By Brian Langley
Our country was founded on the premise that a free press is essential to hold the powerful accountable. But when powerful media institutions downplay important news stories or ignore them altogether, they don’t live up to the founders’ goals.
Here in Maine, we are fortunate to have local newspapers that are committed to calling balls and strikes regardless of who the home team is. Our weeklies are, in my opinion, the last bastion of freedom of the press.
I recently had the honor of attending a friend’s defense of her Ph.D. dissertation on this very subject, and I was struck by how much better our local weeklies are than the national newspapers at highlighting facts. Heidi Omlor’s dissertation (titled “The Holocaust: Front Page News in Maine”) sheds light on the media’s influence in determining what is newsworthy. Her analysis of more than 20,000 newspaper articles from 1933-1945 revealed that Maine’s community newspapers were far more likely to run stories about the atrocities of the Holocaust on the front page, where national newspapers buried the grim reports from Europe on inside pages — if they ran them at all.
Heidi’s work shows that bias is more apparent at the national media outlets than in our local newspapers. Our local newspapers are our last line of defense when it comes to preserving our democracy. They are part of our communities. We see our local reporters at high school games and grocery stores. We get to know them. In some cases, we have seen them grow up before our very eyes. Like the young lady who was in Girl Scout Troop 514 with my daughter, who is now the editor of The Ellsworth American.
These local journalists report the news that brings us together: our births, school honor rolls, local sports, recipes, engagements, weddings, anniversaries and deaths. And when they do report on more heated or controversial topics, they do so out of a responsibility to speak truth to power, not to boost profits or chase more clicks on social media.
In a letter to Edward Carrington, Thomas Jefferson says this about the vital importance of newspapers in a democracy: “The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people.”
He continued: “If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions; and experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor.”
But today, big tech and national media outlets have become the wolves — willing to endanger democracy by stirring the flames of hyper-partisanship. Obsessed with filling every hour of the day with “breaking news” designed to grab attention, often with little regard for the truth.
Jefferson was not blind to the dangers of an irresponsible media. An advocate for the free press, he also famously observed, “As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers.”
The founders were keenly aware of the dangers of government interference with the freedom of the press, and rightly protected against it. But they could not have anticipated the multinational corporations that daily censor our news for profit and influence.
It feels like we are at a crossroads. We can choose to continue to be the freest country in the world, or we can revert to the governments from which the founders fled to form our republic.
In 80 years, at the turn of the next century, when another Heidi Omlor is researching newspapers in Maine, what will the research show? I for one hope that weeklies like The Ellsworth American, the Mount Desert Islander and the papers of the Penobscot Press are still serving the citizens of Hancock County.
Brian Langley is a former Republican state senator and owner of the Union River Lobster Pot in Ellsworth.