Thomas Jefferson, the country’s third president, minced no words in defending freedom of the press.
“…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,” Jefferson wrote in 1787, before he assumed the presidency.
In recognition of National Newspaper Week, which runs from Oct. 7 to 13, we wanted to take a few moments to reflect on the place of journalism in American civic life.
The relationship between American presidents and the media has not always been smooth, nor have all been as staunch in their defense of this profession as Jefferson.
In 1950, Harry S. Truman sent a famously aggressive note to a Washington Post music critic who had written a blistering review of a vocal concert by the president’s daughter, Margaret.
“Some day I hope to meet you,” Truman wrote on White House stationery. “When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beef steak for black eyes and perhaps a supporter below!”
It was, as far as we can tell, the only time a U.S. president threatened a member of the media with actual physical harm.
Of course “Give ’em Hell Harry” never actually laid a finger on the man — nor did he probably intend to, and nor would the American public have taken Truman’s cue as a signal that it was open season on reporters.
Suffice it to say we live in a different time, when our nation’s commander-in-chief has called news media the “enemy of the American people.”
We live in a time when shirts proclaiming “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required” have been worn openly at political rallies — and, briefly, sold at Wal-Mart.
We live in a time when newspaper reporters have been shot to death at their desks.
The theme of this year’s National Newspaper Week: “Journalism matters. NOW more than ever.”
For sure, those of us who work in this profession are concerned for our livelihoods at a time when economic trends have put significant pressure on our business model, but that is a battle we have been fighting since news and competing content began appearing on the Internet.
Many of us are more deeply concerned about what America would look like without newspapers to act as watchdogs of the public trust.
It has never been more important for journalists to be asking questions, challenging public officials, and publicizing such issues as sexual misconduct and governmental corruption.
That is as true at the local level as it is for national papers, maybe more so. Consider just two recent stories in the Times Leader:
• We continued to ask questions about the purpose and cost of Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tony George’s enhanced “fire watch” program, stories that were shared widely on social media and picked up by firefighters trade groups.
Did that contribute to George deciding to rescind the program? We don’t know for sure. But it’s far less likely private citizens would have obtained records and disseminated findings to the public if there were no local newspaper to do so.
• Without local journalists, who would publicize the seemingly slow-moving River Street road work project and its impact on businesses and commuters? Would public officials answer dozens of questions from citizens? Would they feel pressure to move faster without front-page headlines?
We ask those questions for the people, because you can’t be everywhere and don’t have time to be grilling public officials on a daily basis.
We speak for you, even if you don’t always agree with what you read here.