Know your five freedoms
This is National Newspaper Week, a time during which those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to work in the news business reflect on our role in the communities we serve. This year, the theme is “Think First: Know your five freedoms.” Our founders knew it was essential to establish in the infancy of our nation a set of rights guaranteed to all Americans. First among them:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
It is easy to forget the priority our founders made of such things. It is easy to let dilution of those rights slip past us — a little whittling away here; a little corrosive discrediting there … no one will notice, right?
“The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie–a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days–but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please,” said political theorist Hannah Arendt — in 1974. (Arendt was born in Germany but escaped to the United States in 1941.)
Our responsibility, then, is to report thoroughly and accurately — always giving our readers reason to trust that we are telling the truth. Only in doing so can we shine a light on what some might wish remained unseen. That is why those who wish for so much to remain in the dark try to discredit us, or to convince voters it is best if THEY are in charge of the information you receive (politicians seeking an end to the publication of legal notices in your newspapers, for example).
That is why week after week representatives of government bodies “forget” to send us agendas for their meetings — after all, they have quite literally “posted” it in the form of a piece of paper most citizens will never see. Surely it has not escaped these folks that reporters show up to the meetings, anyway.
We have to. It is our responsibility to share with our readers the information they might not be easily able to acquire on their own. We present the information and then only on our clearly labeled opinion pages do we let you know what we think of it. Again, we have to do it that way. If we are not providing our readers a newspaper they can trust, we have nothing.
We take that very seriously. And we are grateful that so many of you still do, too.
Ladies and gentlemen, a request: When a person uses the term “fake news — anyone from a person sitting beside you in church or appearing in your social media feed to city, county, state and national politicians; and particularly if that person is using that term while trying to get out of some trouble or when asking for votes and/or money — please ask yourself what it is that person is hoping you will not read. What information does that person want you to believe you can do without? Surely you have noted people who use that phrase usually do so with a wink and nod to those they believe agree with or support them … often people they are confident consume only the curated version of the news that supports their own viewpoints. “Leaders” who use that phrase believe the people to whom they are speaking are not educated, informed or independent enough to consume thorough reporting from multiple sources and form their own opinions based on fact.
Please start using that phrase as a red flag, a signal to seek out more information, rather than a cue to join in the jeering.
Relatedly, the presenting of facts does not constitute the formation or suggestion of an opinion on those facts. Bringing information to readers does not represent support (or not) of the person to whom that information is connected.
Be careful — always question when it seems someone wants you to know less.
Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org