January 14, 2013: Local Newspapers Serve As Our Advocates And Protectors

I have the privilege of speaking to a group of newspaper publishers at the Georgia Press Association’s winter gathering in Atlanta. This is a special opportunity because this is a special group.  Besides, I think my lunch is free although I can’t be sure.  Publishers run a tight ship.

Newspaper publishers manage a business that is more than a business. What they do is fundamental to our well-being — to serve as our advocate; to inform us and to protect the Holy Grail of our society, the right of free expression.  So far, the government and assorted special interest groups have not found a way to keep us from hearing the truth as it is and not as they would like it to be.  That is because of the newspaper.

Our government – yours and mine – will go to extraordinary lengths to hide information from us; information that we have a right to see because it is our hard-earned tax dollars they are spending.  The newspapers are there to see that conducting the public’s business behind closed-doors is the exception and not the rule.  If newspapers did not, who would?

Thomas Jefferson said, “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.”  Like you and me, Mr. Jefferson did not always agree with what he read in the newspaper but he recognized that the alternative was unthinkable.  It still is.

The newspaper business is under siege these days.  The future of the industry seems to be in doubt according to some pundits.  I don’t share that view even though I can’t say I am optimistic about the big-city papers.  Frankly, the big boys have lost credibility with a lot of Americans because they have lost touch with them.

Not so with the local paper.  It is less concerned with trying to influence your political philosophy and more concerned with keeping you informed.  Where else will you read about what the city council or the county commission is up to?  From the New York Times?   I don’t think so.

It is in the local paper that you learn what roads are going to be closed and for how long or proposed changes in the millage rate or how your local school system plans to do to deal with the aftermath of the tragic massacre in Newton, Conn.  Add photographs and stories about your friends and neighbors and the high school band and the soccer team and you have the pulse of the community in your hands.

If you disagree with something you read in the Washington Post, how do you know anyone of any import will (a) see your complaint or (b) give a flip if they do?  Not so with the local paper.  You will likely know the staff at the local paper and probably shop at the same grocery store, belong to the same church or civic club.  You don’t like something you read, you can give the paper instant feedback.   I know.  I have been known to generate some of that feedback with my views on the world.

H. L. Mencken is not a name that many recognize these days but back in the early part of the last century he was one of the most influential American writers and social commentators in the country.  It was Mencken who said that a serious journalist should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  I try my darnedest to do just that.

Another patron saint of mine, humorist Will Rogers, said he didn’t do comedy; he just watched Congress and reported what they did.  I try my darnedest to that, too; except I can include the Georgia Legislature in my comedy routine.  My cup runneth over.

That is why I am honored to be asked to speak to the publishers.  Without them, it wouldn’t be possible for us to have this weekly dialogue.  We wouldn’t be able to laugh together at some of the human foibles we witness or fume together at some of the arrogances we experience.  And there would be no opportunity to poke fun at the pompous or to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Freedom of expression is a precious commodity that we enjoy in this country and not available in large parts of the world.  I am going to thank the newspaper publishers for keeping it alive and well for us.  You should, too.


You can reach Dick Yarbrough at yarb2400@bellsouth.net  or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139 or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb