Read All About It:
Press is Failing in its Duty to Keep America Free

by Charley Reese

If I had to identify one thing that is the biggest threat to America continuing as a free society, I would have to say it's my colleagues and I – the press. We are failing in our duty.

William Randolph Hearst stated that duty succinctly some years ago: "According to the American principle and practice the public is the ruler of the State, and in order to rule rightly it must be informed correctly."

The operative word is correctly. It is impossible for American citizens to form intelligent judgments of their elected officials without a steady flow of correct, unbiased, unsensationalized news of their governments at all levels. Most Americans simply do not get that from either newspapers or television. If you do, then you are one of the lucky few, and you ought to express your appreciation.

Unfortunately, the trend is to newspapers that devote far more space to entertainment news than to their own state Legislatures. Unfortunately, Americans are far more informed about the lives of essentially useless people in the entertainment industry than they are of the daily conduct of their elected officials.

Take this little test. Read your newspaper 365 days and at the end of that time, ask yourself: Do I know what my congressmen did during the past year? Do I know what my U.S. senators did? Do I know what important new laws my state Legislature passed? Can I feel confident that I am informed about the workings of my local government?

Thomas Jefferson keenly appreciated the necessity of a free and responsible press, but even he, in his day, became deeply depressed by its poor performance.

"At present it is disreputable," Jefferson said, "to state a fact on newspaper authority; and the newspapers of our country by their abandoned spirit of falsehood, have more effectively destroyed the utility of the press than all the shackles devised by Bonaparte."

On another occasion, he wrote to a friend, "The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. It is a melancholy truth that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood."

A century later, H.L. Mencken, himself a newspaperman, could still write, "The average newspaper, especially of the better sort, has the intelligence of a hillbilly evangelist, the courage of a rat, the fairness of a prohibitionist boob-jumper, the information of a high school janitor, the taste of a designer of celluloid valentines, and the honor of a police-station lawyer."

Some years ago, when I was on the other side of the fence and working in state government, I quickly realized that the press had absolutely zero interest in the workings of government. The attitude was that unless there is a controversy or scandal, don't wake me up.

If anything, this attitude has become worse. And it has a demoralizing effect on good public servants and good public officials. Of course, the press' attitude delights the bad officials. They know that the press is too lazy to dig out any of their shenanigans.

Unfortunately, the news media seem to prefer propaganda campaigns to straight reporting. The political agendas of the national government and the national press are identical. The press has become the junkyard dog of the political establishment. You would think that someone who intended to sell his soul would want more than a bone and a pat on the head, but that's probably a fair price, considering the state of the souls in question.

Published in The Orlando Sentinel on May 11, 2000

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14 may 2000