Editorial: The public's duty to sort truth from falsehood
Thomas Jefferson, among our most eloquent Founding Fathers, talked and wrote frequently about the press -- sometimes glowingly, the way those of us in newsrooms cherish; and sometimes scornfully, the way President Donald Trump can appreciate.
But last week, when we closed our five-part Facts Matter series of Community Ed conversations at the Forest View Educational Center in Arlington Heights, we chose to begin the final installment on the First Amendment with this lesser-known Jefferson observation:
"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 of truth. The most effectual hitherto found is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first (freedom) shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions."
We're drawn to that Jefferson quote because of the obligation it implies for the citizenry: "that man may be governed by reason and truth."
That suggests that if we the people are to be the republic's governors, we have a responsibility to actively seek the truth, not simply to accept our prejudices and impulses, and that we must do so through reason, not emotion.
The founding premise behind the freedoms of speech and press is simply and significantly this: If truth competes with falsehood in our civic debates, the people are wise enough to ensure that truth will out. When we made that point at Northwest Suburban High School District 214's Community Ed program Wednesday, many of the participants responded with mild laughter. And we understood the basis for that laughter.
Are the nation's current civic debates based on reason? And in those debates, does truth defeat fiction? Are we moved by argument or by marketing and manipulation? These are the questions of our times precisely because they strike at the heart of our system of governance and because the answers themselves are unsettling.
Yes, facts matter.
To get at them, we have to work at it. We must be neither Pollyannish nor cynical, but instead constructively skeptical -- to tirelessly search for truth, to think critically, to challenge our own views at the same time we're challenging those of others.
As part of Wednesday's program, we also presented the Freedom Forum Institute's 2018 State of the First Amendment survey results.
Among those results, 40 percent of the people surveyed could not name a single freedom protected by the First Amendment. Almost half!
Only 13 percent knew the First Amendment protects freedom of the press. Thirteen percent!
If those results are any indicator, the citizenry has much work to do.
We all must take our civic responsibilities seriously. Our nation's health and future depend on it.