Darien’s Scott Pelley, a veteran journalist, provides an exclusive view on the state of journalism today to The Darien Times.
Recently, I received a warning from the FBI. A special agent in the New York office told me that a man charged with mailing a dozen bombs to high profile figures had a file on me in his computer which included my home address. The Florida suspect was arrested before he could mail a bomb to my family.
The warning reminded me of a lunch I had with the president about a year before. At that time, I was managing editor of the CBS Evening News. President Trump had tweeted that CBS News was an “enemy of the American people.” In the State Dining Room of the White House, I suggested to the president that his rhetoric might incite some mentally ill person to open fire on a small-town newspaper or television station. Mr. Trump thought for a moment and replied, “I don’t worry about that.” Many others do. In light of Mr. Trump’s attacks on the media, a viewer stopped me on the street and said with genuine concern, “This must be a terrible time to be a reporter.”
“Ohhh, no,” I told her. “This is the best time to be a reporter.”
The president has given all Americans a priceless opportunity to reflect on how essential free speech and a free press are to our beloved country. There was a brief, dark, moment in our history when the government took away our freedom of expression. The Sedition Act of 1798 made it a crime for anyone to “utter” criticism of the House, Senate or the president. (1) This was the tyranny James Madison had been determined to prevent when he wrote the First Amendment in our Bill of Rights:
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, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (2)
The Sedition Act outraged Madison. In his rebuttal, entitled, “Report on the Virginia Resolutions” (1800), Madison wrote that Congress had assumed a power that is…
…expressly and positively forbidden by one of the [constitutional] amendments thereto: a power, which more than any other, ought to produce universal alarm; because it is leveled against that right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon, which has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right. (3)
What Madison meant by “press” was every American and his or her right to say what they want to say, write what they want to write, read what they want to read. Don’t be misled. Any constraint on “the press” applies to every citizen’s voice. “Enemy of the American people,” in President Trump’s phrase? We are the American people. Journalists bring vitality to the national conversation. We bridge differences, serve public safety, expose corruption, constrain power and give voice to the voiceless. As Madison might say today, Freedom of the Press is the right that guarantees all our rights. No mail bomb, no president, no Congress, can alter one enduring fact of freedom — there is no democracy without journalism.
Scott Pelley is a 60 Minutes correspondent and author of the forthcoming memoir, Truth Worth Telling.
1 “An act for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States,” Fifth Congress Session II, 1798, Chapter LXXI, Section 1, Library of Congress.
2 The Constitution of the United States, Amendment I, National Archives, presented in New York City 1789.“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; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
3 “The Report of 1800,” National Archives (January 7, 1800).