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Farewell column: Ring the bells while we can

Fraser Smith Big

Ring the Bells that still can ring

               Forget your perfect offering

               There is a crack in everything

               That’s how the light gets in    

— Leonard Cohen

Newspapers find the cracks. That’s how the light of democracy gets in.

What will replace newspapers? Social media? Some app or other? Various malign forces with malign motivations?

Will the survivors and the new platforms be honestly and independently committed to the light? Will newspaper standards live on the new platforms?

Standards are what matter: Not the platform, not digital or ink-on-paper or whatever.

One of my old newspapers, The Baltimore Sun, had a splendid motto: “Light For All.” We were proud of it, determined to make it so.

Mildly cynical jokes became part of the reporter and editor mantra. We were there to shine the light; that responsibility made up for the meager pay. We answered a calling. To be one of the small batteries in the spotlight of democracy was an honor.

But now we watch generations of a self-sustaining profession turn to dust. The Sun has only about 25 percent of the staff it had when I was there 10 years ago.

The losses matter.

The reformer Robert W. McChesney says the issue has gone unaddressed.

“A collection of niche websites covering different aspects of a community are well and good, but even in combination they cannot recreate the coherence and unity of a well-edited, resourced and respected  newspaper …”

The question: How do we maintain quality journalism in a world driven by the self-interested, determined to have their story told without mediating regulators like reporters and editors.

When the paper was the only game in town, when wealthy owners ran papers as a public service, the questions did not arise (for the most part).

They must arise now. Newspaper standards are a model, a template, a guidepost. They are indispensable. They will save us from many evils, including the devious “fake news” label hung on real, embarrassing or even criminal news.

Founding fathers

The Constitution and the First Amendment call on us in times like this to act with the passion and concern equal to those who made us free.

At the time of the revolution, a European visitor observed, many Americans read the Bible. On the other hand, he said, everyone reads newspapers.

Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and James Madison were political leaders with faith in the people’s ability to learn and act appropriately on the news they got from the papers — the number of which, with their aggressive assistance, doubled and tripled in the first years of the republic.

Madison said: “A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to farce or tragedy or perhaps both.”

Jefferson more famously said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”

I take him to mean that you could always have government but maybe not such a good one without newspapers. And if you didn’t have newspapers it would be vastly more difficult to achieve change.

Less often quoted but equally important, in the next sentence Jefferson said, “I should mean that every man should receive those (newspapers) and be capable of reading them.”

He made clear his pledge: “To preserve the freedom of the human mind and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom.”

Community institutions

In some ways newspapers  are even more important now.

Newspapers became community institutions as important in our lives as any other institution — as important as the police, the courts, business, church, schools.

People have had a two-part view of their hometown paper. Maybe it was a fish wrapper, that rag. But it was our rag.

American newspapers were responsible for equipping citizens with the information they needed to be citizens. There were thousands of newspapers, good ones and bad ones. We needed them all, their strength, their power to oppose error and crime.

“Fake news” and lying are all about undermining the press and conning the people.

H.L. Mencken warned us in his usually cutting and prescient terms. In “Notes on Democracy,” he said, we were vulnerable to the sibilant tones of the promising, lying, con man.

This, I assume, is why the Yale philosopher and political scientist Timothy Snyder wrote his powerful little book, “On Tyranny.”

Institutions, Snyder wrote, cannot defend themselves. We have to.

“It is institutions that help us preserve democracy. … They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning.” So choose an institution you care about — the courts, a newspaper, a law, a labor union, a federal agency  — and take its side.

The reformers McChesney and John Nichols of the New Republic offer one way to respond. Beginning with our most revered and wise leaders, government has subsidized the press — paid for it to stay in business, in other words.

McChesney and Nichols lay out their anything but cautious plan. They rest their case on the view that the newsroom gives a community coherence and unity, a capability beyond the reach of blogs or other niche operations.

They see government support as essential.

“… We are dealing with a failing industry (newspapers),” they wrote. “It has no viable business model, the web having removed sources of advertising revenue and eroded readership. In most cases there are few if any commercial interests willing to invest serious money in the enterprise. That is why government has a role to play in the post-corporate future.”

Snyder says in his book that we cannot honestly call our institutions “ours” if we fail to defend them. We’re out of practice, but we can get back in the game.

We must see ourselves the way Washington, Jefferson and Madison saw themselves: outnumbered but unwilling to go on in service to a king or other brazen tyrant.

Ring the bells that still can ring.

A final and personal note: I’ve been ringing the bell for a long time. I’m moving on to finish my newspaper memoir, “Always Working.” It’s time for someone else to take a shot in this space.

I’ve been lucky and privileged to work for good, principled newspapers like The Daily Record, The Sun, The Providence Journal and the Jersey Journal. I want to thank readers — those who nodded their heads at my wisdom and those who (somehow) disagreed me and wrote to say so. An honest, thoughtful exchange is what it’s all about.

C. Fraser Smith is a writer in Baltimore. He can be reached at [email protected].

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