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The purpose of the press By Will Shonbrun


The Purpose of the Press
By Will Shonbrun

The printing press was invented around 1440. Newspapers have been published in America for about 500 years and the purpose of the press has been debated ever since. Today of course news and information is disseminated via airwaves and cable. The methods of communication have changed, but what about the content? Has that too changed with the technology?

I’d say not so much. Early newspapers brought events and information – politics and weather forecasts for example – to public attention and also offered commentary on matters of the day, humor in various forms and even gossip. Early American newspapers emulated the English press and soon developed its own style and formats. Our very own founding father, Ben Franklin, published a newspaper and journal and used it to his advantage and ambitions. Mark Twain got some good training in covering news events and fabricating lots of stuff as well. Jack London was a reporter and also used the press to espouse his social and political views.

There is an honored past in the newspaper business. There’s also its not so illustrious use as a platform for propaganda, a tool to influence or manipulate thinking and a seller of questionable ideas in the public marketplace sometimes referred to as manufacturing consent. William Randolph Hearst and Rupert Murdoch come to mind as standout examples of the latter.

So still the question of what is the purpose of a newspaper lingers. In my view and foremost is that a newspaper should have a purpose for being in existence in the first place.

I fully understand that newspapers and advertising are intertwined, but that’s not a paper’s purpose; a necessity in most cases, but not a purpose. Some individuals start newspapers so they can trumpet their views on any range of things and that, while not optimal, is acceptable and a reality and should not be tampered with no matter how objectionable those views might be. Still this should require a level of reasoned argument and the data with which to back up and prove the publisher’s claims.

As I see it the highest purpose of a newspaper should be to, 1. Inform with credible and provable data the events and happenings of the day, and 2. To seek to get the truth to people about what is happening in the society it serves and the world outside that. These undertakings are not so simple to accomplish, but should be fundamentally at the core of publishing a newspaper. Of course this is only one person’s view, opinion, but nevertheless one I’m glad to debate.

A newspaper is supposed to be a community’s watchdog, which means it has to observe and note its political leaders as well as the entities that make decisions and influence the public’s thinking. If the newspaper doesn’t do this and publish its findings, who will?

All the ancillary things one finds in newspapers, from food to travel to comics and all the rest are well and good, but those aren’t reasons for being. Newspapers have a special trust to be the public’s eyes and ears and to cut through the lies and BS that’s widely dished out. Newspapers can unmask these smokescreens at the very top, as in the Watergate events and the downfall of a guilty President. It can also go in the opposite direction and gin up acceptance and enthusiasm for going to war, as did Hearst and even the sacred NY Times with Bush and Iraq. A newspaper is as good or bad or effective as the people who produce it.