The power of the press should never be underestimated and must never be abused.
This week marks the 75th anniversary of National Newspaper Week and the theme — The Power of the Press — points to the importance of watchdog journalism, accurate reporting, strong editorials, comprehensive public notices and a free, open public forum.
In 1841, Thomas Carlyle wrote about the power of the press, conjuring the words of Edmond Burke.
“Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
Burke may have been chiding the press for its sense of itself, but Carlyle used his words to write about the importance of newspapers to democracy.
In an often quoted letter to Edward Carrington, Thomas Jefferson wrote that if he were to have to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Democracy is best served when the newspaper provides checks and balances as the Fourth Estate of government. Newspapers are not the enemy of government — rather we are the champions of ordinary men and women.
Newspapers are not bullies out to pick a fight. Rather, they hold public officials accountable, advocate for openness in government and champion the cause of the public because they are committed to the neighborhoods, cities, counties, states and coverage areas they serve.
With intelligent, thoughtful, compelling commentary, coupled with clearly written, straightforward news reporting, newspapers wield the power of the press in ways that make communities better by giving a voice to the voiceless and empowering the powerless.
Newspapers hold government accountable because at our very core we believe that government belongs to the governed and not to the governing.
If newspapers do not stand up for the public, protect the rights of free speech and the rights of access to government, then no one will.
Newspapers are the most powerful advocate the public can have and for that reason should always provide an open forum for a redress of grievances.
Any newspaper that represents the interests of the governing more than the interests of the governed is not worth the paper it is printed on or the ink that fills its pages.
Newspapers, the good ones, use their power to make a difference in the communities they serve, by accurate reporting, comprehensive coverage and strong commentary.
Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” A newspaper should always be just that — a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” —committed to serving the public in real and meaningful ways.
Jim Zachary is a newspaper veteran who has championed government transparency. He is the editor of the Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times, director of The Transparency Project of Georgia, founder of the Tennessee Transparency Project, vice-chairman of the board of the Red & Black newspaper serving the University of Georgia and a member of the board of directors of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.