ELLSWORTH — Local newspapers influence how Americans vote and how tax dollars are spent. And when newspapers disappear (as they have in large numbers in recent decades) communities become more polarized.
That was one of the takeaways from a Saturday panel discussion on the importance of a free press in a functioning democracy. “Free Press: Enemy of the People?” was organized by the League of Women Voters-Downeast and supported by a grant from the Maine Humanities Council. The session was held at the Moore Community Center.
Panelist Joseph Reisert, a professor of constitutional law at Colby College, said the First Amendment limits “the government’s ability to suppress the press in a formal legal way.”
Simply put, the government can’t send you to jail for publishing something it doesn’t like.
“From a legal point of view, we certainly have a free press,” Reisert said. The right to a free press is not the same as a right to a good press, however, he noted.
John Christie, co-founder of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, said good local journalism holds government accountable. Reporters need to show up to town council, selectmen’s and school board meetings and sit in on court cases, he said.
That kind of coverage is not happening in many communities, either because local news outlets have closed or because their limited resources have been directed elsewhere. Hundreds of newspapers have been shuttered in recent decades. Of those remaining, many have slashed staff. Christie said studies show greater partisanship in communities without access to quality local news.
He said one reason for this is that the news hole may be filled with national coverage, which is often characterized by “white hats and black hats.”
“There’s not a lot of nuance. You’re either one of the bad guys or one of the good guys,” he said.
Public opinion of the media, a vast landscape encompassing print, broadcast and web, is not always favorable.
“Nowadays, we compete somewhere down with Congress for trustability,” quipped panelist Irwin Gratz, host of “Morning Edition” on Maine Public.
The panelists said there is common public perception that the mainstream media has a liberal slant.
Liz Graves, managing editor of the Mount Desert Islander, said part of the problem is that readers don’t distinguish between news stories and opinion pieces, especially when clicking on links shared on social media.
The internet also has provided a platform for individuals to publish their views, often under the guise of “facts.”
“There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s not believable, but people are believing it,” said moderator Ann Luther.
Panelists agreed that readers need to be informed news consumers, seeking out information from reliable sources and not believing everything they read.
Journalists, too, need to be careful that in their rush to “get clicks” and publish fast, lest they lose sight of their principles of newsworthiness and accuracy, panelists said.
Reporters do themselves a disservice when they go beyond trying to inform and enlighten their audience and try to pressure a result, Christie said, stating that there are reporters who “want to have Trump’s scalp.”
“They’re cheering their own demise in my opinion,” Christie said, calling it journalistic “overreach.”
The discussion did turn up some bright spots for the future of print journalism, among them support for nonprofit investigative journalism and the Report for America program, which places reporters in “news deserts.”
Supporting community journalism is really quite simple, Graves said.
“Buy advertisements, buy subscriptions.”