An old friend from my newspapering days came for supper the other night. Inevitably, the talk turned to the demise of the ink-on-paper news industry and what its collapse is going to mean for all of us. Trouble, I think—the kind we can hardly fathom here in the US where our right to be informed feels like part of our genetic code.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that right—and the healthy habits of questioning and challenging that it feeds—since Oxfam colleagues from Africa, South America, and Central America arrived in Boston last week for a communications workshop. Part of the workshop focused on pitching stories to the media—a delicate undertaking in countries where governments would just as soon have the public remain in the dark and there is no such thing as a free press. There are some things you just can’t say publicly, said one of my African counterparts, no matter how truthful it is.
Our government here may be no fonder than any other of having its unfair practices and embarrassing peccadilloes widely broadcast. But as citizens of the US, we have been raised to believe those truths belong to us. It’s our right to hear about them—and to act on them. And that’s where the trouble newspapers are facing comes in. They are often the ones that sniff out those injustices and pay for the leg work to expose them. But investigative journalism, which helps to keep government, businesses, and civic institutions honest, is expensive. If newspapers can no longer afford to operate, who’s going to do the digging to keep us informed? What’s their shuttering going to mean for the freedoms we take for granted here?
On my last trip to Africa in January, at the time of Obama’s inauguration, there was elation in the air and a crazy hunger among people in one capital city to compare all that our new president stood for with all that their leader did not. But that longing was muzzled—heard only in whispers between hosts and their foreign visitors. Few would dare criticize in a headline a head of state known to stomp hard and fast on dissenters. Speaking the truth was dangerous, as it is in so many countries in the world, and the fear was palpable.
But if we lose the habit here—and the willingness to invest in it—we may soon find ourselves in the same position as too much of the world: shackled by ignorance and the erosion of rights that follow.