We Americans are proud of our First Amendment — a guarantee that government at any level cannot restrict freedom of speech in the United States — and we should be. It safeguards our own individual speech and that of the “press.” Originally the press was defined by our primary news and opinion medium — newspapers — but today translates to “media,” encompassing print and digital platforms, ones common to me and those I have never heard of and will likely never use.
But I am nervous about our First Amendment and particularly, the freedom of the press. As you and I speak with millions of different voices and opinions, local media is speaking less and less. That means we know less and less about what is happening in our own communities.
The press, which began with relatively few voices, has long since morphed into millions of voices with a versatile range. From television networks with distinct points of view and unrestricted social media comments to individual blogs and podcasts representing every viewpoint and experience under the sun, a lot is being said. We are all free to partake of as much or as little of this as we please. We can and do read, watch and listen to voices that agree with ours, relaxing with our own choir in an echo chamber that preaches only to us and those like us. Successful politicians of all stripes know to keep their friends close and their enemies closer. Otherwise, we have no clue what others are thinking and doing. It is as if we are living in the tower of Babel, an existence dangerous indeed.
Dangerous as well is the consolidation of media throughout our nation. Gone from most places, including Fayetteville and Cumberland County, are locally owned and operated news outlets, including newspapers and radio and television stations. Cape Fear Broadcasting, a local media company that carried local news and broadcast editorials, was sold to a publicly traded corporation 20 years ago. The Fayetteville Observer is now owned by a national newspaper chain. With such consolidation have come “synergies,” which translate into fewer local jobs and much less local news.
Estimates vary, but The New York Times reports that 1 in 5 newspapers in the U.S. have shut down. Researcher Penny Abernathy at UNC-CH’s School of Journalism and Media puts the number at about 1,800 since 2004, roughly 100 a year. Actual closure of local broadcasting outlets is not as dramatic, but the existence of fewer newsrooms and reporters is taking a toll. Local news media are shadows of their former selves, and many U.S. communities are now local news deserts.
So why should we care that news outlet voices are decreasing and that less local, state and regional news coverage exists? We should care because how else will we know what our local and state elected officials are up to? What is Fayetteville City Council doing with downtown development? How are our law enforcement agencies handling diversity issues? What is the Cumberland County Board of Education doing to help students recover from a year away from in-person classes? How is the General Assembly going to fund the UNC and community college systems? Unless you plan to attend every meeting of every elected body, you will be unaware that local media coverage is absent. Don’t even think about trusting random social media posts for accurate local news. To read more on this, see the Brookings Institute 2019 report “Local Journalism in Crisis: Why America Must Revive Its Local Newsrooms.”
Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglas, Patrick Henry and other earlier Americans who saw a need for eternal vigilance to preserve liberty could not have imagined today’s cacophony of voices. That we struggle to agree on basic facts about our nation would astound them, but that is our present state. We do not have to agree with much less like the views of other people and news outlets, but we ignore them at our own and our nation’s peril.
It is up to us to protect our precious First Amendment by keeping ourselves informed as best we can, even about events, ideas and points of view with which we disagree.
Especially about those with which we disagree.
Editor's Note: This Essay on Liberty by Dickson first appeared in the July issue of Women's View magazine.