Even as industry roils, press keeps watch on democracy

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Thomas Jefferson’s 266th birthday came and went on April 13 without much notice by Americans.

At Monticello, Mr. Jefferson’s historic home near Charlottesville, Va., the U.S. Army’s Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps provided music, and wreaths were presented to honor the anniversary of Jefferson's birth. The relatively modest pomp and ceremony were duly noted in the press.

Jefferson famously once remarked that given a choice between government without newspapers and newspapers without government, he “would not hesitate to prefer the latter.”

But in recent years, it has become more likely that the former might just come about for reasons other than preference. A worsening economy and the financial and social inroads of all kinds of new media — from “24-7” cable television to the omnipresent Internet to Twitter and its ilk — have battered the balance sheets, decimated some newsrooms and drawn away readers.

Defenders of journalism as we have known it quite rightly point out that print and also broadcast television still command large audiences and those outlets remain the major sources of news and information for most Americans, despite a growing charge to the Web led by younger readers and viewers.

Many also fear the switch from paper to computer screen will deprive us of the benefit of having the free press serve its fundamental role as a “watchdog” on government.

But not all feel that way.

Critics and pundits are challenging the idea of newspapers as democracy’s defender, saying voters can get information elsewhere and that citizens can track legislative acts and evaluate government policies via other sources. A columnist for Editor & Publisher, the industry’s own trade magazine, recently (and correctly) slammed the press-as-watchdogs who — as the headline over his column put it — “failed to bark on economy.” He and others also have noted the news media’s collective failure to expose bogus government claims regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

But we also need to acknowledge there were a number of examples in recent months of where newspaper journalists were watching over and looking out for the public good. The latest Associated Press Managing Editors newsletter reports:

  • In Fort Wayne, Ind., The Journal Gazette detailed the ease by which mortgage fraud and false filings with a county clerk can be committed even in today’s more-regulated marketplace.
  • The Dominion Post, in Morgantown, W.Va., continued to investigate and question the operations of a board that governs the city’s publicly funded senior center.
  • The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Tenn., reported on contributions to the mayor’s annual Christmas party that wound up in the mayor’s pocket.
  • In Los Angeles, the Daily News reported on sizeable tax bills being sent to home-based businesses as a result of a faulty assumption.
  • The Spokesman-Review, in Washington state, found in a public-records search that prosecutors declined to charge a former sheriff’s deputy, in spite of having evidence of a crime, simply because the man was a veteran officer.

The APME list goes on, with newspapers from Dallas to Denver to Miami to Washington, D.C., exposing waste in government and dangerous trends in crime and health care. And then there are the hundreds, if not thousands, of government meetings, decrees, bills, plans and pronouncements held up to scrutiny each week in the nation’s dailies and weeklies, and on local and network TV news programs.

Missing the “Big Story” on WMDs or on the economic collapse were huge mistakes that deserve examination and criticism. And certainly the newspapers of Jefferson’s era were partisan, political journals that didn’t do much in terms of holding government accountable in a modern sense.

But Jefferson preferred “the latter” out of a belief that a free press was needed to provide a balance and a forum for citizens to get information and debate issues.

That even in very challenging times the newspapers of our era have continued — and expanded — on such a Jeffersonian role is worth celebrating on his birthday.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.