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The national newspapers have some catchy marketing slogans — “Democracy dies in darkness’’ from the Washington Post and “The truth is more important now than ever” from the New York Times.
And they are certainly more lofty sentiments than much news these days inspires — “Read it and weep.”
What’s critical, though, is that the slogans are not just marketing gimmicks; they happen to be true, made all the more desperate and urgent because of the deliberate attack on the nation’s press by a corrupt president who cries “fake news” every time he’s caught in one of his 9,000 lies since taking office and who incites violence against journalists as “enemies of the people.”
Bashing the press is as old a custom as the press itself. Early in our nation’s history, when newspapers were less stringent and more vitriolic in their reporting, politicians had much more reason to fear what was printed. Campaigns then were just as dirty as many are now.
Thomas Jefferson certainly bore the brunt of much animosity, genuine and contrived, and yet he and most of our founders accepted their psychic bruises as the price of a free press, which they saw as the guarantor of political freedom. They believed that the American experiment in democracy — at all levels of government — depends upon an engaged citizenry informed with the knowledge and facts they need to make good decisions.
Given a choice between government and newspapers, Jefferson was famous for saying, he’d take the newspapers.
Of course, the press is far from perfect. Throughout our history, the popular press has not only reflected the passions of the times, they have too often fanned those passions unwisely and sometimes corruptly for the sake of readers and influence. Williams Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were no more saints than the politicians their papers covered.
Years ago, when Jim Martin was governor, my wife Vickie and I were among a group of press people invited to lunch in the Executive Mansion in Raleigh. The governor was a gracious host, with a sharp sense of humor.
After we ate, Martin told us about how several of the state’s garden groups were contributing to renovating the mansion’s gardens. I couldn’t resist teasing him, “Is it true the press supplied the dirt?”
“No,” he said without skipping a beat. “The manure.”
But what Americans knew of their government and the events of their times, they learned from newspapers, and as the nation grew, so did its dependence upon information disseminated by newspapers and magazines, then also radio, then also television, and now also the internet.
Americans now are deluged by information on every side, from genuine news from real reporters to fake news by trolls; perspective from every angle, sober and wacky; and thousands of stories from news sources across the country and the world create instant history as they capture what goes on around them.
And that’s just as much true of small towns like Spring Hope, Bailey and Middlesex as it is New York, Washington and Raleigh. Our publications are sometimes the only source of important local information people need or want, especially about their local governments and institutions. And those of us who work at them have dedicated our careers to presenting that news as fairly and accurately as we can.
We are, however, living in a time when too many people live in their own reality, ignoring what they don’t want to know. Others, while desiring truth, aren’t always sure where to look or whom to believe. And yet, with the ability of information to circle the globe almost instantly, the importance of truthful information is more critical than ever. Decisions based on lies can be disastrous to our present and future. The climate change debate is a case in point.
But the Post is also right: democracy does die in the darkness. Most evil is done behind closed doors and sealed records. If it wasn’t for the open meetings and open records laws we have in North Carolina, our people would only know what the politicians wanted them to know — and in recent years we’ve seen the poisonous fruits of such secrecy. The sunshine of national media coverage also continues to uncover a cesspool of lies, conspiracies, frauds and deceits. And we ignore them at our nation’s peril.
North Carolina is fortunate to have a thriving press, strong open meetings and records laws and many local politicians — at least in Nash County — who do respect them.
Let’s celebrate that, and expect no less devotion to truth and integrity from our politicians, our journalists and ourselves. Consider it an act of real patriotism.
Ken Ripley is a resident of Spring Hope and The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.