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"I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachment of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."

-James Madison

James Madison's star amid the galaxy of this nation's Founders is sometimes eclipsed by Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, but as the author of the First Amendment, his legacy to liberty is secure.

Those who helped apply the original glue that holds this republic together were possessed of wondrous vision and a grasp of human nature, particularly its strengths and foibles in the wielding of power.

They knew from experience that tyranny's greatest enemy is knowledge, the power of ideas free to compete, inquire and challenge staid assumption and, if necessary, authority.

They introduced a grand experiment, the proposition that the governed are sovereign, the repository of governmental power. They also knew that an ignorant citizenry could make a powerful mess of the experiment.

Because they didn't trust the nature of human beings to be happily predisposed in avoiding venality, greed and the lust for power, they set the branches of government at odds, to guard each other. But in Madison's view, that wasn't far enough. He wanted something outside government, a force that could hold those who govern accountable.

"A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

That was the foundation for a free press: an independent institution that would open the vault of knowledge and keep it open to the citizenry, regardless of whether it satisfied those temporarily holding political power.

The arrangement has worked tolerably well. The Constitution has weathered the storms of more than two centuries, and in that time the press has matured from the vitriolic broadsheets of the 18th century, through the era of scandalous "yellow journalism," into the probing scrutiny of the likes of A.J. Leibling, H.L. Mencken and Edward R. Murrow and now to the modern, satellite-fed, laser-etched media of today.

Of course, it's not a perfect world: For every reputable effort to report the political, economic or social news essential to the public's understanding of their world, we suffer journalistic abominations that line the grocery store shelves, the steamy sensationalism of TV news "magazines" and the undisciplined rant-ings of talk radio.

Then, too, even the good ones bungle or even miss the big stories, misspell names, misquote sources, exercise bad judgment and lose perspective, as with the carnival in Los Angeles at the O.J. Simpson trial.

In constitutional theory, the media exist for the benefit of the people so that they may acquire the knowledge that "will forever govern ignorance." Those of us on this side try very hard to provide that information, with varying success, but we become a little distressed when we read that seven Americans in 10 don't know that the First Amendment is part of the Constitution.

Many view the press as "rude, biased, subject to outside influence and prone to other sins," according to a Gallup Poll a few years ago. Sometimes we are guilty. But we must do some things pretty well because public confidence appears to be broad, if shallow.

Those who don't like us, who see us as "out of touch" or pliable instruments of socialist manipulators - or worse, the Trilateral Commission - refuse to accept the idea that sometimes we just blow it, simply botch it in an absence of malice through simple human lapses under deadline pressure.

I expect that those who report the news and those who read or watch and listen don't understand each other as well as we need to. We could all start by returning to the thoughts of those like Madison and Jefferson who called us to eternal vigilance, to gird ourselves with knowledge - thorough, wide-ranging and diverse - against the peril of ignorance.

The greatest danger to this democracy is not so much the threat of violence and terrorism from our enemies as the worship of material comfort and complacent satisfaction with the superficial slogans and gossamer propaganda of politicians, celebrities and advertising flacks.

Our danger lies in a lack of determined curiosity about why things are as they are, and not better. As Robert Kennedy used to say, we can do better, but we'll have to think hard about some awfully complicated problems. To do that, we must arm ourselves with knowledge to ward off the flurry of simplistic solutions floating around these days in the political ether.

As Madison understood, grand experiments cannot succeed in the laboratory of ignorance.