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Democracy demands a free press

Without journalism, America as we know it would cease to exist

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I've always been proud to be a journalist. The Fourth Estate is another check and balance on government, and local journalists like those of us at New Times and our fellow reporters at The Tribune also chronicle our community's achievements, inform our neighbors of important news, and do our very best to be unbiased and fair. We attend the boring meetings, ask local politicians tough questions, and when we make a mistake, we admit and correct it.

Am I an enemy of the people? Are my journalist colleagues?

Don't believe the "fake news" hype. Journalism is still an honorable profession and essential to a functioning democracy, which is why newspapers across the United States today are devoting part of their opinion pages to defending themselves against false charges. We're under attack in particular by a sitting U.S. president, who claims we're liars out to undermine his presidency and the American way of life. And it's definitely an attitude that has bled down to the local level. Don't believe it.

"I deplore with you the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them," third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1814, five years after leaving the presidency.

President Donald J. Trump isn't the first leader to attack the press, but what happened to the Jefferson who wrote before he took office, "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"?

That Jefferson became president and was pilloried for being a Francophile, an atheist, father of children conceived by his slave, and a "terrible" leader who made the Louisiana Purchase and imposed the Embargo Act of 1807. There's nothing like a little criticism to turn a press-defending president into a press-shaming one.

The problem with falsely accusing the press of being mendacious and dangerous is it incites many to believe it's open season on journalists. A free press is one of the first things to go as a country slides away from democracy. Journalists in those countries are routinely jailed, beaten, and even killed for daring to publish content that challenges the chosen narrative of the country's leadership. Is that what we want? To only have access to the political leadership's narrative and not a press tasked with challenging that narrative—regardless of where it falls on the political spectrum?

Between 1992 and 2018, 1,313 journalists were killed worldwide. Most of them were killed in non-democratic countries and war zones, but even small-town journalists now have something to fear.

Earlier this year, on June 28, Jarrod Ramos walked into the offices of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and shot seven people, killing five. Why? Because a judge dismissed his defamation case against the paper, which had accurately reported on Ramos' criminal activities.

Recently, after a veiled online threat, New Times' offices have stepped up security protocols to make our workplaces safer—but also less accessible to the public. And we're not the only news outlet in the U.S. that is dealing with something like that. I find this terribly sad. We don't mind angry letters or phone calls, or even an unhappy reader who wants to give us a piece of his or her mind in person, but to be worried for our safety?

For the most part, the press generates unbiased reportage, but it also contains opinions in the form of commentary (from both the left and right) and letters to the editor, and oftentimes those opinions are indeed biased.

"How dare you publish this awful right-wing (or left-wing) screed?" we hear. We dare because people's opinions matter too, even when we disagree with them.

Somewhere along the line in the minds of some, honest journalism and the opinions news outlets publish have became conflated, and they shouldn't. A good newspaper is a discussion forum, and we're proud of that.

Journalism is essential. Opinion is not news. Just because a president or anyone else doesn't like the news, doesn't make it fake. Δ

Glen Starkey is New Times' senior staff writer. Contact him at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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