Even as biased as newspapers were in those days, Jefferson and other early leaders of the republic knew that journalism is essential to democracy.
The introduction to Jefferson’s famous quotation about newspapers, which is usually left off, provides the context: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide …”
See how it changes the meaning of the quote to add the first part?
Without newspapers or other media that serve as watchdogs and provide forums for public discussion, it isn’t possible to have a government that is accountable to the people — which is the simplest definition of democracy.
That is why “the press” is the one private enterprise specifically protected in the Constitution.
Freedom of the press wasn’t included in the First Amendment so that Larry Flynt could peddle pornography or Time Warner could make a fortune — it was included to prohibit government from censoring the press so that the press would remain forever free to “censure the government,” as one justice put it.
Newspapers provide many services that are important to readers, subscribers and advertisers. We give Little League game scores, publish yard sale classifieds and help you sell your house. We offer weather forecasts and print wedding announcements and obituaries. We provide publicity for local events and entertain readers with feature stories and personal columns.
But the most important thing we do is perform our role as the “fourth estate.”
As former editors Tom Rosentiel and Bill Kovach said in their primer, “The Elements of Journalism”: our profession’s “primary purpose” is to “provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”
Nothing else comes close — regardless of whether we’re talking about The Washington Post or The Winchester Sun.
That’s why I’m encouraged when the Sun’s surveys consistently show that our readers rank coverage of local government and investigative reporting at or near the top of important tasks for the newspaper to perform.
Newspapers are businesses and as such must make money to provide readers with the products and services they want, and to satisfy shareholders. But we are different kind of business in that we see making money as a means to a higher purpose.
Newspapers are, as Barry Bingham Sr., former owner of The Courier-Journal, described them, “a public trust.”
During National Newspaper Week, Oct. 3-9, that is something that we and our readers should remember and appreciate.
Randy Patrick is the managing editor of The Winchester Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org