by Kris Leonhardt, MMC Senior Editor
“The founding fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”
That quote from Steven Spielberg’s The Post sums up the role of media when it was created and a role media struggles to hold onto today. The Post, released in 2017, does a great job of illustrating the struggle between the government and the press.
The movie chronicles a legal battle between the government and The Washington Post, when its publisher and editor expose a decades-long government cover up spanning four administrations. In the movie, the publication risks everything to publish the Pentagon papers and expose the corruption. A fictionalized account of a very real battle to hold the government accountable, and one protected by our First Amendment.
Before the country’s original 13 colonies declared independence, the British government made an effort to censor the established press by banning fledgling publications in the new country after they spoke out against government action. To prevent that in the established United States of America, the First Amendment, adopted in 1791, protects the “freedom of the press.” From that day, history is filled with battles between the press and the government, as journalists serve their role and legislators serve theirs. It will always be a struggle, if the government continues to become less and less transparent and the press is forced to fill in the gaps.
The latest attempt in this matter revolves around Senate Bill 55. The bill will give local governments the option to discontinue publishing a summary of their proceedings in local publications, allowing them to post minutes to websites. State Statutes 985.01-985.15 – Publication of Legal Notes – now requires publication in print media. This will leave some demographics unserved.
Freedom House reported that in 2017, just 13 percent of the world’s population has access to free press – uncensored delivery of news in a variety of means. We continue to be at risk of losing this ourselves through a variety of means, but the restraining by government means is the most concerning. During my time working in community media, I have watched people that I respect do great things, and I have witnessed people that I respect make bad choices that affect the public as a whole. It is our job to pursue both for the good of the community.
As staff sizes shrink across the media industry, it gets more and more difficult to cover all that needs to be addressed, but we are still providing checks and balances for the public. While some publications you are reading may not publish government proceedings, because it is a free paper or does not fit the criteria for publication, many community publications also rely on the income to continue making ends meet.
Bill 55 will deal another blow to government transparency in several ways, but it may mean certain death to the remaining publications in some communities and leave those who still rely on local print media for their news without access.
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