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Case In Point: Media Censorship

Valuing the role of a free press

The response by readers of the Ashland Daily Tidings to stories that have run the past several months have been telling &

and from the point of view of a journalist a bit disconcerting. Especially those who have written strongly worded, even vitriolic letters; or left angry voice mails; and, of course, those readers who, based on one story or another, have canceled their subscriptions.

Some have made it clear that they are not interested in carrying on a dialogue if their viewpoint is not mirrored on the pages of the Tidings. It&

s a rigidity of position, left or right, that does not bode well for Ashland.

The presence of a newspaper in any community, large or small, is essential if the discourse of democracy is to take place. It is the public forum wherein news is reported, issues are highlighted and hopefully discussed. If a newspaper fulfills, even in part, its mandate, then it is the tenacious messenger that investigates, informs and even enlightens.

Freedom of the press, in countries that clearly find the search for and publication of information a threat, is the first right to be eliminated. Dictators have long ago learned that if you can truncate and control the flow of information to the public, you can control opinion.

For a free people, better to have a free, if imperfect, even flawed press than one that is content (or forced) to offer the public a daily happy meal. Keep in mind that a free press operates on the assumption that governments often will not volunteer information willingly; rather, they will obfuscate and dissemble when it serves their own interests. It&

s the nature of the beast &

hence the tension that exists between reporters and government. The government will insist that there are WMD in Iraq. It is up to the press to put the lie to that claim.

And if not the press, then who?

Our form of government, of which the press is an integral part, is based on checks and balances. That&

s why the recent discussion of a federal shield law for journalists is so momentous and why a bill to enact just such a law is slowly making its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Consider the fact that journalists, who are tenaciously doing their jobs by cultivating anonymous sources for stories that would otherwise never be told, can be forced to disclose those sources to a federal prosecutor. Of course, the government would prefer to be able to subpoena the media; at the same time it dismantling this critical source of reporting.

Putting Judith Miller, the reporter from the New York Times, in jail has indeed sent a chill through the journalistic community. Note the recent story of the Cleveland Plain Dealer that decided not to publish two major investigative articles because they were based on illegally leaked documents and could have led to penalties against the paper. In the last year, nine journalists have been handed or threatened with jail sentences, and a dozen or so more have been contacted by prosecutors or served with subpoenas.

Any newspaper should be deeply valued for what it represents, and for what it tries to do. And let&

s be clear: as papers go, The Tidings is among the better. Clearly, it will not get it right all of the time. Stories will be written that offer too much information or too little. Some may offend. Others will seem specious. But know this: the commitment of those who work daily on the paper is to make it the best. To the person, they search for ways to make their paper a robust and vital part of the community.

The irony is that when people are angered by what they read in the paper, moved to write letters to the editor, leave voice mails, drop notes on the editor&

s desk, they do so based on the assumption that they not only have the right of free expression, but that the paper is the appropriate forum for their opinions. Furthermore, any brouhaha created by a story in the Tidings is a sign of health in a community and should be seen in that context.

In the opinion of this writer, every resident in our town should subscribe to the paper, if only as a demonstration of his or her belief in this institution. It is that fundamental to what we are about as a people. And should an article be printed that offends, angers or excites, then let your voice be heard, the good with the bad. Hold the paper accountable. Ask for higher or different standards. Make suggestions, demands, yell if you must. But to cancel your subscription, to simply denigrate without perspective, is to miss a very essential point: the free flow of information is above all things necessary to our republic. To our town.

If we allow this foundation to slip away because we are offended, or uncaring, or lack understanding of the role the press plays, then we will one day mourn its passing. And America will no longer be America.

Case in Point is an editorial column by Chris Honore&

and Andrew Scot Bolsinger that will run most Mondays. Readers are invited to participate in the dialogue by sending letters of less than 200 words to abolsinger@dailytidings.com