Why we need a free press

My local paper, the Times-Union, has a terrific columnist, Chris Churchill. Recently he wrote about the Edson Thevenin case.

Thevenin was driving drunk and recklessly in nearby Troy, winding up killed by eight police bullets through his windshield. A quick police investigation exonerated the shooter. Before that was even done, the local DA, Joel Abelove, also engineered grand jury non-indictment. Abelove’s actions resulted in his own indictment for official misconduct and perjury. All this was the subject of an investigation and report by the State Attorney General.

All duly reported in the news. But while news reports must relate facts dispassionately — and that’s certainly vital — a columnist can put facts in perspective. This Churchill did — devastatingly. It’s not just that the officers on the scene did bad, and lied. The whole department covered itself with shame. (Churchill’s column focuses only on the police. Maybe he’ll do Abelove later. Meantime, after I drafted this post, the paper also published a scathing editorial about the case.)

But my point is not about the Thevenin case per se. It’s how important it is to have the press, and guys like Chris Churchill, doing what they do. Local government tried to whitewash this case and cover up misconduct. The Times-Union and Churchill make sure the public understands. This is essential for government being accountable to the citizens it’s supposed to serve.

Hobbes

That is the nub of our social contract. As Thomas Hobbes elucidated, we establish government in order to make a good society. But that requires government having a lot of power, and it’s a constant struggle to keep that power from being abused, contrary to the reason we have government in the first place.

That’s not hypothetical. Indeed, throughout history and throughout the world, governments being so constrained are not the rule but the exception. The prime instance is America, but even here, it’s still a constant struggle — as epitomized by the police shooting problem. We give policemen guns to protect us, but too often people are shot who shouldn’t be. And, as the Thevenin case illustrates, a free press is critical for exposing, and thereby controlling, the problem.

Chris Churchill’s columns would, in many places — Russia, China, Venezuela, Turkey, and too many others — get him jailed (and likely tortured), if not killed. Though in such countries they wouldn’t be published at all. Those regimes don’t want to be accountable in the way that guys like Churchill make governments accountable. And America’s current president doesn’t want it either.

The press is not “the enemy of the people.” It’s the enemy of power abuse. The enemy of lies.

 

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