Guest Columnist

The media, under siege

Capital Gazette staffer Pat Furgurson takes part in a candlelight vigil held near the office, the day after a gunman shot and killed five people inside the newspaper’s building in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 29, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Capital Gazette staffer Pat Furgurson takes part in a candlelight vigil held near the office, the day after a gunman shot and killed five people inside the newspaper’s building in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 29, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

“Watch out for the mayor. He has a gun and he’s telling everyone he’s going to shoot you. Watch your back,” warned the caller.

My friend, then a small-town Iowa newspaper reporter, thanked the anonymous source, told his editor, and was assigned a different beat.

The mayor died many years ago. My friend still is reporting.

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.

- Thomas Jefferson

in a letter from Paris, January 1787

Other reporters are not so lucky. Reporters Without Borders reports the number deliberately killed for their journalism content (as distinguished from their location, such as a battlefield) totaled 1,035 during the past 15 years. (Last year there also were 326 journalists detained, and 54 held hostage.)

On June 28 the U.S. added five to that number after an armed and angry reader in Annapolis, Md. entered the Capital Gazette newsroom, shotgun blazing.

President Donald Trump did nothing for five days, though he’d ordered flags to fly half-mast following other shootings on the day they occurred. He affirmatively rejected an appeal by the Annapolis mayor that he do so — until backlash required Trump to relent.

President Thomas Jefferson famously said, “ … were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Newspapers are one of few industries singled out for constitutional protection (“Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press”).

Pew reports many Americans would consider a substitute for democracy, such as government by strongman or military. But most would not. A democracy’s existence requires many institutions — independent judiciary, ease of voting, free public education and libraries. But central is a free, independent, and respected mass media. Assassinating reporters is one form of attack. Disparaging reporters and their “failing” papers as “unpatriotic” purveyors of “fake news” and “enemies of the people” is another. Both can diminish then destroy a democracy.

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The newspaper industry nationally is operating with about half the subscribers and advertising revenue it once had. There are still multiple sources of global and national news. My iPhone has apps for a couple dozen.

But local news is another story. None of those hundreds of quality papers carry news of Cedar Rapids and the Corridor. It’s said, “all politics is local.” So is democracy.

The Gazette has dozens of features, sections, platforms, events, even magazines and books. But it’s The Gazette’s news and opinion about local politics, agencies of government, nonprofits and businesses, public policy issues, local challenges, opportunities and accomplishments that make our local democracy possible. There is no alternative source for all it provides. No way to have a democracy without it.

Happily, for reporters working in the U.S. assassinations are rare. Sadly, attacks on the media are not.

For those Americans fighting against forces destroying our democracy here’s a variant of President John F. Kennedy’s advice: “Ask not what your newspaper can do for you — ask what you can do for your newspaper.” You know what to do.

• Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner and media law professor, maintains nicholasjohnson.org and FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com

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