Dear Senate: If You Like Democracy, You’ll Love Journalism

Below is a copy of a letter sent last week to the Chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communication, Technology and the Internet, Sen. John Kerry. I have posted this several places in the hopes other journalists will make themselves heard on the matter.

30 April, 2009

Re: The future of journalism.

Senator John Kerry,

Good morning. I hope this letter finds you well and in good spirits. Though you do not directly represent me in the Senate you will represent me and all American journalists next week by your leadership on the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

I am a journalist who has worked for several media companies in several cities across the United States and I wish to add my voice to those you will hear on 6 May, 2009 during the hearing on “The Future of Journalism.”

I am relieved that you are convening to discuss the future of journalism and believe the issues you are dealing with are of critical interest to the American people, though they may not now recognize that. I hope you will include the following statement in the official record of these proceedings.

For the record, my name is Michael Ellis Langley. I have been an online, broadcast, print and radio journalist for more than 15 years. I have served the people of the San Francisco Bay Area, the California capital of Sacramento and in our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. I currently participate in and help moderate a weekly online forum for journalists and write a weekly online article for the Poynter Institute in Florida.

I have, for some time, felt a growing dismay about the current state of journalism in America and the public attitudes toward the press. Moreover, the dismay I feel is not only shared by many of my peers, it is driving far too many of our most experienced members from journalism.

My own personal dismay reached a critical level in January 2008. I learned that the newspaper that served my home town in California for more than 110 years was about to curtail circulation to three days a week and severely cut staffing. The editors announced they would now not cover every meeting of city officials because of those limitations. The reasons are obvious to anyone who is even remotely familiar with the state of journalism in America today: a steady decline in advertising revenue and falling subscription numbers. The latter reason concerns me the most. The Tracy Press, like so many small town newspapers, is the only way most people check on the actions taken in their name by their elected and appointed government officials. This is the basic promise and responsibility of journalism. The fact that a dwindling number of Americans get information from local journalists is troubling.

If community newspaper reporters did not attend city council meetings, school board meetings, meetings of parks and recreation departments and other such events, few people would know either the details of city activities or the context in which they occur. I now work for a television station and tell you honestly we will not, and could not, cover every such meeting in every community we serve. If broadcast journalism is the broad brush of what is happening within a region, community newspapers are the pencils, etching every detail upon the canvas of history.

To get such information, community members would have to, one by one, come to city hall to physically read the record and minutes of such meetings. Fewer still would have the time and ability to directly question their elected and appointed government agents about the decisions made in their name.

The founders of our nation, in their wisdom, knew when they forbade Congress from making any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” what so few seem to grasp today: Someone must watch our government. People dedicated to the premise of informing all of us about what is going on within the context of our community. Journalists.

I will admit that too many media companies, and even journalists, abuse the protection our Constitution affords members of the press. I offer no excuse for bad business decisions or poor journalistic integrity. I recognize that much of the public perception of my calling and of journalists stem from these decisions. A fact underscored by how few Americans rise to prevent the collapse of newspapers like the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and other publications now teetering on the brink of failure.

I plead with this committee and its members not to save media companies but to preserve and promote the role journalists fulfill in our nation. Media companies will find a business model to make money in a variety of medium. The future of journalism lies not with any one medium or with the companies who profit from the work of journalists. The future is in the pens, pencils, recorders, cameras and keyboards of the journalists themselves.

Many have argued that community bloggers or other such activists can easily fill the role of journalists within their towns and cities. I would say to you that journalism is more than reporting. Journalism is fundamentally about a sense of shared responsibility and objectivity about the events journalists cover. Journalists operate within a system of checks and ethics to prevent biased reporting. I respect independent reporters, bloggers and others and believe they are part of balanced community reporting. But I would not want just these individuals, each with their own bias and interests, to be my only source of information about my community.

Imagine an America without professional journalists. Imagine our nation with no organized group dedicated to finding and reporting upon graft, waste, fraud and social injustice. Our democracy is inherently good. It serves the will and want of every American. The American democracy provides a framework for success of the individual and of the nation but only so long as everyone adheres to the purest intent of our founding. If one person abuses the system and is not exposed to the public, his or her actions will inspire others to act in their own interest and not the interest of the community they serve. The outside, objective scrutiny of journalists across this nation is one of the few things that prevent such activities from becoming commonplace. I fear the tyranny that waits at the end of that path. There are already far too many examples of this within other nations in other parts of the world.

I come from a family dedicated to public service. My grandfathers served honorably in the Second World War and then served their communities afterwards as a physician and public utility worker. My grandmother, a pediatric nurse, rescued infants from the orphanages of India. My aunts are nurses. My uncles law enforcement officers. My mother built an arts center in Tracy, California when our schools cut art programs because of shrinking budgets. My father and brother served as firefighters. My wife has built a career working for legislators on behalf of the American people. This ethic of public service is so ingrained in me that I chose the most honorable profession for which I was suited: journalism. Journalists are no less than public servants dedicated to uncovering, understanding and spreading information to the communities they serve and it is my hope that you will see them as such.

I will conclude by reminding all of you that journalism is the only private profession specifically protected within the Constitution. That provision puts an enormous responsibility upon journalists that we daily serve the best public interest and earn that protection. I believe the first amendment of the Constitution is also a warning, passed down through history, about what could happen if journalists are not active in our society. The United States is the only modern nation founded on the requirement of a free press. I am proud to be an American and a journalist.

You members of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, and your peers in both houses of Congress have the opportunity to reinforce the role of American journalism now and for future generations. I urge you with all the passion and patriotism in my soul to use these hearings, and your power and influence, to see that journalism survives economic upheavals and transitions to new medium, so that we and future journalists may continue to serve the American people.


One Response

  1. Well said!

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