Traveling throughout the United States in the early 1830s, French social scientist Alexis de Tocqueville saw something unique about American life that separated it from what he had witnessed among Europe’s monarchies:
“In aristocratic countries, you group readily around one man,” he wrote, “and in democratic countries around a newspaper, and it is in this sense that you can say that newspapers there [in America] take the place of great lords.”
The unsettling moments we Americans witnessed on Wednesday as a mob inspired by President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol Building and interrupted the democratic process, underscore the need to sustain and restore journalism, especially at the local level.
Free expression and the open debate of ideas – rather than violence and the taking up of arms – underpins our democracy. It reminds us of who are as a people. It’s literally the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing our rights to religion, assembly, redress of grievances, free speech and, yes, the press.
Amid the unraveling of our democracy this week, it was the media as much as any other American institution that held intact our government and our way of life. We refer to the pillars of our democracy as the three branches – the executive branch in the president, the legislative branch in Congressional lawmakers and the judicial branch in the courts.
The media make up the “fourth estate” by holding powerful people accountable, speaking up for those without a voice of their own and shining a light on the actions of our democratic government, for better and worse.
When an angry mob thought they could undermine American democracy by a violent coup, they forgot the leading principle of any takeover: First, control the media.
Instead, what they unearthed is that in modern American life, with the democratization of information across the internet that has taken hold over the past decade-plus, no one group can speak for what happens during a moment of inflection.
Ordinary citizens – both the protesters themselves and the bloggers who traveled with them – provided firsthand accounts as the ransackers broke through windows, sat on the Senate rostrum and attempted to destroy the process of a peaceful transfer of power. Those images formed a confusing and nearly indecipherable firehose of information to the public.
Professional journalists used those videos and photographs in their own reporting to make sense of a chaotic moment. They helped us understand what was happening amid conflicting reports and with a president who initially refused to send in the national guard to protect our people and institutions.
Journalists showed the powerful images of what was happening and they interviewed people still within the Capitol Building to create a clear narrative that people across the country and around the world could understand.
It’s no wonder that President Trump has referred to the media as the “enemy of the people” whenever they attempted to hold him to account by pointing out his lies and questioning his unethical actions. Trump, more than most, realized early on that he could sway public opinion about the journalists who tell the stories of American democracy but he could not control them. The United States does not exist as a dictatorial regime where journalists are imprisoned – or worse, killed – for telling the truth.
As we look forward to the new president taking the oath of office in the very place where Trump’s angry mob turned violent, we must also take stock in American journalism.
While a few leading media outlets in places such as Washington and New York have benefitted and grown from the disruption of the journalism business in recent years, local journalism has withered to the brink of death.
It’s a wonder that so many of our Pittsburgh news outlets have survived the past year when economic strife combined with the COVID-19 pandemic to destroy their already strained financial models.
Look at the work of Pittsburgh Current, for instance, which has produced meaningful journalism that moved public policy while barely able to pay bills for a lack of advertising. The Current’s work on abuses at the Allegheny County Jail last fall highlighted the fact that guards removed nearly all reading materials from prisoners. Ultimately, it was their reporting and then the reporting of others, that forced the county administration to change its policy.
That’s the power of journalism in a free and open society: Journalists shine a light on what happens, and they allow we the people to make up our minds about what seems fair and right, to create policies that shape the places in which we live. This happens both at the national level and within our small towns and neighborhoods.
While we take renewed appreciation in our American freedoms after seeing them threatened so blatantly, we must also invest in the foundations of our democracy, and particularly the fourth estate. That means supporting local newspapers by paying for a subscription, making donations to nonprofit news outlets, acknowledging the source of original reporting when we copy it to share on social media.
This moment calls us to see that the media are not the enemies of the people – but rather, the media are the people, drawn from our own ranks to preserve the way of life we value so much.
The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.