We can't have government without newspaper oversight


When I first ventured into journalism in the early 1990s, there simply was no way to predict what such a career would be like a quarter-century later. 

I learned how to paste up news pages for the printing press — going home every night with paper cuts and an ever-present aroma of hot wax — toiled away in the dark room to develop film and print pictures, and felt that if newspapers didn’t cover deep, hyperlocal issues, no one would.

But all of that has changed. Pasting up has been replaced with pagination. Dark rooms were made obsolete by digital cameras. And while newspapers remain an important tool in the coverage of communities, we’re not the only game in town. Anyone with a camera, enough social media followers and an internet connection can become a “journalist,” sharing what they see with anyone willing to look.

Our audience has changed as well. More people, it seems, can tell you what’s happening on any given day with a member of the Kardashian family than they can about important things affecting them in their own community. With a president who dominates news cycles in ways we’ve never seen before, there’s a lot of news fatigue out there. To the point I think sometimes we forget why we have these people called reporters in the first place.

But why do we exist? Why is the role we play in society so important, our industry is literally enshrined in the First Amendment?

Let’s ask Thomas Jefferson. 

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right,” our third president told Edward Carrington, a member of the Continental Congress who, according to legend, was buried in the very spot outside a church he stood when he heard Patrick Henry say, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

“And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

It’s hardly the first time I’ve referred to this quote. In fact, it’s likely not the second, third or fourth time either. It’s powerful to me because I cannot imagine what our government would be like without a free press keeping it in check. 

Jefferson and our Founding Fathers created a society where the people are led by the people. It’s not a perfect democracy, because the people aren’t perfect. But the last thing any of our Founding Fathers wanted was a government who could operate in secret, where they evaded accountability by those who put them there in the first place: the people.

We talk a lot about the importance of a free press when it comes to Washington. But it doesn’t become any less important as we zoom in closer to home, into our own community, our own neighborhoods. In fact, it becomes more important.

While we shell out a lot of money to the federal and state governments each year, we also pay local taxes as well. And a lot of them, whether it’s based on real estate we own, local income taxes, sales taxes, you name it. That money, in turn, goes to projects close to home, like transit, roads, bridges, services like police and firefighters, and of course, schools and community programs.

The money also funds the operation of our government, from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, to our city council, to Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., straight to our community boards.

Our community boards are very special. They tackle issues that are important to us close to home, that might not be as important for those who have to deal with millions of people instead of tens of thousands. Each one of these people are volunteers, who don’t just sit through meetings — many times, they’re working every free moment they have for the community (and sometimes even using the time they don’t have).

There’s no question that community boards, including ours, work very hard. And every time we see a member of the community board, we should personally thank them for taking the time to do it.

But that hard work doesn’t free them from accountability. It doesn’t free them from disagreement. It doesn’t free them from criticism. The last stop of tens of thousands of dollars from our own pockets is with the community board, and how they decide to spend it should always be under the scrutiny of those who supplied it in the first place: the people.

The media’s role also is to ensure that happens, as a representative of the people. In fact, journalists sometimes are referred to a fourth “branch” of government, providing checks and balances to our leaders, sharing everything that needs to be shared, both good and bad.

Journalists are never going to win popularity contests. That’s never our goal. Our job is to share facts, to share observations, to give the public — you — all the tools you need to draw whatever conclusion you want to draw.

If you disagree, or if you have a thought you want to share, our opinion pages are open to you. We’re not immune from accountability either, no matter how hard we work.

Our world might be changing — both inside and out — but our role hasn’t, nor should it. There is power in knowledge, and that power must be shared. Because we’re a country ruled not by politicians sitting in fancy offices, but instead by the people who put them there in the first place.

The author is editor of The Riverdale Press.

Michael Hinman