By silencing reporters, crisis in journalism poses threat to democracy at every level
Author: - June 20, 2009 - Updated: June 20, 2009
One of the unintended consequences of the closing of 1,900 or so Chrysler and GM dealerships is yet another blow to the newspaper industry. Car dealers have always bought lots of ad space, and those dollars pay for reporters who cover city councils as well as county, state and federal governments — and do their best to keep them honest.
We are witnessing the death of reporting in this country, and that loss threatens our republic far more than anything an extreme left- or right-wing government could ever do.
Note that I use the word “reporting.” Good journalism can be delivered through broadcasts, in print and on the Web. However, the salaries of the men and women who have written the most important stories of our time came from classified and other ads, and subscriptions. Information may want to be free, as some dreamers claim, but when it comes to journalism, you get what you pay for.
What you get is better government, on every level. A city councilman in a small town was paving the driveways of friends with taxpayer asphalt. The local newspaper ran a story, the crook resigned, and his corrupt practice came to a grinding halt.
Just this year, The Daily Telegraph, a London newspaper, found that dozens of members of Parliament were fleecing the public by billing the government for personal expenses such as cleaning a private moat. This exposé, months in the making, emerged on the paper’s Web site as well as in print. The worst offenders felt the wrath of the voters in the subsequent election.
In many discussions about the journalism crisis — and it is a crisis — too much attention is focused on which medium distributes the news. It’s not bloggers versus newspapers or “new media” against the old. That’s like arguing about chairs versus bleachers on the decks of the Titanic. To best keep a check on government, you need trained reporters who can follow a complex story and have editorial supervision to guide them and the resources to stay independent. How the news gets out is not as important as the fact that it does get out.
When newspapers close, the news doesn’t get out. While every despotic country around the world is tyrannical in its own way, the one thing they all have in common is repression of a free press. Corrupt leaders — from small-town driveway pavers to murderous thugs — cannot abide the bright light of independent reporting and commentary.
The crisis in the American press is much more than a series of sad stories in the business section. When American steel mills closed, construction companies still were able to buy I-beams. When clothiers went overseas, there was no shortage of shirts and suits. But nothing from foreign shores can replace the power of the American press. The newspaper crisis is far more threatening than the problems with banks and insurance companies.
Various people are trying to figure out how to keep doing good reporting and get paid for it. We need to encourage them and support their efforts, for they are of vital importance to us as individuals and as a nation.
All of us have much more skin in this game than we think.
Boulder attorney Jim Martin, a former Republican, served as an at-large member of the University of Colorado Board of Regents from 1993 to 2005.