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National Security Versus A Free Press

Lead Summary

by Reed Anfinson, Editor, Publisher
A Drop of Ink
When it comes to the nation’s security more than one third of America’s citizens believe the government should have greater control over what the press is allowed to publish and air. Thirty-seven percent of those responding in a recent poll said reporters should have to get government approval before certain sensitive stories could run.
The poll conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center also found that many Americans have a dismal depth of knowledge about how the nation’s government in Washington, D.C., works. And if you don’t know how it works, there is little chance you are going to be able to come up with good ideas for fixing it.
A very slight majority of Americans, 51 percent, opposes the government being able to exert authority over the press on national security stories; 35 percent actually strongly oppose the idea. But still nearly half of Americans disregard the nation’s First Amendment, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” They seem to think we should trust those in power to do what is legal as well as what is in the best interests of the country. These people obviously didn’t pay attention in history class nor have they been keeping up with current events during their lifetimes.
When government doesn’t provide the truth to citizens, it deceives them into supporting its actions. Think of the war in Iraq where nearly 4,500 American soldiers died and tens of thousands were wounded. The American people were fed a constant stream of information by the Bush Administration that Iraq had massive stores of weapons of mass destruction and that Al Qaeda was based in Iraq; neither claim was true.
In the interests of national security the Republican Nixon Administration tried to block the publication of the Pentagon Papers that outlined how the administration of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson had “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress” about its actions in the Vietnam War. Nixon had taken over fighting the war when he became president in 1968.
The New York Times and The Washington Post led the fight to publish what the Pentagon Papers revealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. In his opinion in the case, Justice Hugo Black wrote: “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.”
To see how far governments can twist information, take the example of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Post reporter James Ingraham writes.  “For an illustration of why it is generally a terrible idea to give a government veto power over the press, just look to Russia, where state media reported that Russian troops fighting in Ukraine were simply there on vacation, and that Malaysian Air Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine as part of a failed assassination attempt on President Vladimir Putin.
Further, in this country we know how politics and pandering to the base motivates so much of what political parties say and do. “National security” is a vague concept that can be easily shaped and manipulated to the political goals of those in power. And, it doesn’t just cover foreign policy. National security interests can be used to develop and implement policies on American soil.
The Annenberg poll also found that 35 percent of Americans were unable to name one branch of the U.S. government (the executive, judiciary and legislative.) Nearly 75 percent do not know that it takes two-thirds of the members in each the House and the Senate to override a presidential veto.
Forty-four percent of Americans don’t know which party controls the U.S. House – the Republicans do under Speaker John Boehner. Forty-two percent didn’t know who controls the Senate - Democrats do led by Majority Leader Harry Reid.
These figures should not be overly surprising in a nation pre-occupied with entertainment; more likely to watch Dancing with the Stars or football than the evening news.
When people know little about the news, when they know little about their government, they can easily be manipulated. It is why so many political campaigns can grossly twist the truth and sucker people leaning their way into voting for their candidates and causes.
We have an important national election coming up in November. We would like to think that the majority of those who vote are informed citizens, but we fear many have a shallow understanding of both the issues and candidates – yet they will set the direction for the nation on fundamentally important issues like the war on terrorism, policy to address our changing climate, education, and immigration.

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