A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Journalism vital, despite Williams and O’Reilly

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., March 2, 3 or 4

Some people have reacted to questionable assertions made by Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and NBC’s Brian Williams and generalized all journalists to be like those two entertainers. Hogwash. Most journalists – whether news reporters or commentators, obituary writers or sports anchors, bloggers or art critics – are honest and hard-working local people, not celebrities.

And against attacks by frenzied talk radio and cable TV, journalists and newspapers must be defended as vital for a democratic society. Here are some reminders:

Colorado columnist Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard, said, “It's easy enough to join the masses in cursing mass media, to shove newspapers into that sack and shake it while chanting about negativity, bias, shallowness, tastelessness and more. It is less a crowd-pleaser to break out of that stereotype into an awareness of a broader truth about the extraordinary accomplishments of print journalism in our time and the meaning of this for our pluralistic, democratic society.

“We tend, I think, to take all this for granted,” Ambrose continued. “But pause to consider how much less you would know about the world you live in without newspapers. Your experience of your life would be less rich, less discerning, alert or aware. It would be as if someone were dimming the lights, and those of us who are now newspaper readers would be more prone to stumbling and to misunderstandings, more likely to miss opportunities and to march into danger.”

Former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson in “The Wit and Wisdom of Adlai Stevenson” added, “The sources of information are the springs from which democracy drinks. A free society means a society based on free competition, and there is no more important competition than competition in ideas, competition in opinion.”

Dean Baquet, former editor of the Los Angeles Times – who stood up to business interests that owned his paper – framed a defense of the press in the context of an expanded information universe, saying, “Government has grown. Business has grown. The instruments of public relations and of propaganda have grown. That is why, as a counterweight, we need strong journalistic institutions.”

Bill Walsh, former New Orleans' Times-Picayune Washington correspondent, speaking to the National Press Club, conceded that that universe includes a changing audience. He said, “We think of ourselves as watchdogs, integral parts of a healthy democracy, but we have become expendable. Why? If I don't report that a senator has introduced legislation to curry favor with an influential constituent, or that FEMA has decided not to give hurricane assistance to college students, or that Democrats are using racially tinged comments to demean a rising star in the Republican Party, who happens to be non-white, it's as if those things never happened. We literally don't know what we're missing. If we don't miss it, was it worth knowing?

“Of course it was,” he continued. “It's our job to tell people what they need to know about their government before they know they need it. People are too busy to sort out the machinations of Congress and the federal agencies. That's what we do.”

Award-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges helped define what newspapers really are, saying, “Newspapers, when well run, are a public trust. They provide, at their best, the means for citizens to examine themselves, to ferret out lies and the abuse of power by elected officials and corrupt businesses, to give a voice to those who would, without the press, have no voice, and to follow, in ways a private citizen cannot, the daily workings of local, state and federal government. Newspapers hire people to write about city hall, the state capital, political campaigns, sports, music, art and theater. They keep citizens engaged with their cultural, civic and political life.”

The lessening or loss of journalism is dangerous, according to broadcast journalist and lifetime Emmy Award-winner Bill Moyers, who said, “Across the media landscape, the health of our democracy is imperiled. Buffeted by gale force winds of technological, political and demographic forces, without a truly free and independent press, this 250-year-old experiment in self-government will not make it. As journalism goes, so goes democracy.”

Even Fox News’ Howard Kurtz once said, “Newspapers are really the last line of defense for serious and sustained reporting, especially at the local level.”

And in 1947, the report of the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press, “A Free and Responsible Press,” maybe foreshadowed what’s necessary in 2015, stating “What is needed, first of all, is recognition by the American people of the vital importance of the press.”

[PICTURED: Saarah Coleman illustration for Columbia Journalism Review via New York Times' blog Dot Earth.]

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