National Commentary

The Death of Journalism? Part 3

nfbentonpicA fearless free press that protects and makes good use of bonafide “whistle blowers” is an indispensable, if not the single most important, part of a functioning democracy, responsible for democracy’s founding, not the other way around, and essential for its maintenance.

More than the checks and balances of the three branches of government in the U.S., it is the “fourth estate” that ensures any secretive, closed system of governing, such as Washington, D.C. has become, can be corrected by a well informed general public whose primary weapon is that free press.

Deliberately blurring the lines between truth-telling journalism and propaganda presents a grave danger to democracy. Propaganda exploits the democratic impulse in the citizenry to play an active role in their government, and steers it through a well-studied array of deceptive tricks to produce the hidden, desired results of self-interested factions. Anyone, like the scions at Fox News, seeking to substitute propaganda for journalism in this way is guilty of undermining the very foundations of democracy which, once lost, might never be restored.

Truth-telling journalism spawned free democracy and has always been critical for sustaining it. Gutenberg’s invention of a moveable type printing press in 1439 permitted the translation and wide dissemination of the Bible for the masses, exposing those ruling forces who sought to distort and lie about its contents to bludgeon its subjects.

Benjamin Franklin’s printing press was the cornerstone of his efforts to bind the American colonies through the dissemination of news, scientific discourse and public institutions. He was America’s founding newspaperman, banishing superstition, spreading enlightenment, and new notions of freedom and the enfranchisement of all people.

The Federalist Papers were disseminated in the form of 85 newspaper columns, written by three Founding Fathers to make the case for ratification of the U.S. Constitution, of a glue to bind the colonies against divide and conquer strategies of the British.

Alexander Hamilton, author of the lion’s share of those Federalist Papers, founded the New York Evening Post in 1801 which became one of the most respected newspapers in the nation through the 19th century.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt first cut his teeth in politics by being the editor of his Harvard University newspaper.

In the reformist era at the start of the 20th century, efforts were launched to elevate newspapers to higher standards of truth telling, against the relentless pressures of special interests and the “yellow journalism” made famous by Hearst. By the 1920s, FDR’s California friend, Santa Barbara newspaper publisher Thomas M. Storke, penned a Seven Point Platform of journalistic integrity for his then-named News and Independent:

“1. Keep the news clean and fair. 2. Play no favorites, never mix business and editorial policy, 3. Do not let the news columns reflect editorial comment, 4. Publish the news that is public property without fear or favor of friend or foe, 5. Accept no charity and ask no favors, 6. Give “value received” for every dollar you take in, and, 7. Make the paper show a profit if you can, but above all keep it clean, fearless and fair.”

Storke, who founded his first paper in 1900, was well into his 80s when in 1963 he spearheaded an editorial and investigative journalism barrage against the California-based right-wing John Birch Society, winning an avalanche of Pulitzer and other awards.

I went to work for his newspaper as a high school sophomore, and as I grew to become the editor of my high school and college papers while I continued working there, the influence of Old Man Storke remained larger than life, despite his appearances in the newsroom being rare by then. His spirit radiated through his Seven Point Platform that was published in every paper every day (sadly removed when he sold it by the paper’s new owners). By then, his newspaper went by the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Twenty-five years later, when I founded my own newspaper on the opposite coast, outside Washington, D.C., two important decisions I made were to revive and print his Seven Point Platform in full in every edition, as I’ve done for 22 years, and to name my paper the Falls Church News-Press.