TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Newspapers Deliver Knowledge, And That’s Power

You’re holding in your hand something akin to a miracle in an increasingly authoritarian world, a reflection of incredible foresight on the parts of the Founding Fathers. They understood that democracy couldn’t exist if the voice of the governed was stifled.

Free speech wasn’t an afterthought, it wasn’t the Second Amendment, it was the First.

It’s enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. You have the freedom to ask questions and express unpopular views. We are a nation of laws, and people like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine knew unfettered news and discourse was critical to an informed populace. Knowledgeable citizens can indeed create a more perfect union.

The means of delivery has evolved. Many of you are reading this online. But the concept is the same. Trained journalists on a trusted platform.

A free press is the enemy of anti-democracy authoritarians for obvious reasons. The news sometimes casts them in an unfavorable light, so they lash out in the most simplistic of terms: “Fake news!” Well, if you’re embarrassed by news coverage of your actions, that in itself probably qualifies it as news. The next time someone arbitrarily brands the news as fake, ask them to identify a specific falsehood. You’ll likely be met with silence.

If we make a mistake, tell us. We’ll correct it.

It’s the most democratic business in town. We welcome letters to the editor. We pay for the ink, postage and labor for you to take us to the woodshed.

It’s hard, especially in small communities, to hold local government and longtime friends accountable — hard on relationships — but covering for a friend comes at the cost of credibility. If you can’t trust the source of your news you’ve lost the key foundation of democracy.

We hold ourselves to the same standards as other community leaders. In 33 years as a publisher or owner, every staffer has heard the same speech. “If I get hauled in on a DUI, come down and take a picture of my drunk ass in jail.” When one publisher made that mistake, there was no doubt about how it would be covered. Front page.

In my first stint as a publisher, perhaps the most popular guy in town got in hot water. He was administrator of a nursing home and ended up with “a loan” from a naive old lady resident. It ended up in court, in the paper, and people were furious with me.

I lamented the state of things with a mentor, Omar Forberg, the publisher of a North Dakota daily paper at the time. He clarified it for me with a bit of wit that’s become a guiding principle. “Hey, he committed news.”

The role of newspapers is to serve the common man, not cover for their rulers. In the late 1990s, I was assigned to Sturgis, S.D., by management of a large newspaper group. I was tasked with organizing a group of newly purchased newspapers and for doing investigative work on a business entity that was governing the multimillion dollar motorcycle rally. In short, these private entities steered business their way to the detriment of others while heaping police and cleanup costs on local taxpayers.

This coverage, of course, threatened them monetarily, so they threatened back. One day a local restaurant declared it “Tony Bender Day” on the Main Street marquee. It read: “You supply the tar, we’ll supply the feathers. Chicken dinner, $4.75.”

I ran right down and stood on the bus stop bench by the sign, hands spread in triumph, while my reporter snapped a photo. We ran it the next day. Then, I called the restaurant owner. He seemed nervous. “Hey, Bob. I just want to thank you for making it Tony Bender Day …” At this point, he must have thought I was the most obtuse person ever. I went on and on about the rare honor. I concluded with, “and I appreciate you not making it a turkey dinner!” Then I made reservations for 20, and as a show of solidarity, my co-workers joined me. To his credit, Bob paid for my lunch.

I always say that people perform better under a spotlight, and with the light shone on the unfair expenses heaped upon taxpayers, the consortium was broken up.

The Fourth Estate’s role — this newspaper’s obligation — is to give a voice to the voiceless, to give power to the powerless. Your subscription is an investment in democracy.

© Tony Bender, 2023

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