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2006 American Heritage Scholarship Series Winning Essay

Editor's Note: This is the full text of the winning essay in the 2006 American Heritage Scholarship Series. It was written by Kaitlin Showerman of Modesto, a senior in the Hearthstone Christian School.


In the 200 years since Thomas Jefferson lived, many things in American life have drastically changed. Technology in particular has experienced astounding growth over the past few centuries, providing not only for many of today's modern conveniences but also offering a broader range of communication. As such, the media has a greater ability to reach people in all walks of life and corners of the globe. From the Internet to the radio, to the television, and the old familiar newspaper, news is reaching more people faster than ever and playing a larger role in world events (Heibert, 2001). However, even with all of these advances, the press holds the same role today as it did more than 200 years ago: to serve as a vital tool for upholding liberty and freedom by means of education through information.

When viewed through the lens of Jefferson's own words, we see many similarities between the press of today and that of early America. First, the primary purpose of the press is still to secure our liberty through education, the marketplace of ideas, and keeping the government accountable. Secondly, the publication of information is only a tool; one that can be used for good or bad, and therefore must have some level of accountability upon itself. And finally, we will look at our responsibility as American citizens to utilize this tool in order to promote the welfare of our nation.

George Nicholas, speaking at the Virginia Convention on the Ratification of the Constitution in 1788, stated that "an enlightened people will never suffer what was established for their security to be perverted to an act of tyranny." One of the ways that the freedom of the press uses information to guarantee liberty is in the marketplace of ideas.

To preserve the freedom of the human mind... and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement. (Jefferson, 1799)

Acting as a forum, the media is an arena where ideas, both old and new, can reach people from every situation of life. The power of the press then ensures our liberties by making our ideas known.

The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure. (Jefferson, 1823)

Another way that the press uses education through information to uphold liberty is by keeping government officials accountable. Thomas Jefferson recognized the importance of the press for providing trustworthy information in order to keep citizens aware of events instead of being left to rumor and hearsay. "Our citizens may be deceived for awhile, and have been deceived; but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light" (Jefferson, 1799). Education by information provides a way for the public to know important facts and respond in an appropriate manner. This role of the press offers accountability for public officials by allowing people who take part in electing the leaders of our nation to be more informed and better able to make wise decisions. Government must have accountability, and the press serves as a means of ensuring that. "No government ought to be without censors, and where the press is free, no one ever will" (Jefferson, 1792).

One example of the power of the press can be seen in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s where the initial investigations were heavily influenced by the work of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Media coverage eventually caused the Senate to form a committee for the formal investigation of political leaders involved in the scandal, proving once again the press' vital role in seeking out the truth and exposing the facts in order to bring true accountability which ultimately indicted forty government officials and forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency (Fox, 2005).

Jefferson also warned that because the press held such a powerful influence over the accountability of the government, the freedom of the press would be in danger if the government decided to shirk that accountability.

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. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions. (Jefferson, 1804)

His words proved unbelievably true during the Civil War when "he opposition press was mostly shut down by the Lincoln administration and many editors and owners imprisoned" (DiLorenzo, 2004). The Lincoln administration was well aware that information and the freedom of the press allowed people to think for themselves, to formulate their own opinions, and thereby ensure their liberty.

The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe. (Jefferson 1816)

With the press imprisoned, the government was left with no accountability. This free pass allowed the Lincoln administration to violate the Constitution by suspending the writ of habeas corpus, which allowed the government to hold prisoners for an undetermined length of time without ever pressing charges. Fort Lafayette, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem was transformed into a holding place for newspaper editors who printed anything against the war. This "American Bastille," as it was referred to, became the prison of Francis Key Howard, a newspaper editor and the grandson of Francis Scott Key (Speer, 1997), simply because he questioned the government's authority to violate the Constitution.

The effects of this restriction of the press are still seen today. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt imprisoned Japanese Americans and suspended habeas corpus during World War II, and once again as President Bush holds prisoners in Guantanamo Bay without pressing charges, the rationale comes from the mindset that "Lincoln did it" (Dean, 2006). Without the accountability that the press provides governments are allowed to set dangerous precedents that carry far into the future.

Another area where we can see the fear of accountability demonstrated is in the recent murder of Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya. Known for reporting facts that exposed less-than-favorable dealings of political leaders, Anna was found shot to death in the elevator of her apartment building on October 7, 2006, the very day that she was intending to file a report detailing the torture practices believed to be employed by Chechen authorities (Eckel, 2006). Although not reported as confirmed, evidence points to her murder as being a way to silence her outspoken exposure of government dealings.

This tragic event only furthers the evidence that a press serves as a means of accountability for the government and, ultimately, the protection of our rights.

However, even with these good intentions and uses for the free, unfettered press, we must remember that publications alone are merely a tool and, if used improperly, can become a weapon. Two areas of potential abuse by the media that directly affect Thomas Jefferson are libel and slack standards.

During his lifetime, Jefferson had to deal with the issue of the media reporting rumors about his private life. Many of the unconfirmed stories about him that surfaced more than 200 years ago still circulate today.

Although not directly due to the press, Jefferson's beliefs have also suffered from slack editorial standards in a way that is now ingrained into American culture and history.

Four walls of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. are engraved with the words of our former president. One of those panels is a paragraph seemingly extolling public education. The last two sentences emphatically proclaim: "Establish a law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state and on a general plan." This is a misrepresentation of Jefferson's own words. According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the seven sentences in the paragraph are taken from six different documents, dealing with everything from property and taxes, to slavery, to the justice of God, to education, and to liberty (2006). No notation is seen whatsoever that this was not a complete paragraph written by Thomas Jefferson, even when passages on the other walls clearly mark where editorial liberties were taken.

Even though Jefferson realized that it was not the government's place to censer the media (Jenkinson, 2006), he does make the point that there is still legal accountability, even for a "free" press. "A declaration that the Federal Government will never restrain the presses from printing anything they please will not take away the liability of the printers for false facts printed" (Jefferson, 1788).

Today, the government still cannot interfere with the freedom of the press (Levine, 2006). There are, however, remedies if the media falsifies reports. There is the opportunity for correction, where you can contact the source and request a correction; the freedom of speech (along with the freedom of the press) allows for personal statements of defense or denial; and finally, in the case of libel, there is the option of suing for damages. "Printing presses shall be free except as to false facts published maliciously either to injure the reputation of another (whether followed by pecuniary damages or not) or to expose him to the punishment of the law" (Jefferson 1794). Public demand of media accountability ensures the legitimacy of reports for the people ultimately decide how their press should act (Krimsky, 1997).

Herein lies the challenge for citizens today: If the people decide how the press acts, and the press decides how the government acts, then we have a great potential to effect change in our communities and country - but only if we properly utilize the tools we have been given. We have an opportunity, a duty, to be involved. The press is a tool waiting to be put to action, not only to preserve our liberties, but to improve our nation. But all tools are useless unless we make use of them.

The press of today and the press of Thomas Jefferson's era serve the same purpose: to serve as a vital tool for upholding liberty and freedom by means of education through information. We can look to Jefferson himself for the proof in three simple points.

The freedom of the press guarantees our liberty. "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it" (Jefferson 1786).

The press must be kept accountable. "The press is impotent when it abandons itself to falsehood" (Jefferson, 1807).

We have a duty to utilize this great tool we have been given.

... were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them. (Jefferson, 1787)

(The essay included a two and a half page bibliography, which was required in the essay competition.)