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A Free Press Works For All of Us

[Editor's note: after repeated claim since 2017 by President Trump accusing journalists of being, "the enemy of the people," more than 300 local and national newspapers responded during August. Today's guest post includes ProPublica's response. It is reprinted with permission.]

By Stephen Engelberg, Editor-in-Chief, ProPublica

ProPublica does not have an editorial page, and we have never advocated for a particular policy to address the wrongs our journalism exposes. But from the very beginning of our work more than a decade ago, we have benefited enormously from the traditions and laws that protect free speech. And so today, as the nation’s news organizations remind readers of the value of robust journalism, it seems fitting to add our voice.

ProPublica specializes in investigative reporting — telling stories with “moral force” that hold government, businesses and revered institutions to account. There are few forms of journalism more vulnerable to pressure from the powerful. What we publish can change the outcome of elections, reverse policies, embarrass police or prosecutors and cost companies boatloads of money. The main subjects of our work, in most cases, would much prefer that our reporting never appear or be substantially watered down.

The framers of our Constitution fully understood the importance of protecting a robust, sometimes raucous press. It is no coincidence that the very first amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” They had lived under a system in which a powerful monarch could use the law of seditious libel to accomplish the 18th-century version of “lock her up.” They wanted no part of it.

In the 21st century, journalism — at least as practiced on cable television — is becoming a craft in which partisans put forth or omit facts to advance their preferred political perspective. Those who bring to light uncomfortable truths are dismissed as “fake news” or, in our case, the work of the “Soros-funded” ProPublica, the all-purpose, vaguely anti-Semitic epithet meant to connote left-wing bias. (For the record, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations fund less than 2 percent of our operations.)

We have covered Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. We’re proud to say that we’ve annoyed them all with journalism that revealed serious shortcomings. We revealed that Bush had granted pardons to nearly four times as many white applicants as blacks; we ceaselessly hammered Obama for his failure to provide mortgage relief he’d promised ordinary homeowners; and we’ve vigorously covered Trump’s crackdown on immigrants, notably disclosing an audio recording of wailing children in a shelter. Democrats and Republicans have come under our scrutiny. We disclosed how California’s Democrats had manipulated the state’s redistricting process; however, we also reported that Republicans had used dark money and redistricting in other states to win the House in 2012, even though GOP congressional candidates won far fewer votes in aggregate than Democrats.

Journalists inevitably make mistakes along the way, and we’ve had our share at ProPublica. But the argument advanced by Trump and his allies — that journalists are the “enemy of the people” who sit around making up fake stories to undermine his administration — is palpably false. In fact, to use a word we have shied away from in our coverage, it’s a lie. And the president knows it.

For our part, we’re both proud and pleased to live in a country where one can still say that.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

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