Why the Free Press is Like Your Car’s Maintenance Light

A thought occurred to me yesterday which I was rather surprised at having thought, since it came to me so seemingly randomly, having the qualities of the sudden recollection of a fleeting dream, coming with such force and clarity so as to make me question from whence it came.

The press — newspapers, reporters, investigators, and yes, even blogs (well, some of them) — is, collectively, like the “Maintenance Required” light on your car.

Once in a while — for what reason no one can really determine except to say that it varies from occasion to occasion — the maintenance light on your car’s dashboard lights up. When this happens, there are two courses of actions which one may take. The first, and most prudent, is to pay attention to it, to take the car to a mechanic or someone who truly knows how to work with the car, and ask them what may be wrong. It may simply be that the light went on for some formulaic reason, some pre-programmed time in which maintenance is required. At other times, the light may simply go on accidentally, not really indicating that there is anything wrong other than the maintenance light itself requiring attention. Finally, there are those situations in which there is something actually wrong with the engine, requiring immediate intervention by an experienced mechanic. It is during these times that the light “earns its keep,” to use an old adage. Of course, there are times when there is something wrong with the car which requires immediate attention which is not reported by the check engine light, perhaps due to a malfunctioning of the light itself, or more commonly, because it is outside the scope of the maintenance checking system which activates the light. In these cases, only after the problem has arisen will the problem be known to exist, and only afterward can it be addressed.

The second course of action involves gambling by inaction, when the light, instead of being heeded, is ignored. At these times, the light is treated only as a bothersome cricket chirping away as as your retina listens, with no actual purpose to its existence other than to annoy. While it may be that the driver by ignoring the light is taking the correct course of action — that the light is merely on because it is malfunctioning, or because it is flagging something so small as to be inconsequential to the functioning of the vehicle — to do so is nothing short of a high stakes gamble. After all, if there is something actually wrong with the vehicle then ignoring the light is no wiser than putting a sticker over it or smashing it with a hammer in order to make it go away. If left unheeded too long, may cause the engine to be damaged, sometime irreparably, leaving the car usable again only after the replacement thereof. To ignore the system when it indicates that there is something wrong is to invite disaster, in the same way disaster is invited when the driver hears an unfamiliar sound emanating from the vehicle, and instead of taking it to a mechanic, decides to turn up the radio so that the sound is drowned out. The radio can only play so loudly before the driver notices that the car has stopped, and by this time it is too late: the car will need major repairs.

The lesson of all this, of course, is to pay attention to your car’s maintenance warning signals by inspecting the vehicle whenever an issue arises. This ensures the longevity of our vehicle. Of course, the question remains as to what this has to do with the free press. I will explain:

The free press, for all intents and purposes, serves as the vehicle’s engine checking system for a government of free peoples. When it is working properly, the function of the press is to oversee the government’s actions and delve deeper into anything which may be cause for concern, raising a red flag if necessary. Some times — many times — some ambitious, young investigative reporter will uncover what he believes to be government corruption at all levels, his only evidence being that the town’s elected dog catcher has just added shrubbery to the dog park next to his house with funds intended for the welfare of dogs. (It could be argued that the actions are related, but I digress.) While serious enough that the issue should be investigated, the issue can probably be safely ignored, with no serious long-term harm done to the system.

If, on the other hand, that ambitious, young reporter discovers that the government has been using funds intended for the welfare of the public as a no-interest loan to a multinational corporation, or using the funds to give himself and a select few some “bonus” money, or found that the government has been fabricating evidence in order to propagate the idea that an unnecessary war is actually necessary, then it is the responsibility of the people to press on and investigate the issue more closely, by taking it to the vanguard of our constitutional republic itself: the system of checks and balances. If that system is not properly working, then it is the responsibility of the people to find a way in which to properly investigate possible improprieties and determine whether or not there really is something wrong, usually by firing the members of the group that isn’t working and bringing in new members who will perform the duty asked of them, like one would fire a mechanic who was looking at the engine and insisting nothing was wrong and to ignore the light, only to have the car breakdown a day later. A good mechanic would make sure to look through the car with a careful eye, performing tests which will tell conclusively whether there really is something wrong with the vehicle. Likewise, good public servants would investigate their own in order to ensure that the governmental vehicle is functioning properly. To do otherwise would be to invite disaster.

Currently, there are a number of investigations going on involving possible corruption by people in the highest levels of our government. Many are calling these witch hunts, and calling for the press to discontinue their relentless investigating of these officials, even if the answers for their actions are antithetical to the spirit of the law. These who call these investigations witch hunts would do well to remember that it is the job of the press to not only make sure everything is running as it should be, but also to report on and flag situations where not all is quite as it seems, and that it is the job of the different branches of government to find out why the maintenance light on the government’s vehicle is on. To do otherwise would be to invite disaster, and eventually lose the vehicle.

Freedom loving peoples all over the world will forever know intrinsically that it is the job of their press to flag even the smallest impropriety for further investigation, to be the maintenance light in the vehicle of their system of government. If this press is instead found to be serving as an arm of the government, to work only at the beckoning of the mechanic, then the people must realize that it is no longer of any real use and must be discarded, as must the system of government itself.

I am thankful every day that we live in a society in which free press still exists, where reporters write not propaganda for the government, or even one political party — at least not on the whole, despite what some who follow political parties blindly believe — but instead write what they see. It is the job of our elected officials, like our mechanics, to ensure that the vehicle is working properly, and that any issues be addressed immediately if necessary. And it is our job as a people to be the ultimate check and balance, to ensure that our vehicle runs at optimal performance, and to verify that the mechanic is really doing his job. If either the maintenance checking systems on the vehicle or the mechanics are not doing their job, then it is our job to fire the mechanic, replace the maintenance requirement checking system, and if necessary discard the vehicle (and the mechanic) and acquire another more suited for our needs.

  • No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free no one ever will.
  • The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.
  • Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.
  • I am… for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.

All of these are quotes by one of history’s most ardent supporter of the free press: Thomas Jefferson, a man who thought far ahead of his own time. You can read more of Jefferson’s quotes, including those involving the responsibilities of the press and his criticisms of it, online. The lesson here is that no one side has a lock on fairness, not even the press itself, and it is ultimately the job of the people to ensure that their freedom is protected by protecting their vehicles, and taking action as necessary in order to ensure that their needs and wants are met.

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