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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Jayne: ‘Spotlight’ reminds us journalism is vital in democracy

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: March 6, 2016, 6:02am

There is an editorial cartoon pinned up at my desk depicting Ma and Pa America opening their mail. Ma says, “We sure saved money by dropping the newspaper last year,” and Pa, perusing a letter, says, “Whoa! How’d they raise our property taxes without us knowing about it?”

I thought about that cartoon last week when the Best Picture Oscar was awarded to “Spotlight,” a film that depicts how The Boston Globe exposed the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. I thought about the importance of journalism and investigation and the crucial role that professionals dedicated to those pillars play in our democracy.

There is a reason, after all, that the First Amendment includes “freedom of the press” as one of the foundations of our nation. There is a reason that Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” (Yes, he actually wrote this, according to Monticello.org — unlike most of the Internet quotes attributed to Jefferson).

These are difficult times for newspapers; that is no secret. Suffering from an antiquated businesses model compounded by the rise of the Internet and the Great Recession, newspapers across the country have slashed staff over the past decade-and-a-half. This is particularly true at large metro papers, as reflected by the fact that the daily paper in Portland is no longer a daily if you wish to have it delivered to your doorstep.

It is those large papers that long have had the resources to dig into stories that require a lot of digging; to uncover the layers that inherently accompany the most egregious of scandals and the most carefully constructed of cover-ups. And the question now is whether anybody has the money and the time to perform the type of onion-peeling that is essential to our nation.

As Ralph Strangis wrote recently for The Dallas Morning News: “We confuse journalism with stenography. We value flash and ignore substance. We celebrate attractive media stars and give our time to wardrobe choices and car crashes and body counts. Memes reflect and define our collective truths and 140 characters test our patience. Expediency outweighs all else.”

The result is a culture in which CNN and Fox News pass for “journalism.” Our nation is poorer for it.

Daily small victories

Think about it. For years now, many would-be king-makers have decried the “lamestream media,” instructing their acolytes not to trust those who strive to uncover facts and present them to the populace.

The result? We now have a large segment of the public that thinks Donald Trump is a worthy presidential candidate despite all evidence to the contrary. Trump can be trusted, they believe, because the media doesn’t like him and the media can’t be trusted — facts be damned. There are many, many reasons for Trump’s rise, and psychology students will be writing Master’s theses about it for years to come, but the persistent denigration of the truth-tellers is one of those factors.

Given this change in the culture, I felt a twinge of pride a few weeks ago while watching “Spotlight.” I recognized the nobility of journalism — or any profession requiring profound dedication to a profound cause.

It is this media, after all, that over the years has uncovered inhumane conditions at mental institutions, and the Watergate scandal, and how a governor repeatedly raped a 14-year-old girl. The sexual abuse of children by priests proved to be a worldwide scandal, and the unraveling of that scandal began with a handful of journalists in a basement office in Boston.

Few of us who spend a lifetime in this profession have the opportunity or the skill to uncover such a monumental story. And yet there are smaller victories on a daily basis. It is important, after all, to know when your property taxes are being raised.