Column: News is an important institution, must be supported

It’s cliché these days to talk about the role of government in a bad light. Even those who work in and appreciate government for what it does can see some of its frustrating traits.

In many ways, though, we take government for granted. I say that as one who has been to areas of the world where the local form of government was, let’s say, less functional.

We have had it good here in the United States, and there is a certain degree of luxury in our having had it so good that we can comfortably look at something that directly supports us, our businesses, and our families in our everyday existence in very significant ways and take it down a notch. That’s not to say that there’s not—as with all things—plenty of room for improvement.

We have accrued many of the same benefits from a robust media and reliable news sources over time, and that is wholly unappreciated when, these days, you don’t have to look too far to find state-controlled propaganda wearing a mask of legitimacy that only escapes critique because of the potential violence, harassment, or imprisonment that comes with daring to question the mask.

That said, we are watching what was once more of a stalwart cornerstone of our society—the Fourth Estate—grapple not only with changes in how we consume information but changes in what kind of information we prefer to consume. This has generated quite a bit of upheaval that journalists and the media need to successfully navigate because they have played and continue to play a crucial role in how we inform and govern ourselves.

Before the Facebooks of the world began to chew away at the foundations of the institution, we had more accurate information from more reliable and trustworthy sources.

Now, we have some reliable news here and there, but trust and confidence in the information we consume today are as elusive as some of the international hackers who can easily generate mountains of manipulative, seemingly plausible propaganda in a very short time.

It takes even less time to broadcast it worldwide, and we are all too eager to share it.

In between those two points on the spectrum (i.e. what we had and what we have) is just about everything else you can imagine and a lot of that is more opinion and innuendo than actual, objective information. The arena of ideas and online platforms in general have, unfortunately, turned into a blood sport for our viewing pleasure.

Which is why we need our local media more than ever. Washington, D.C. has always been far away, so speaking about it superficially and in generalities is the expected formula for mass media consumption. Madison is a bit closer, but even then there are disconnects between what the state government and regional media appreciate and what’s actually happening locally.

The irony in all of this, of course, is that we take the local media for granted, too. That’s also true within the halls of local government, where questions about how best to inform the public are constantly being asked.

The local media can’t be everywhere, but it’s incumbent upon our local governments and communities to support those few who are left, who we can actually speak to in-person, who we can be directly accountable to, and who we can work with to improve what’s left of the Fourth Estate.

As James Madison said long ago, “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.”

Portage County Executive Chris Holman can be reached at (715) 346-1997.