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Toledo Legal News - Editorial List Table

 

A More Perfect Union

 

You know these words, but how often do you stop to think about them? “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

They belong, of course, to the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. That remarkable document is not just the blueprint for our political system. Its Preamble is also a profoundly aspirational call to arms. Because when you read it, it’s hard not to ask yourself how we’re doing — at establishing justice, promoting the general welfare, securing the blessings of liberty, and, in sum, creating a more perfect union.

It’s especially hard to avoid asking this question now, when the warnings of democracy in retreat are all around us. For many, the creeping authoritarianism that has taken hold in any number of countries — Russia, China, Bolivia, Turkey, the Philippines, and Hungary, among others — seems alarmingly on the ascendant.

You can also look around and find developments that make you wonder whether the world’s democracies have much cause for complacency. Worrisome environmental trends, population growth, climate change, the ills that go along with rising consumption — like mountains of trash and depletion of natural resources — all suggest a world unable to rein in its appetites.

Yet it’s undeniable that we’ve come a long way in this country and in other democracies, expanding women’s rights and the rights of minorities, ending child labor, banning nuclear testing, improving literacy, building strong economies. The world’s most vibrant economies and most nimble military forces remain mostly in the hands of democratic nations: the U.S., France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and Australia.

I don’t believe that people around the world favor authoritarianism. They prefer a voice in government. But most of all, they want decent lives for themselves and their children. They are not so wedded to a democratic system that if they see no improvement in their lives, they’ll reject authoritarianism. So democratic governments have to perform. They have to meet the expectations of their people and improve the quality of their citizens’ lives.

In the U.S., many Americans, worried about the direction of their country, wonder whether it is making progress toward the ideals of the Preamble. We seem to advance, fall back, and then move forward again, all in incremental steps.

What do we mean when we talk about “a more perfect Union”? I suppose we think of material progress. But more fundamentally, I hope, we think about the expansion of human freedom and progress toward the goals set out simply and eloquently in the Preamble. There’s a sense that we’re all in this American experience together: it brings us together and connects us with our past, present and future.

The American experiment in representative democracy is always a work in progress. The results are always in doubt. Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg — “whether a nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure” — will probably resonate for as long as we’re a nation.

We face immense systemic problems at the moment: racial discrimination, wage stagnation, staggering income inequality, political polarization, the pernicious effects of too much money washing around in the system, the degradation of civil discourse. It is not a given that we’ll be able to resolve them, and we always have to be alert to the fact that our freedoms and rights can be eroded. Which means that to prevent this erosion we have to step up to the task of responsible citizenship.

This is a challenge for every generation. We’ve stepped up to it in the past, through world wars, the Civil War, economic recessions and depressions. As Americans we believe in a set of democratic ideals, basic rights, fundamental freedoms, and the notion that all people are created equal and all are entitled to dignity. These are ideas that give us cohesiveness and identify us.

But we cannot take our ability to deliver on them for granted. Without a renewal of energy and commitment to the democratic values of the Constitution, without acting on the call issued by the Preamble, we could lose them.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

Lee Hamilton, Center on Representative Government Director

What's the 'true threat' to American journalism and democracy?

 

Threats to the survival of a free press seem much in the air these days, from the near daily online insults hurled from the White House podium to the lunatic who opened fire on an innocent group of news people in Annapolis, Md., on June 28.

But the greatest danger facing our shared freedom of the press and to journalists' role in our democracy is not so much either of those factors, as important and tragic as both are.

Perhaps the greatest — and just as immediate — threat is the ongoing decline in the sheer numbers of those involved in the operating and staffing of newsrooms, for now felt most strongly in the "print" sector.

Here's the most recent example: The owner of The New York Daily News — for decades the blue collar, saucy and salty tabloid voice of one of the planet's largest cities — just days ago cut already weakened newsroom numbers from less than 100 to a reported 45 or so.

The paper's Editor Jim Rich, and Managing Editor Kristen Lee, were bounced as part the mass layoff by an out of town entity that now owns the paper, Tronc — responsible for similarly slashing staffs in other newsrooms it controls, from Chicago to Los Angeles.

No doubt the those who bark "fake news" on command will clap their hands over the news. But as Rich so eloquently wrote hours before the Tronc travesty: "If you hate democracy and think local government should operate in the dark, then today is a good day for you."

Recently, writer Ross Barkam of The Guardian noted that the U.S. Labor Department reports that since 2001, more than one half of all jobs in the news industry have disappeared, a decline from 411,800 to 173,709.

For newspapers in particular the situation is even more grim: a 2018 industry survey showed news department staffing nationwide is about 25,000 — for the first time less than the 27,000 employed in perennially understaffed local TV news operations. In the 1990s, surveys put those newsroom numbers at around 65,000.

Yes there is hope that online news operations will outgrow in size, scope, numbers, and the trivial fascinations that grab eyeballs if not intellects. But how long will that take? Will it ever happen?

It's difficult to sustain a nation's commitment to a "free press" if there's little-to-no press around to operate freely and demonstrate its worth to an ever-skeptical public.

Do not fool yourself that our freedom of the press — and other freedoms of the First Amendment — are invulnerable. A tumble in the once virtually guaranteed revenue and the web disruption of previously limited access to news trashed in little more than a decade the economic model and news consumption habits of a century and more.

Combine a court decision (perhaps in the area of public figures and libel) with the White House's moves on trade (raising the cost of newsprint) and mega media mergers approved by the government and "poof" — the vibrant, multifaceted news media envisioned by the nation's founders as a "watchdog" on government turns into a lapdog with neither bark nor bite.

Yes, The New York Daily News newsroom cuts do not automatically mean it cannot replicate a 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning investigation — with nonprofit partner ProPublica — of wrongs in the city's eviction laws. But effectively tracking down evildoers and keeping a watchful eye in a city of 8.5 million with a staff of about 40 will be nearly impossible, even with the help of Superman — and yes, the Daily News was the model for the comic book's "Daily Planet" where alter-ego, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent found a home.

We need not be mild-mannered or helpless in the face of the all too real challenges facing our watchdogs. But we do have to join in the fight to sustain a strong and free press — which, to acknowledge the factual critics of the press we have now, does not mean accepting shallow or inaccurate reporting, or opinionated talk as a substitute for journalism that matters.

In fact, there's plenty of the latter around, but it gets caught up in the bluster and brimstone of those who see political benefit in the now meaningless blurts about "fake news" and such.

Focus on finding and supporting good journalism — which no doubt will at times tell you things you don't want to hear, regardless of your political views — and ignore the rest.

If enough of us do that, we too "can save the day" for a free press — and help preserve democracy as well.

Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at gpolicinski@freedomforum.org, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.

Gene Policinski, First Amendment Center

Letters will appear in both the paper and the web site.

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