Democracy needs a local press
May 10, 2023
As publisher of the Weekly News, I will be on a panel discussing “The Future of Local Journalism: Is It Important to Our Democracy?” Monday May 15 at the Mount Vernon high school.
In the United States, where our Declaration of Independence holds as self-evident truth “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” self-evident also is the press’ central, fundamental role in the functioning of our democracy. Newspapers are baked into society's governance, hammered into the Constitution in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Since every level of government, from every statehouse to the smallest town hall, abides by the Constitution, governing in a community is lessened – indeed harmed – if a vibrant local press is absent.
There is a cliche, that the press functions as a watchdog on local institutions. Those institutions can be the country commissioners, the town council, the school board, but also your library board, dike district commissioners or even a library or public works director.
The word “your” was just used. Those government entities work, indeed exist, for you. Your local newspaper is the scribe taking notes and reporting on mostly mundane activities so you – citizens of your communities – do not have to attend meetings. No. If you have a local press you can read about local going ons in that press.
Local democracy working well is not all about meetings or budgets or government, but when elections take place, a still vital way to learn about candidates and issues is, yes, your local newspaper.
Central to democracy are information and education. Citizens educate themselves on issues and candidates by reading what they are offering, and what they are saying to win your vote, in the newspaper.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, in 1787, “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.”
Jefferson's time was not a simpler time than ours. But it was a slower time, a period in civilization’s existence when people had and took time to think and reflect and talk and debate issues with many fewer distractions and evasions. There was no electricity to power radio, TV and computers and so many fewer modes of duplicity and deceit.
Can your local newspaper be deceitful? Yes. Will you be satisfied for long if it often is? I hope not, because that is your role as citizens in a democracy, to participate by thinking critically and separating the wheat from the chaff.
Newspapers exist to serve you. They don't report to read their own words. They report for you to read the words on the printed page, to think critically and reflect on the activities of the day and to find the facts you need to decide your future.
The free press. That is a term seldom used now, though newspapers used to name themselves that, such as the Detroit Free Press. Of course, the press is no more free than are our country’s citizens. We all have to work for our freedom.
That is what democracy is, citizens getting the information they need, debating positions, sharing information and coming together to decide what actions they are going to take next week, next year in the next decade and for the next generation. The deciding together based on shared information is what makes a democracy. You can do that without a local newspaper in your community. But would it be easier to participate in a democracy without a newspaper in your community?
The Skagit League of Women Voters forum on democracy and journalism is 6:30 p.m. May 15th at the Mount Vernon High School Auditorium.