At a time when the US president routinely complains about fake news* and calls members of the press enemies of the people, I find this quote from our third US president, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), worth contemplating:
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.
I recently watched Spotlight, a movie chronicling the Pulitzer-prize-winning journalism that in 2002 woke the country to the Catholic clergy sex-abuse scandal in Boston. Because of the work of those journalists, powerful people were confronted, and some changes happened. Though clearly not enough changes: a summit meeting last month at the Vatican addressed the ongoing abuses that continue to happen (17 years later) throughout the US and around the world. It’s frankly alarming to contemplate how widespread the abuses continue to be, and how consistently the organization prioritizes protecting reputations over protecting children and other vulnerable people.†
Jefferson probably knew of a few things happening in government that should not have happened, and knew that public accountability was facilitated by the journalism of his time. Today, when we’re often swimming in words and images (and I thank you for reading a few of mine), it can be difficult to identify accurate, objective information, and to find thoughtful analysis. I think looking for both is important, perhaps now more than ever.
The venerable Washington Post, first published in 1877, bears a striking slogan on its masthead:
Last week was Sunshine Week, an initiative designed to highlight “the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy,” or in other words, the sort of darkness in which democracy’s health is compromised.
I’ll add to the mix this anonymous quote, often misattributed to George Orwell:
Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.§
When a government wants something hidden, journalists do us a service by shining light on those things that we need to know about.
I don’t think we’ll ever have newspapers without a government, but if we have government without enough people scrutinizing its activities, or without people who care enough to take notice of the facts they uncover, we put ourselves at risk.
*I have no doubt that some news is fake. But from my observation, Trump usually applies this label to coverage critical of him or his actions or plans, rather than to instances of coverage that’s demonstrably false, like the allegation that Barak Obama was not a US citizen, for instance.
†Along with statistics about terrible sexual abuse of children, I learned of many cases of priests preying on nuns, then forcing them to have abortions. If the nuns complain, they’re often ignored or threatened with punishment or expulsion. I certainly hope that exposure of such practices will lead to substantive changes.
§Another variation, also anonymous, found on a placard on an editor’s desk at a Chicago newspaper: Whatever a patron desires to get published is advertising; whatever he wants to keep out of the paper is news. More on the topic here.
[Images: commons.wikipedia.org, fandango.com, washingtonpost.com, sunshineweek.org, paulbr75 at pixabay.com]