This resolution succeeded in establishing one of the most meaningful dates in American history. Fluttering quietly between Memorial Day and July 4, and partially obscured by the anticipation of the summer solstice, is Flag Day.
Although not a holiday in the truest sense, this day was set aside as an ardent reminder to all Americans that our freedoms are not free and the sacrifices endured must not be taken lightly.
President Woodrow Wilson said, “When I look at the flag it seems to me as if the white stripes were strips of parchment upon which are written the rights of man, and the red stripes, the streams of blood by which those have been made good.”
Two of those “rights of man” are written in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the Unites States of America, and in part refers to the rights of freedom of speech and the press.
On Flag Day, 1975, noted journalist, war correspondent and then anchor of the ABC Evening News, Howard K. Smith spoke to a joint session of Congress.
Smith was, and has been the only journalist ever afforded this distinguished honor.
Smith was introduced as “one who gives proof through the nightly news that the freedom of speech and press is still there ... and was a citizen who spoke without fear.”
In his speech to Congress, Smith said the adversary principle belonged only in the courtroom. “The adversary principle,” he said, “means simply that one’s mind is made up before the arguments are made and the merits are laid out.
“The prosecutor enters the courtroom prepared to attack, no matter what, and the defense counsel enters the courtroom prepared to defend, right or wrong.
“But in the realms of politics and government and reporting,” Smith said, “I think it is almost immoral to apply that principle — to approach an issue or an individual resolved to oppose before argument has even been heard.”
In reminding Congress that far from their basic relation being one of adversary, they should, from time to time, recall a greater truth that basically their relationship is one.
“The only reason you are here is because all of us cannot fit in here,” Smith said, “so we have reached a demographic device whereby we divide into units of equal population, and each selects one of you to come here and speak for us.
“But, you are us, and we are all striving, by whatever different means, toward the same end — the welfare, the strength and the health of this nation, symbolized by the flag we honor today.”
As a time-honored journalist and ardent patriot, Smith knew the importance of flag and country and the significance of reporting the news accurately.
“The government and the press must realize that they are one in purpose,” Smith said. “We are democracy. It is our most cherished trait, and I think our greatest contribution to the world.
“What worries me is that difficult times intensify frictions, and the friction I fear most is the friction between government, and press or the media. We in the press at times have stressed, and always do — in times of stress we seem to do it more — emphasize the negative, what went wrong; rarely, what went right.
“In a nation whose history indicates that most things went right, we often tend to demoralize rather than inform. We must fend off these tendencies to a hostile and destructive collision, at any cost. We must above all, count our unequaled blessings. We possess every material means of solving any problem we face.
“We need to embrace more ardently than ever the symbol of our common endeavor, the flag,” Smith said.
Journalists of Smith’s caliber may indeed be a rarity, but his message of 43 years ago is still relevant today.
Our flag and freedoms are one, and must not be abused, by the government or the press.
When you see this great nation’s flag flying, remember this paper’s motto: “What the people don’t know WILL hurt them,” and thank God that we’re here.
Larry French lives in Butler. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and teaches composition and literature at East Tennessee State University. You may reach him at FRENCHL@etsu.edu