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By Jim Kempton
“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.” —Thomas Jefferson
There is a reason why the founders of our great nation addressed the protection of a free press as their first article in the Bill of Rights: It is the primary guardian of all our other rights. Only with an educated, informed citizenry free to speak peaceably, assemble and petition for redress grievances can an effective democracy sustain its vital institutions.
In our community, most residents rely on local newspapers and community websites to provide needed information and cover important issues for us. With few exceptions, our various media outlets provide accurate, well-researched coverage of issues that help us evaluate and act upon the topics that surround our local life. Small-town Americans as well as larger urban centers depend on the dedicated journalists and observers who research, collect, assemble and disseminate the myriad events evolving daily.
For the most part, my sense is that the more independent a media outlet, the better. It is not just the quality of content the audience receives; it can also be the quantity.
We’ve seen this occur throughout Orange County, the state of California and the rest of the nation, where local papers that used to run five weekly editions have been reduced to printing just one—and that one ends up being bundled with the flagship publication—and sometimes the flagship publication is then bought by a large, national conglomerate.
This forces subscribers to also buy the main paper in order to receive our beloved local publication(s).
For decades, local correspondents report on the local news with evenhanded, comprehensive and amazingly prolific reporting for their respective hometowns. These towns received a lot less of that coverage when the local publications lost autonomy.
The consequence of that subtraction of information flow opened the door to another prized American institution: unfettered competition. Some areas have seen small competitors established in the wake of these transitions.
But it got me to thinking; could a large corporation buy up all the media and own it for its own purposes? What if a local politician accused the town newspapers of being “fake news” because they didn’t like the investigative reporting about them? How would we feel if a big company in town tried to discredit or attack local news organizations because it exposed their wrongdoing?
What if the local sheriff’s department decided one of our papers should be shut down?
It stands to reason that none of the fine City Council members, businesses or sheriffs would think of doing something like that. They’re track record shows they respect the rule of law, the responsibility of their job and the sacred importance of our shared democratic institutions.
Protecting our First Amendment rights are by far our most important—because without media informing us, we don’t even know the rest of our rights are being trampled. Without a free press, no one would be aware that we might be spied on by our government, jailed without charge, poisoned by our water supply or sent to war with false cause.
Without a free press, Stalin would be a hero, Nixon would have served a second term, pesticides would still be unlimited, and smog would still blanket the air. If media professionals couldn’t expose wrongdoing, tobacco would still be innocent of cancer and Wells Fargo would still be fleecing its credit card holders.
That a handful of massive corporate conglomerates now own most of the television, radio and newspapers in America is not a reassuring trend. But to hear our national leader demean this freedom by claiming unassailable facts “fake news” and calling journalists “enemies of the state” is a truly jarring experience.
Because when it comes to true liberty, an unabridged press isn’t just instrumental to freedom—it may, when liberty is strained, be the only one.
Jim Kempton is a local writer and surfer who believes media can be good or bad, but without freedom, it can be nothing but bad. He worries that the freedom of the press may soon be limited to only those with powerful influence.