Editorial: Democracy cannot survive without a free press

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Today, newspapers — digital and print — around the United States will publish editorials decrying attacks on the free press by President Donald J. Trump and other elected officials.

We at The Times join that chorus. We know we are a tiny voice — certainly in comparison with the long-established, giant metro newspapers that helped spark this day of solidarity.

We will not begin to argue that the press is perfect – far from. We make mistakes, get things wrong or miss key stories. We do try, always, to get it right, and correct the record when possible. And yes, you can argue that the national cable TV media is a bit of different animal — even we cringe sometimes at the “Breaking News” mentality designed to drive ratings more than inform.

And yes, many of us, pressed by economic need have had to shrink our newsrooms and cut corners. We hate it — but the current advertising environment, in part damaged by what appears to be an illegal digital advertising monopoly by Google, gives us little choice. We are far from happy about the changes forced upon the industry — changes that mean less coverage of school boards and local government, less oversight — and ultimately, for you the reader, the probability of less effective governance and higher local taxes due to lack of scrutiny.

But the good a free and vigorous press does so outweighs the negatives. At our best, we inform and educate and shine a light on local, state and national elected officials. In almost all cases, we are careful, thorough and thoughtful in our reporting.

As concerning as President Trump’s recent attacks on a free press have been — he is but one man, a man with a checked history of honesty at best.

It is so many others, including elected officials in the Chester County area, who for a number of years have sought to demean, defame and outright bully the local media. Some publications have been cowed, while others have managed to stay strong, willing to call attention to conduct that is questionable or worse.

More frightening, a Quinnipiac University poll out Tuesday suggests that 51% — a majority — of Republicans consider the media “the enemy of the people.” That is literally how Joseph Stalin described the press in Russia — before launching into purges that killed millions. That is also how Adolph Hitler described the media, as well.

If that is the company some elected officials and rank-and-file Republicans wish to share, it truly is a fearful time for our democracy.

We used to have a shared sense of the facts — now folks can ignore information they don’t like to be told what they want to hear. The truth has been outstripped by “talking points.”

But we ask this: as this process has unfolded over the past 20 years, are you better off? Is your life better? Is our country better? Is our government more effective?

We think most of us would answer “no.”

Obviously, there are many reasons for this, but at least one factor is the erosion of the news media as a force of education, information and shared facts. Americans were very good at slowly, carefully, coming to a consensus and taking action as needed, once the facts were evident.

Now, that process has been actively subverted by internal and external forces. Without shared facts, we cannot have a robust debate — but rather separate realities that often do not overlap, leading to division, anger and gridlock.

Far from being the enemy, a free press is the last, best hope of stopping a dangerous turn away from democracy toward corporate oligarchy.

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