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What newspapers have done for us

From the Spring 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1. This country’s founders did not insert…

From the Spring 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1.

This country’s founders did not insert “press” freedom into the First Amendment because they believed that those who published news and opinions are special people. We all know we’re not.

No, that clause is there because the founders believed that self-determination is a fundamental human right.

Democracy operates on information and faith. But not the religious kind of faith. Rather, it is faith and confidence in a participatory system of government: Faith that voters will seek out truthful information about the issues of the day, and faith that they will use it to make informed decisions at the ballot box.

Which brings us to the news media. Voters don’t have the time or resources to gather all of that truthful, independently collected information on their own. They count on the independent, non-government sponsored press to do it for them. That system of a watchdog press has served us well for more than 200 years.

These days, more and more people are able to serve that “press” function than ever before because of the Internet. You don’t need a printing press or a broadcast license to produce quality journalism. In many respects, this will serve us well as a nation.

But there are aspects of citizen journalism that have kept me up at night lately.

When I travel to college campuses, I inevitably get a question from a precocious, well-educated student or a provocative professor who wants me to bash the mainstream media for “stifling” voices and viewpoints because these publications and stations are owned by just a very few rich conglomerates.

But from where I sit, here is what mainstream media has done in the last 45 years on behalf of the public:

• It has trained thousands of people to gather, interpret and disseminate information to the public.

• It has fought for narrowing libel law so that our elected officials couldn’t shut the press — or anyone else — up just for writing critical stories. Since New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964, public officials who have been defamed have to prove the mistake was made intentionally or recklessly.

• It led the battle for state and federal open meetings and open records laws. In fact, the federal Freedom of Information Act was first introduced back in the 1950s by a progressive California congressman named John Moss, after it was heavily pushed by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It took ASNE more than 10 years and lots of money to get that law. And, there is not a single state open meeting or records law anywhere in the country that was not shepherded through the statehouse by the media — usually local newspapers.

• It fought battles to open courtrooms all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart in 1976 stands for the proposition that if you learn something in an open courtroom, a judge can’t gag you from reporting it. Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia in 1980 says the public has a First Amendment right to attend criminal trials except in the most extreme circumstances. The two Press Enterprise v. Riverside cases in California in the mid-1980s stand for the proposition that the public can’t be kicked out of pre-trial hearings or jury selection.

What do those cases have in common? They were fought by small and medium-sized local newspaper owners.

• Remember the Pentagon Papers? The New York Times and The Washington Post led the effort in 1970 to make clear that, except under the most extreme circumstances, government may not censor information via a prior restraint on speech or the press.

These are just a few examples. Media companies, mostly newspapers, paid for all of this. It wasn’t cheap. The newspaper owners made money, but they spent a lot of it fighting for the public’s right to know what its public and private institutions were up to.

Newspapers have hit hard times. The Rocky Mountain News, Kentucky Post, Cincinnati Post and Seattle Post-Intelligencer have closed. The Detroit newspapers are only offering home delivery a few days a week. The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the entire Tribune Co. are in bankruptcy. Over the winter, I visited state houses in Texas and Florida. The legislative press corps in 2009 is less than half what it was two years ago in both states.

I’d give anything to once again have the big, bad, mainstream Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau out there uncovering what really happened when we went to war in Iraq.

I’d give anything to have Copley Newspapers in San Diego back on the scene. Last year, they fought hard to open a federal criminal case that hid the prosecution of a major figure in the Duke Cunningham corruption case.

Who will suffer when these mainstream media companies no longer launch these legal battles?

We all will.

Because the independent volunteer reporters who work from their homes and have no real training in collecting and reporting news — also don’t have any money.

No one will be there to ensure we will continue to get access to the truthful, independently gathered information that Americans need to make decisions at the ballot box.

We have a problem. A really big problem.