There was once a time when students in (mostly) public schools were taught a subject called “civics.”
In this class, students were taught the fundamentals of how government is organized, with its three major branches in place to balance the powers of each other — legislative, judicial, and administrative — so that one branch could not take over and create a form of monarchy.
It was based on the experience of the American Colonials, who experienced life under King George and came away with some lessons they put into use in the Constitution of the United States. We were taught to be wary of government and the accumulation of power in the hands of few. The framework still stands and still functions, despite longstanding efforts from many corners to gain power for themselves and/or their ideology.
It might seem as though efforts toward gaining more control have never been more rampant or obvious, but that’s not true. It has always been so, going all the way back to the very same Founding Fathers.
Thomas Jefferson did everything possible to undermine the Federalist agenda in those early years because he believed that a weak central government was the best approach, while Washington and Adams saw that there had to be at least a minimal national government strength or it would all fall apart, as had the earlier Articles of Confederation.
In their wisdom, the framers wrote into the document specific freedoms, among them the freedom of speech. They understood that the ability to express one’s views, in whatever form and however crazy, was a key element in political discourse. Good ideas rise in popularity, while bad ideas get shouted down or forgotten over time. History is full of examples.
Back then, books and newspapers were the only avenues to deliver information and opinion to large audiences, and so the freedom of speech was carried over to the press. And despite countless challenges to that freedom, it remains in place today and covers television, radio, internet and other forms of communication.
Technology brought a new world order with the internet, email, social media, television, YouTube, Twitter, etc., exponentially compounding our ability to express views, inform, entertain, create propaganda, mislead, and downright lie for personal or ideological advantage. There is both good and bad in this freedom, obviously.
But freedom of expression endures, as it should. While nut cases can find likeminded nut cases to confirm their crazy ideas on the internet, and they can’t easily be shouted down, there are a thousand reasons to love the plethora of options.
One thing it has fostered, though, is a political divide that we’ve not seen in our lifetimes.
Since speech is no longer subject to the barriers of entry posed by television equipment, a radio tower or a printing press, public attention has fragmented, literally blown to bits. That led television networks and radio stations, in a reflexive effort to accumulate loyal audiences from the pieces, to focus more on one political outlook than on the other.
People like to be confirmed that what they believe is right, and Fox News was first to build around that premise. Unfortunately, other networks followed suit. They stopped making people think about what they believed. Television lost its soul. That helped lead to some of what we see in the political divide now.
One difference between newspapers and other types of news is that we have always had clearly marked opinion pages, separated from news pages. The page you are on at this moment is about opinion — intended to make you think, not tell you what to think. That’s
different from weaving opinion into the news reports, which all journalists worth their salt resist. News is “just the facts, ma’am,” and while no report is perfect, they are attempts to relate true facts and figures, without an agenda of their own.
Investigative journalism is a slice of journalism in that its purpose is to uncover wrongdoing, corruption, government malfeasance, backroom dealings, waste and so on, that someone wants kept under wraps. It is what brought down Richard Nixon. It is what brought the questions about the Trump/Russia connection to public awareness.
Such coverage has never been popular with government, because there are some people in government who would prefer, for myriad reasons, to do their work in secret. It’s just easier that way. An informed public can get pretty messy.
I am reminded of a fresh story where a sheriff in the mountains of North Carolina is investigating three members of his staff because they were working on a routine request for public information — records of emails within his governmental department. As another example, look at the way the Republicans worked in secrecy before recently rolling out a replacement for Obamacare. Members of the public should and do have a right to know how their government is working.
Luckily, there are others in public service who believe that governmental work should be done in the open and in the light of day. They see themselves as part of that very public that is being served, and they believe government works best when it is transparent.
Some of those people work in Raleigh in our legislature. That is to be admired. There are others in the General Assembly who are more interested in wielding power and creating essentially a one-party political system. The traditional watchdog job of the press is not only not appreciated, but hated.
I believe that the watchdog role of newspapers is a major force in keeping our government from becoming corrupt and totalitarian. I’ve seen too many little town and county politicians try to skirt the sunshine laws with bad intent to believe otherwise. More recently, we’ve seen members of a federal administration try to rule by fiat, with apparently little idea of how federal government works. When the press criticizes them for inept performance, it is deemed “the enemy of the people.”
That is a diversionary tactic as old as failure itself.
The first thing every totalitarian strongman does is take control of the press, the airwaves and the internet to control the flow of thought and information. There are always dealings they don’t want anyone to know about: graft, corruption, inhumane treatment of people, advantages given to the rich or powerful, backdoor channels to public funds.
Next time you are inclined to cuss the press, as legislators and commissioners often do, keep in mind that there is a thin line between knowing and not knowing; between enjoying democracy and having it stolen and changed to a darker form; between having the ability to be enlightened on issues and being kept among the ignorant.
The real enemy remains government that grows toward tyranny.
William Pitt the Elder, the Lord Chatham for which Chatham County is named, was a powerhouse in British politics in the 1700s. “Absolutely,” he wrote, “power tends to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.”
It is ever thus.
Pat Taylor is advertising director of The Pilot.