Asked to choose “whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government,” Thomas Jefferson stated, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Today, Jefferson wouldn’t have that choice; due to economics, electronic media and the internet, newspapers face extinction. In their stead, according to the Pew Research Center, about 45 percent of US adults get their “news” from Facebook, while Fox is the most viewed cable news network.
But both Facebook and Fox have stated that their business is entertainment, not news.
All contracts — including the social contract we call democracy — require “informed consent.” But millions of Americans are deeply un-informed: 34 percent of Americans reject evolution; 22 percent of millenials are unaware of the Holocaust!
There’s good reason why children, lunatics and those of “diminished capacity” — folks who can’t understand what they’re signing up for — are legally barred from signing contracts. There’s reason to worry that gobs of us now fall into that “diminished capacity” category — folks who vote without understanding what they’re signing up for.
Upon retiring after 40 years of newspapering in the Roaring Fork Valley, John Colson told The Sun that, “people need newspapers or some equivalent…to keep them informed about what’s going on around them, so people can make educated decisions about politics, about society. I believe an informed electorate is critical to the American Experiment at the very least, and maybe to the future of the world.”
Corey Hutchins, Columbia Journalism Review’s Rocky Mountain correspondent, says that Colorado provides a microcosm for journalism nationwide. Here, he writes, “We have elusive billionaire newspaper owners, secretive hedge-fund owners, reader-supported nonprofits and family owners.”
For years, the Pulitzer-prize-winning Denver Post was the only news organization that covered statewide politics and elected officials. But more than two-thirds of the Post’s newsroom has been axed in the past decade. Last April, when the paper’s hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital, demanded deeper cuts despite profitability, staff rebelled, penning an editorial describing Alden managers as “vulture capitalists.”
In the last 10 years, the loss of half of Colorado’s press corps has predictably led to “a new generation of public officials…accustomed to fielding fewer tough questions, handling fewer open records requests, and having fewer cameras pointed at them than their predecessors.” That observation comes from Colorado Independent Editor Susan Greene.
Greene is alarmed. Not only was a reporter handcuffed for photographing Denver cops arresting a naked panhandler, but Colorado’s Supreme Court has also refused to open records about a prosecutor’s misconduct. The Court’s decision in the Mario Owens case, Greene writes, “has made Colorado the only state without a presumptive First Amendment right to review any court documents. No other court in the nation has gone so far.”
Since 1733, when New York Weekly Journal publisher John Peter Zenger was imprisoned for criticizing a corrupt royal governor, reporting has at times proved hazardous: In 1984, neo-Nazis murdered Denver radio host Alan Berg. Reporter Chauncey Bailey was murdered in Oakland in 2007. But last April’s shooting of five staffers at the Annapolis Capital Gazette thrust us into foreign territory — the US now ranks among the top nations in journalists killed on the job!
Although Trump expressed sympathy for the Gazette, he nonetheless instigates. He calls the press “the enemy of the people” and rails against “fake news” while having told 4,229 documented lies since assuming the presidency. Supporters at his campaign rallies wore T-shirts that read: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”
The Washington Post’s motto puts the danger succinctly: democracy dies in darkness.
Through the murk, I do see a couple of rays of sunshine: Sept. 10 marked the dawning of the Colorado Sun, a statewide, online news organization formed by 10 journalists who fled the Denver Post. Last week, The Sopris Sun published its 500th issue.
Although I count this valley fortunate in still having local newspapers, they’re all financially fragile. Greene explains that “a free press is a financially sustainable press that’s independent enough to keep asking hard questions of people in power, regardless of fallout from funding sources.” None of our local news outlets are robust enough to ask hard questions, let alone powerful enough to investigate local businesses that buy ads.
That’s why I’m taking Greene’s advice and paying for my news. In addition to subscribing to the New York Times and Washington Post, I donate annually to The Sopris Sun and KDNK radio. I also have added a Colorado Sun subscription.
If you value democracy, I urge you to do likewise. Also, plan to attend KDNK’s Your News, Your Community forum, at 4 p.m. Oct. 13, to hear from Western Slope newspapers in the Colorado Media Alliance about these topics.
Originally published in the “Seeking Higher Ground” column in the Sopris Sun on September 20, 2018