“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves,”said Thomas Jefferson, adding that if they are “not enlightened enough to exercise their control,” they must be informed “by education.” As this year’s Pulitzer Prizes dramatically demonstrate, an essential educational force for self-government in this constitutional republic is — above all other media — the daily newspaper.
In our war against terrorists, for example, human-rights respect for life is a primary moral value we stand for. How much have you seen on broadcast or cable television about the genocidal holocaust in Darfur which has lasted much longer and cost many more lives than the horrors in Rwanda? But it took one newspaperman,Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, this year’s winner of the Pulitzer for commentary, to alert this nation and the world to these massive crimes against humanity. He made six dangerous trips to Darfur to report names and faces of victims of the genocide for which President Bush had long before indicted the government of Sudan to the world’s indifference.
Last year, ABC News’ nightly newscasts devoted just 18 minutes all year to Darfur; CBS (except for “60 Minutes”) only three minutes; and NBC only five minutes all last year, although prodded by Kristof it made some amends this year.
Meanwhile, as Kristof kept the spotlight on, Arab states have been silent on the mass murders and gang rapes of these black African Muslims, while in the U.N. Security Council, China, Russia and Qatar block any meaningful stop to these atrocities.
On the other hand, what has marred this country’s own human-rights record around the world to the delight of terrorist recruiters is our abuses, including torture, of our prisoners in this war.
Since 2002, Dana Priest of The Washington Post has regularly reported breaking news about these violations of our own statutes, and international treaties we have signed, by the CIA in official interrogation centers, as well as in CIA secret prisons. Exposing this, Miss Priest embodies the very spirit of the First Amendment that, in a democracy, holds our government to account for lawlessness.
This year, Miss Priest won the Pulitzer for beat reporting by putting light on additional CIA secret prisons in Eastern Europe. The CIA and the Justice Department have started investigations of “leaks” to her from sources. The president tried to get her newspaper not to publish one of her reports. But the FirstAmendment prevailed, and while Congress has yet to hold the CIA accountable for being (with the president’s permission) above our laws, Priest is still on the story.
For National Reporting, this year’s Pulitzer Prize went to James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times for greatly intensifying a crucial national debate across party lines, on whether the president can secretly and unilaterally bypass the constitutional separation of powers by allowing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without court warrants.
The president also tried to prevent this story from being published, and succeeded for months. But finally, that newspaper awoke to the vital constitutional principle emphasized by James Madison that “the censorial power is in the people over the Government and not in the Government over the people.” The depth and steadfastness of the reporting by Nicholas Kristof, Dana Priest, James Risen, Eric Lichtblau and the other newspaper journalistshonoredwith Pulitzers this year, let alone the many others who disinfect, with sunlight, corruption and inhumanity in towns and cities throughout this country, take a lot of time. It also requires support from publishers and editors.
Meanwhile, on television and on the Internet, the voracious 24-hour news cycle creates a quicksand of news that needs much further development if Americans are to get more than the surface of the knowledge that Thomas Jefferson cited as necessary for self-government.
When I find, increasingly, that many of the young no longer read newspapers and get their “news” from Jon Stewart on Comedy Central or Jay Leno, I wish that newspaper publishers would make their papers much more available in schools, as they are at airports and on trains. And editors should give more support to the increasingly beleaguered student press in their towns and cities. Those are the kids who live the First Amendment by contrast with their fellow students.
Last year’s Knight Foundation poll of more than 100,000 high-school students, for example, revealed that 73 percent had no opinion of the First Amendment or “took it for granted” and 36 percent believe that newspapers must first secure government approval before publishing.
How much do any of them even know about James Madison and Thomas Jefferson?