Streep’s Speech: In Defense of the Free Press

Meryl Streep used her acceptance of the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes to stress the importance of freedom of the press. Here’s why that matters.

Last year was a difficult one for the American press. The press had to contend with worrying suggestions that libel laws be “opened up”, the appearance of online “fake news,” and growing public distrust of the media. (Though if it is any consolation, the press is still better regarded than Congress.) And all this occurred in the midst of a contentious and cacophonous election year that has left most of the country exhausted.

Meryl Streep’s comments at the Golden Globe Awards Sunday night were therefore especially pointed. Streep, who received a lifetime achievement award, used her acceptance speech to praise Hollywood’s diversity and emphasize the important role that the press and the arts play in society. She also sharply criticized President-elect Trump’s comments about the press and individual reporters. Noting the importance of the press, Streep urged the audience to consider supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists as a means of aiding journalists in their critical role in holding power accountable.

It would be easy for those who do not share Streep’s views on President-elect Trump — or who are generally distrustful of Hollywood and major media outlets — to simply write off Streep’s comments as so much special pleading. This would be a mistake. Streep’s point about the importance of a free press holds true for anyone — left, right, or center — who cares about a free and flourishing society. While many of us may strongly oppose the editorial stances of certain newspapers or may be tempted, in frustration, to throw a shoe at our television when a particularly disliked commentator appears, the principle of a free press stands above partisan divides. We should not take freedom of the press for granted.

In the 17th century, English poet John Milton defended the idea of a free press in his classic work Areopagitica. Milton inveighed against the licensing of the press, which had been common in England, arguing that to silence writers would be to obstruct the search for truth. Alongside the recognition of individual and political rights, a free press is a foundation stone of the “mansion house of liberty.”

A free press is crucial to the infrastructure of free societies. It allows individuals to articulate their views, learn about alternative perspectives, and debate different outlooks. Those who are dissatisfied can advocate for change, even if the majority disagrees with them, by writing an op-ed or taking to the airwaves. Engaging in our free (though often heated) national dialogue offers the opportunity to make a case and attempt to persuade our neighbors and fellow citizens. Lastly, a free press is also, as Streep emphasized, the watchdog of a free society in that it promotes accountability from our public officials.

We all should be vigilant against any threats to a free press, and we must acknowledge the fundamental principle of free speech that underlies it. This is true no matter where we get our news or what our positions are on the issues. Those that hold power must resist the temptation to abuse that power to silence their critics.