In 1999 I was a young fighter pilot flying over Iraq during Operation Southern Watch. Given the opposing goals of the military and press—one wishing to tell an engaging story to a deserving public and one wishing to maintain security—I did not hold the press in very high regard. As the son of a Vietnam veteran, I was the product of the view that the press reveled in helping lose that war. I was no fan, and so, when a colonel selected me among all the pilots at our base in Kuwait to talk to the Washington Post about our mission, I was less than enthusiastic. He said he needed a “steely-eyed” warrior to explain to them what we were doing. I wasn’t sure I exactly knew. The story completely altered my view of the press and the important job they do.
The reporter was Dana Priest, and she would go on to receive two Pulitzers for later work. This was a front-page story, back when that physical space had gravitas, and it told the clearest picture of no-fly-zone enforcement in Southwest Asia I had read. My pithy quote about how training takes over when the bullets start flying was there, but nothing else I said made the piece. I was just seasoning for an in-depth look at what U.S. air forces were tasked with, why, and their effectiveness in a combat zone almost no one knew about anymore. She nailed it—objective, accurate, and important.
Today, far too many people fall for hyper-partisan media outlets or fiction factories meant to drive traffic to advertising sites. Far too many believe outright lies then bounce them around their circle of like-minded people. We care too much about what some celebrity is saying on social media than what disciplined, objective journalists from outlets now known derisively as the “main-stream media” are providing by hard-nosed, intensively researched, multi-sourced, investigative journalism. The incidents over this campaign season of rally-goers threatening violence toward members of the Fourth Estate—the only one capable of ultimately holding their authoritarian candidate in check—were chilling.
Sure, the press gets it wrong sometimes, but more often than not, they get it right. They uncover presidentially-decreed break-ins at opponents’ headquarters. They illuminate philandering in the Oval Office. They report on arms-for-hostages deals and international money laundering run out of the White House. They hold a mirror to our morality and reflect our great failures on the treatment of those we won’t even call prisoners of war. They show us the devastation we failed to prevent in the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.
I have dealt with the press many times since my debut on the front page of the Post. They are frustratingly intrusive, constantly inquisitive, and sometimes overly ambitious. We better hope so. They are also very careful, highly protective of their sources, and concerned above all else about their credibility. They are professionals.
Credibility is one thing partisans and news fiction writers scoff. They mock you with their indifference to verifiable fact. Hannity still pulls down millions after failing to vet then siding with an insurrectionist and blatant racist over western land rights. Retired General Flynn is still the National Security Advisor nominee after retweeting a fake feed about Hillary Clinton’s culpability in sex crimes with minors. On the other hand, both Dan Rather and Brian Williams were removed from anchor positions at major networks for propagating falsities. Professionals care when they get it wrong, and such care drives rarity.
Our Founders knew the survival of the republic hinged on a free press, so they enumerated a prohibition about the abridgement thereof. Be thankful they did. And be thankful there are those willing to exercise that freedom in an increasingly difficult and even hostile environment. They stand between you and the tyranny of ignorance. And that is all that stands between you and real tyranny.