Freedom of the Press is Not Free

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The Big Picture
by Glynn Wilson

It’s summertime in Alabama now. No matter what the official calendar says. The mercury hit 91 here today. That was probably in the shade.

We just got back from the local farmer’s market, where Alabama farmers show up every Thursday to sell their goods directly to the public. There is no place better to pick up locally grown tomatoes, rattle-snake green beans, sweet corn, peaches and watermelon.

After walking Jefferson the Springer Spaniel around the walking trails by a series of small lakes, I noticed the veterans memorial again. It’s been two years since the dedication, but I can’t help but think of my dad whenever I see it. Since Father’s Day is this weekend, what better time to comment on it?

The banner slogan on this particular memorial is not my favorite saying to support veterans, but I see it used a lot. In big, bold letters, it reads: FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.


It is true, by the way. Many have died in freedom’s name. It’s an honorable way to honor someone in death, the ultimate price to pay for one’s country. It’s not the only price, of course. There are many ways to serve one’s country. Working to provide solid, accurate information and to connect the dots for people struggling to understand an increasingly complicated world is an honorable profession.

But as an astute observer of the social and political world, yes I’m a social and political critic, I can’t help but think a few other thoughts when I see the slogan. Especially knowing the politics of most of the people who come here for their vegetables.

The World War II generation, dubbed “the greatest generation” by Tom Brokaw, probably was America’s greatest generation. While they fought their way out of the Great Depression and interceded to defeat Hitler’s Nazism in Germany and put down another form of totalitarianism from Japan, they also saw the best of times — of all time — for the American economy in the 1950s and ’60s.

Then, due to the gains in health science and health care, and that includes federal spending for programs such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, many of this generation lived on through the Roaring ’90s during the computer boom and into the new millennium, which we can already predict will be called the Internet Age. The mass circulation daily newspaper had a hell of a run, as did radio and television. But it’s about to be our turn on the Web.

My dad did not make it to see the turn of the century, but I won’t spend a lot of time talking about him today. I dedicated another column to him in 2009 where I tell more of his story.

What’s on my mind today is this.

While I’m seeing the news go by on the screen about people trying to save the daily newspaper in New Orleans, and thinking about the layoffs coming in Huntsville, Birmingham and Mobile, I can’t help but think of the slogan that runs through my mind every time I see that sign, FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.

If freedom of the press is absolutely essential for this freedom to exist, a fact recognized by all the so-called founding fathers of this country to a man, then I propose another slogan and will memorialize it on every page of this Website from now on.

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS IS NOT FREE

It’s not just that many a journalist has also died in harm’s way making their meager livings chasing the news of war from Korea to Vietnam, from Iraq to Afghanistan. The people of this country need to understand that the information they depend upon to make all kinds of important decisions, not just about government and public affairs but how to live their own individual lives, is not a free commodity.

It costs money to produce good journalism just as it does to make good cars — or to grow fine vegetables. The American public sometimes acts like life is one big free ride on a Disney World roller coaster. We don’t want to pay taxes even to pay for essential basic government services.

The public needs to understand this as well. The media barons of the 20th century, the Pulitzer’s and Hearsts and the Newhouse brothers and sons, figured out how to make a ton of money off of newspapering. Newhouse, the chain that has long owned a near monopoly on news in my home state of Alabama, demanded a 20 percent return on investment from their newspaper publishers — a higher return by far than just about any industry in American history.

They didn’t really care how they did it, but it ended up being a conservative, pro-big business approach that favored the Republican Party at the ballot box. That’s the same Republican Party that has now driven America and Alabama into a great big drainage ditch. The same Republican Party now supported with a certain religious vengeance by many of the people at the farmer’s market — and many of the farmers themselves.

Now the news moguls are going down with the ship, jumping into the lifeboats with the cash like the upper deck crowd on the Titanic.

My question for the reporters on this hit list and others around the state and country is this. After all those years of making a living wage working for these Newhouse papers, are there not stories you would like to tell that you did not have the freedom to tell there? If so, get yourself to a Website somewhere and tell them, and find somebody to sponsor you.

This is not rocket science. When newspapers first came on the scene, they found advertisers who wanted to reach their audience and funded the kind of journalism they wanted to do. Over the decades, as the money flowed more to big corporations with every merger and acquisition, more of that money came from big corporations — so the journalism tended to reflect that point of view.

What I am building here is a different kind of news organization, one that is not interested in big corporate money. We see the corporate model as part of the problem, not the solution. Corporatization leads to jobs outsourcing, for example, and to bad, hasty decisions that lead to things like the BP oil spill.

There are enough unions and environmental groups and forward-thinking small business owners who still need to reach an audience, and we are reaching that audience now on the Web.

People in the Southland are slow to change, admittedly. They don’t embrace change easily. But when change is thrust upon a people, change like the death of the daily newspaper, the question is how will they respond?

Character is easy to come by when the living is easy, like the song “Summertime” says.

Real character comes to light in a time of great change.

This is such a time.

Let’s respond by remembering that FREEDOM OF THE PRESS IS NOT FREE.

Let’s work together to build a better press on the Web.

© 2012, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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