Greg Moore, who served as editor of The Denver Post for 14 years, retired in March. His leadership led to four Pulitzer Prizes and several freedom of information battles when public servants tried to keep information private. When he retired, he did an interview for The Huffington Post, where he said this: “I hope people are starting to realize how important it is to have a robust, independent news operation as part of the community fabric.”
The bad news is, they aren’t. A lot aren’t anyway. Since politicians started picking up speed to slam, stigmatize, sometimes even stifle the media, I’ve seen many Americans pretty much saying good riddance. That kind of thinking is shortsighted and, more alarmingly, un-American. Although Thomas Jefferson disliked reporters himself, he said, “The only security of all is in a free press.”
Historically the press has played a paramount role in the preservation of our republic. From crooked politicians to crooked CEOs to crooked charities, from ill-formed alliances to ill-conceived wars, the press has unmasked falsehoods and malfeasance and held miscreants’ feet to the fire. Not to mention sexual offenders in the halls of power. What’s more, most of what you know about the performance of government, about the state of the union, you know from the media.
And if you don’t like the so-called “mainstream media” because you think it is a tool of the left, you have another immense and influential institution these days: talk radio (and of course Fox News), a tool of the right. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity alone attract more than 25 million listeners a week. Nobody in this society is silenced.
I say to those who malign the media, try it out in another country. Almost any other country. What I’ve seen firsthand in so many nations where I’ve done stories is that journalists either directly work for their government, or indirectly depend on their government for such needs as a decent apartment for their family or a suitable school for their children. If they don’t toe the government line, they lose those rewards.
Look at what the media are enduring in Turkey today, where an increasingly authoritarian government has just jailed 120 journalists for what it calls “subliminal” messaging against it. One Turkish reporter shockingly says, “Investigative journalism is considered treason.”
America’s mainstream media aren’t perfect. These days, not even close. For most of my own career, we sat on sensitive stories until they were researched and ready to go public. Today, competition for an ever-smaller slice of the pie (slices of both audience and revenue are smaller) has led some once-meticulous news organizations to place as high a priority on being first as on being right.
Likewise, although we made subjective choices every day about what we’d cover and how we’d cover it — such decisions are inescapable — we tried to observe an objective firewall between fact and opinion. Today, from the angles they pursue to the loaded language they slip into stories, many major news organizations have let political views pervade what are supposed to be unbiased, if not balanced, news reports. I condemn that.
Our public approval rating is at a modern all-time low. Only about a third of Americans really trust us. I get that. But just as American politics has shifted these days from defeating the competition to delegitimizing it, those who dismiss the value of a free press would delegitimize the news media by using Twitter and Facebook and all the rest to go around it. Who’s to challenge them?
Shut the media out, and the functions of government will happen behind our backs, not before our eyes. If that becomes the norm, it’s not reporters they’ll be shutting out, it’s you. And then Moore’s “robust, independent news operation as part of the community fabric” is history.