* Newspapers across the state Sunday told their readers about the candidates in the municipal elections taking place in their communities on Tuesday. It’s what newspapers, more than any other medium, does.
* The movie “Spotlight” about the Boston Globe’s incredible investigation into pedophilia among Catholic priests debuts this week to rave reviews. Like “All the President’s Men” a generation ago, it will remind audiences of the power of committed journalism to hold the powerful accountable.
* News events recorded by citizens with smartphones continue to dominate the news. A man with a smartphone showed us how Walter Scott was killed. A group of students at Spring Valley High recorded how one police officer dealt with a disobedient student.
These are all related events. They demonstrate the spread of news reporting, bringing to light events, issues and people that likely would be kept in darkness.
I’m glad that newspapers continue to provide the public service of reporting on candidates for office, even if that reporting takes time and doesn’t get them new readers or much web traffic. It’s the sort of service that contributes to democracy, in a way. It’s likely they reached fewer people than they have in many years.
I’m glad, too, that smartphones with cameras are ubiquitous. They allow so many of us to become recorders of events. I don’t mean that everyone is a photojournalist yet, but many of them are.
I’m glad that newspapers like the Globe and the New York Times and the News & Observer are printing stories that let communities know that things are NOT working right. That people in power will take every advantage of the system that they can, particularly if they aren’t being watched.
OK, here is what worries me: the insidious corruptions that take place every day because there is no light shining in the dark places.
Yes, what we once called citizen journalism is helping, most visibly involving police and African Americans. (I’m aware Facebook is filled with viral videos of the good sides of people, too.)
But thanks to the implosion of the newspaper business, fewer journalists are around to pay attention to the process and detail of government. Fewer journalists cover state government. Fewer journalists cover local government. In my county — the third largest in the state — I understand the daily newspaper didn’t staff a meeting of the county commissioners because it didn’t have any reporters available.
Let that settle in for a moment.
No, I’m worried about the government committee meetings, the planning boards and the zoning commissions and the mental health boards. I’m worried about how decisions are being made and carried out in the inspections departments and school superintendents offices. I’m worried about court cases that go unnoticed and police reports that get filed away.
These are the places where reporters often lurked, finding stories that needed to be told, making their presence known so that those wanting to game the system might think twice. (Yes, I’m aware I wrote that in past tense.)
I’m worried about dots that don’t get connected because no one is being paid to add 2 + 2.
I believe that most government officials — elected, appointed and hired — are honest. But I don’t believe that they all are, and I don’t believe that every government action is clean and done above board. If the true test of a man’s character is what you do when nobody’s looking, as John Wooden once said, then we have some shady characters out there.
No, newspaper journalists aren’t the only ones out there. TV reporters break investigative stories. (Thinking of you, WRAL.) Alt weeklies do, too, as do bloggers and “regular” citizens. But the reporters who most often walked the corridors of government and sat through slow meetings to find a story were — and still are — newspaper reporters. Because their companies bought ink by the barrel, their stories would spread.
Now, take a hard look at your local paper and your TV news. Gauge how much space and time are devoted to the democracy and the levers of government in your community. Evaluate how much is enterprise and how much is basically clerical. I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and if you are, please let me know. I want to be pleasantly surprised, too.
We’ve entered what the New York Times has called the “postprint era.” And it’s a good time – again – for all people interested in good government to wring our hands over how light is going to shine into the corners of power.
The reviewer of “Spotlight” by WBUR ends this way: “After the credits rolled at the premiere, the actors and their real-life counterparts took the stage. Former Globe editor Marty Baron, depicted with understated accuracy in the film (and now with The Washington Post), thanked the audience and made a simple request. ‘Our highest mission is to hold powerful institutions accountable,’ he said. ‘Please support that.’
“The movie ‘Spotlight’ may not spark massive new spending on investigative journalism or fix the broken business model that no news organization has yet to solve. But if this respectful, honest tribute can restore some of the shine to a struggling profession and remind the public why quality journalism is worth paying for, it’s a start.”
Addendum: This piece in CJR by my friend Corey Hutchins just popped up in my email. It’s on the same topic and has insight from a member of the Dane County, Wisc., board of supervisors.
“It used to be that even our committee meetings were covered,” he says. “Well, that’s not happened in a long time. Then the gradual erosion started hitting board meetings. And so one by one they started disappearing.… There needs to be a presence there just to keep us on our best behavior, number one, and number two, to keep the public in touch with what’s going on.”