2018-08-17 / Opinions

A Free Press Is Key to Good Democracy, But So Is a Vigilant Public

By Wesley Maurer, Jr.

They started as a joke. How many times a day did we hear that we were the purveyors of Fake News? They were the laugh-out-loud expressions of solidarity with us, and they became a common part of the conversation. But rarely did anyone joke about newspapers being the Enemy of the People. As our president’s attacks on the press became more vicious, conversations with our readers became more serious.

This year, The St. Ignace News and Mackinac Island Town Crier have enjoyed an increasing number of compliments and affirmations that our newspapers are meaningful and respected. Our readers take the time to tell us they look forward to each issue. They are impressed with how much news we can pack into our weekly editions. They read them from cover to cover, send them on to relatives or friends. They trust us, learn from us, and appreciate the effort we put into them.

This year, readers also make a stronger point. They come right out and tell us they don’t think we publish Fake News, they don’t think we are Enemies of the People, and they don’t believe such characterizations of journalists and the press should be written into the doctrines of partisan politics.

The encouragement we are getting from our readers is uplifting to our reporters and editors, who take their jobs seriously and worry about the accuracy and value of their reports. The efforts they make on behalf of an enlightened public are impressive. The roadblocks they must overcome to make sure their reports are accurate are many. And when we screw something up, our sense of failure can be intense.

In some respects, we’re lucky that we serve an aging population of readers who learned about the fundamentals of democracy and freedom remote from the distractions of the Internet. Many of our readers know better than to believe the bitter messages about the press from our president and the occasional other politician, bureaucrat, or partisan.

But the bigger danger of such vindictive epithets in a functioning democracy is the impact they will have on the younger generations – the future consumers of news and future providers of it. Both are absolutely essential to our democracy’s health.

Intimidation and censorship of a free press, in words, actions, and now social media, is one way tyrants wreck the stability of society. It is easier to build power when nobody is watching.

In a democratic society, the people, not the government, ultimately rule, and to do that, people must have the information they need to make good choices. Whatever the shortcomings of journalism, it is more serious, more professional, and more accurate than what will come from those in power.

In the words of James Madison, “If we advert to the nature of Republican Government, we shall find that the censorial power is in the people over the Government, and not in the Government over the people.”

Nobody ever said that democracy is easy. Democracy requires an educated and informed public, a free and vigilant press, and politicians who work hard to maintain a safe, functioning, and stable society.

Today, all of these elements are edging toward shaky ground. All of us need to participate in an arduous effort to shore them up. We can start by demanding a free press, solid education of our youngsters, and responsible politicians.

This week we join hundreds of newspapers across the country in defending freedom of thought to promote a free democracy.

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