Is A ‘Farce and Tragedy’ Unfolding?

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By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News

Founding Father James Madison said: “A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to farce or tragedy or perhaps both.” We fear the farce and tragedy are unfolding.

President Thomas Jefferson also saw a real danger in the general population becoming disengaged from what their leaders were up to and where that could inevitably lead us.

 “If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves,” the nation’s third president wrote.

In a piece she wrote on “The Role of Civic Education” in American democracy in 1998, Margaret S. Branson of the Center for Civic Education highlighted how essential an engaged and knowledgeable citizenry is to the future of our republic.

“As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a constitutional democracy,” she wrote. “Those dispositions must be fostered and nurtured by word and study and by the power of example. Democracy is not a ‘machine that would go of itself,’ but must be consciously reproduced, one generation after another.”

Civic education is fundamental to the nurturing of a citizen’s informed participation. “Civic education, therefore, is or should be a prime concern,” Branson wrote. “There is no more important task than the development of an informed, effective, and responsible citizenry.”

We see two dangers in where we are headed today if the fears of Madison and Jefferson are to be avoided. First, we aren’t teaching a new generation of citizens how to be good citizens, and second, they are getting less of the information that informs their decisions.

Our world overflows with information, but so much of it is personal communication between friends and family over social media, or entertainment, or politically charged and slanted broadcasts on television and the internet. The news that is the sustenance of an informed electorate, the news that nurtures the knowledge we need about the quality of our elected leaders and where they are leading us is becoming ever harder to find.

In our distant past, Americans were joiners. They belonged in high numbers to a wide range of social and political organizations. However, we have been turned inward by a succession of marvelous innovations through past decades. Radio, television, and the internet have isolated us away from social interaction and participation. Once homes had front porches so that people could look out to the street and socialize with their neighbors living next door, or with folks walking down the road.

We were turned inside to huddle beside the radio, then to gather as a family in front of the television to watch the evening news. In time, each member of the family went off to his or her own TV room to watch a program in solitude. Then the internet came along further isolating us in our individualized worlds.

We have stopped joining social clubs, stopped participating in organized sports on evenings and weekends, and stopped joining political groups. In our participation, we learned something about leadership and cooperation. We built ties with people from different social, financial and religious backgrounds. We learned to compromise. We served as officers of clubs. We helped write rules that were fairly applied and followed by our groups. We learned the habits of democracy without realizing we were honing our skills as citizens.

Now the organizations that once were teeming with engaged residents of a community, the softball teams and bowling leagues, school parent groups, Kiwanis and Lions clubs, and community committees are dwindling if not gone.

 “Democracies are sustained by citizens who have the requisite knowledge, skills, and dispositions,” Branson wrote just over 20 years ago. “Absent a reasoned commitment on the part of its citizens to the fundamental values and principles of democracy, a free and open society cannot succeed.”

The “skills and dispositions” have faded. Now our knowledge is threatened. Nowhere is this truer than in rural America.

Branson’s words lay the foundation and imperative for supporting community newspapers in America. It is through our persistent presence and reporting that citizens in small communities across the country are informed. Only through sleepless vigilance do we keep corruption at bay and our freedoms safe. Journalists are democracy’s watchdogs, but so malnourished today that Jefferson’s wolves look on with contempt or disregard.

So far, newspapers have been dealing with the loss of revenue through cuts – cuts in staff, cuts in content, cuts in coverage. They’ve tried to offset lost print revenues through their digital content, but the digital pennies don’t come close to making up for the print dollar advertising lost - so the cuts go deeper, and newspapers go out of business.

A 2018 University of North Carolina study found that the United States had lost nearly 1,800 newspapers with more than 1,700 weeklies and 60 dailies gone since 2004. Communities throughout rural America are gradually becoming news deserts.

With the internet taking away advertising that supports journalism, with the public turning to free entertainment and news on the internet and dropping their newspaper subscriptions, the responsibility to support how our citizens are informed will eventually go back to its roots – where society recognized the essential need to sustain journalism that educates the electorate. How we will do that is a subject of considerable debate, but one we must have.

Americans must understand that newspapers are a public good, much like our educational system, our roads and bridges, our water systems, and our national defense.

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