nearby manufacturing plant.
That incident was made public thanks to a free press that was not reporting on government so much as big business. Either way, the story and the chemical spill were exposed thanks to the hard work of reporters who dug into the story.
And the hard work continues today to shine a light on the misgivings of public officials. Here are a few examples:
—A California judge ordered Alameda County to release nursing home COVID-19 data after a lawsuit filed by The Bay Area News Group, which publishes The Mercury News and the East Bay Times. The news organization filed public records requests in April 2020, which were denied. They sued the county in June and the ruling was issued in January.
—The Detroit Free Press sued the city of Detroit for access to all of the public records connected to a city watchdog’s investigation that concluded Mayor Mike Duggan gave preferential treatment to a prenatal health program run by a woman with close ties to him. After filing a FOIA request, the Free Press learned the city would only give up a portion of records — and only if they paid $222,667 and waited three years.(August 2020)
—A coalition of more than two dozen media outlets in North Carolina filed a lawsuit against NC Gov. Roy Cooper and state cabinet agencies seeking the release of records related to COVID-19 that the state refused to provide. (May 2020)
We urge you to join us in defending this “bulwark” and, in the process, protect our liberty.