Fourth estate's struggles help failings of government to fly by

Posted: Wednesday, December 15, 2010

By rejecting every claim the state had improperly conducted the election, Superior Court Judge William Carey has drilled another nail into the coffin of Joe Miller's bid for the U.S. Senate. In some circles, liberal bloggers will be blamed, or credited, for bringing down the one-time front runner. If there's any truth to this, it's a story that begins with how the American people have contributed to the slow demise of freedom's vaunted fourth estate.

During the campaign, Miller enjoyed a significant lead in the tracking polls when it was a two-way race between him and Scott McAdams. It narrowed soon after incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski announced her write-in bid. But Miller's candidacy was firmly nudged toward oblivion on Oct. 17 when his security detachment foolishly handcuffed Alaska Dispatch owner Tony Hopfinger after a town-hall styled meeting in Anchorage.

Hopfinger was at the town meeting determinedly questioning Miller about whether he had been reprimanded for unethical conduct while working for the Fairbanks North Star Borough. A week before the incident, Alaska Dispatch had filed a lawsuit seeking release of Miller's employment records there. What's significant here is none of the major Alaskan newspapers or any of the state's television radio and news organizations took the lead on this story.

The same can be said about Gov. Sean Parnell's decision to ban state officials from using their private e-mail accounts to conduct state business. That practice, used by Sarah Palin while she was governor, clearly violated the spirit of transparency in government. It was exposed by a private citizen.

Our free press has always been a vital link between the government and the people it serves. What I'm suggesting, though, is most news organizations can no longer afford the staff to ensure we're aware of our government's behavior because we aren't willing to pay for this most important benefit they provide to us.

Think back to President Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974. Give the Washington Post credit for keeping two determined reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, on their staff while they pursued the facts about the Watergate break-in and cover-up. It was a story that could have led nowhere and might have provided no benefit to the paper's readers or shareholders.

And recall the Supreme Court ruling that allowed the Pentagon Papers to be published in 1971. "Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government" wrote Justice Hugo Black for the court's majority. "And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people".

Since those days, the effectiveness of news organizations around the country has been slowly declining. And according to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment in journalism is not keeping up with the average for all other professional occupations. Wages for entry and mid-level reporters are surprising low.

We often blame the press for its own shortcomings. For some, it's been easy to batter them with the liberal media label, just as Miller attempted to diffuse Alaska Dispatch's influence in the election. On the left people often point to the corporate owner focus on profit margins and shareholder delight.

But businesses need income, and private news organizations rely on advertising as their main revenue source. Public radio and TV need underwriting by the private sector to stay afloat. These facts suggest the press' primary function of reporting the news can't be sustained by revenue collected from the people it serves.

But it also means "we the people" have placed a soft demand on the press to fulfill its essential duty. Sure, we're all busy raising our kids, working for wages, consuming entertainment and pursuing material pleasures. But collectively interest in the workings of our government is waning.

Before we had our beloved Constitution and Bill of Rights, Thomas Jefferson warned "liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press." Without a resurgence of passionate readership and viewers, this once reputable institution will continue to fade. We must be willing to supplement and even displace advertisers on the revenue side of the equation or we'll continue to buy the decline of our cherished liberties.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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