The hound that barks

Published 10:15 pm Thursday, October 8, 2009

As newsrooms across the nation celebrate National Newspaper Week this week, it is appropriate to take some time to consider some of the founding principles that govern and drive America’s print media. Throughout the week on this page, staff members will talk about their newspaper experiences and describe why they consider the mission of newspapers to be so important. And in this space, we will examine our principles.

Having considered earlier this week the bedrock principle of a free press in American society, we now consider just what important role the press should fill. Most folks are familiar with the newspaper’s role as a watchdog, both of government and of whatever private organizations and individuals might impact on public safety.

Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, especially, gives newspapers wide latitude in covering public events, government affairs and breaking news. The legislation also governs what information held by state agencies must be made public and under what circumstances.

The so-called Sunshine Law was adopted in the spirit of the old adage that sunshine makes the best disinfectant. In other words, public business conducted in public leaves little room for corruption.

To be sure, city council members, for example, could speak and debate more freely in the absence of newspaper and television reporters eager to record their pronouncements. But the temptation would be strong to cut legal corners, and without the public — which often is represented only by the press — on hand, that temptation would soon turn to action and then to habit.

Our nation’s Founding Fathers had good reason to worry that the government might one day use its power to take advantage of private citizens. They came from a political system where the people were routinely secondary to their government.

The First Amendment and various Sunshine Laws across the nation help assure that American governments — from the smallest town council on up to the U.S. Congress — are always servants of the people, instead.

When they’re doing their jobs, newspapers force local, state and federal government agencies to be accountable to those people, and they serve as an early warning system if something starts going wrong in government. Because, if the watchdog doesn’t bark, he’s no more valuable to your protection than a lapdog.