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TIME staff portrait: Nancy Gibbs
Peter Hapak for TIME

Jefferson's Warning to the White House

Feb 02, 2017

During the campaign of 1800, an opposition newspaper warned that if Thomas Jefferson were elected President, "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced ... the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes." And still it was Jefferson who argued that given the choice between "a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government," he wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter. Two hundred and forty years since the founding of the country, a free press remains democracy's killer app.

Nearly every President has found much to dislike in news coverage--Harry Truman referred to press clippings as "the day's poison"--but seldom have reporters been the target of such relentless hostility as we are seeing from the current Administration. Barely a day in office, President Trump declared his "running war" with the media; top adviser Stephen Bannon calls the press "the opposition party" that should "keep its mouth shut," and Kellyanne Conway suggests that if journalism were a "real business," 20% of the media would have been fired for all the things they got wrong.

To demonize the press, to characterize it as not just mistaken but malign, is to lay the groundwork for repression. The American public came through a spirited, exhausting, divisive election season anything but repressed. An argument over the direction of the country, the focus of policy, the priorities and values that should guide us is alive in the streets and online and in the pages and screens of our media. That's as it should be. That argument makes us smarter and connects us to the government that serves in our name.

At a time when the media is ever more fractured and siloed, and much of it partisan on both sides, TIME is one of the few remaining institutions that speaks to a broad and global audience. Our audience has never been bigger, and we are at our most effective when we welcome debate and discussion from all compass points. I know from my own inbox and social feeds that both praise and criticism of what we do come from left, right and points between, and that's where we live: at the center of a conversation that must be civil, rational and open-minded. We are committed to independent inquiry, defending the possibility of progress, holding the powerful to account and providing an arena where diverse voices and visions compete. Our purpose is not to tell people what to think; it is to help them decide what to think about.

The enemy in any democracy is not dissent, from either within or without. Dissent, in fact, is essential. The enemy is dishonesty, ignorance, indifference, intolerance. The ability to hold journalists accountable has never been greater, and we take legitimate criticism as a challenge to do better. Attempts to suppress, dismiss and control, on the other hand, we understand as exactly what Thomas Jefferson warned against.

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