We just celebrated a very significant holiday'the Fourth of July. Significant not because of fireworks, flags, off-key renditions of “The Star Spangled Banner” and other trumped-up displays of patriotic fervor, but because of what the holiday really signifies. Independence. That is what we should be celebrating as a nation.
This year’s Saturday’s Voyeur, which takes a more serious departure, includes a hip-hop song that should be played on radio stations around the country. Writers Nancy Borgenicht and Al Nevins remind us that America should not be defined by Sept. 11, but by July 4. “We’ve become our own enemy. We not 9-11. We July the 4th. We about independence. You with us or against us? September 11 or 7-4? Fourth of July. Let the eagle soar. Fourth of July. Let the eagle breathe. Fourth of July. It’s possibilities. It cannot be about hate and fear. We gotta take back the country we hold dear.â€ The lyrics are an important reminder that we are a nation formed not out of fear, but out of an abiding respect for independence and an open marketplace of ideas. That’s the core of our democracy and what we should celebrate, cherish and tirelessly safeguard.
Ironically, as we battle for “freedom” in far off corners of the globe, our own freedom of expression is increasingly under siege here at home. The whole point of the First Amendment is to protect speech that is not popular. Speech that parrots the party line and follows the mainstream hardly needs protecting. Dissent is what our Constitution was designed to protect. Maybe it’s time to dust off John Stuart Mill’s eloquent treatise On Liberty written in 1859. Noting that government would often attempt to control the expression of opinion, he warned of the dangers of stifling any opinion. In a nutshell, truth often prevails through the contrary opinion.
Now, we find ourselves in a climate where the notion of an open marketplace of ideas is being undermined, where public-affairs programs are monitored to determine the political leanings of guests, where reporters are threatened with jail time for refusing to reveal their sources'even though those reporters did not publish the information revealed. Sadly, in too many quarters, journalism is being confused with liberalism. News flash: A free and independent press is supposed to be critical of authority, regardless of who is in power. The function of a free press is to act as a watchdog. And, it’s not like the watchdogs have been barking lately. In America: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, the inimitable Jon Stewart summarizes Watergate: “President brought down by investigative journalists. Investigative journalists declare â€˜nice work,’ take rest of millennium off.
What worries me most is not outright government censorship. It hasn’t quite reached that point. The real danger is the chilling effect implied threats will inevitably have on an already weak-kneed press. The most effective form of censorship is not the overt type that raises court challenges and public outcry. The far more insidious form of censorship is self-censorship. Journalists and media organizations intimidated by government interference will think twice about which sources to interview, stories to report and questions to ask. And that’s a dangerous thing for an open society.
Claire Geddes, an advocate for government openness, once told me, “my job is to expose the cockroaches to the light of day.” That’s the job of any journalist worth his or her salt. Democracy depends on it.
Mary Dickson, a freelance writer, was born on July 4th.