Wise men rejoice when a new paper is born
Department of Communications
Loyola University New Orleans
Special to The Putnam Pit
The story is told of a man whose car broke down in a small Western town and he was forced to stay in the town for nearly a week while a mechanic got the parts he needed. The fellow registered in the town's hotel, and he asked the clerk what there was to do for entertainment. The clerk pointed him toward a restaurant down the street where the owner operated a roulette wheel in the back room. After dinner at the restaurant, the fellow went to the back room and watched some of the townspeople playing the game. It didn't take him long to see that the owner controlled the wheel with a hidden pedal. The visitor wisely opted to watch rather than play. But the next night he went into the back room again, and there he saw a man who had lost heavily the night before and watched as the man lost again. The third night, he went back again, and once again he saw the same man playing -- and losing. At the end of the evening he talked to the player.

"Why do you keep playing and losing? "he asked. "Don't you know the game is fixed?"

"Sure I do," the man replied, "but it's the only wheel in town."

In a one-newspaper town, that one newspaper can be thought of as the only wheel in town. Not necessarily crooked, like the loser's roulette wheel, but certainly offering a limited choice to the public. It is the newspaper, after all, which stands at the heart of a democratic society. More than any other medium, it is the newspaper that provides us with that information we need to exercise our rights and responsibilities as citizens. The Founding Fathers saw newspaper as key to the success of their experiment in government. The people -- not the governors -- were to be the ultimate decision makers, and they were to be aided by the press.

The press would be a fourth branch of government, providing a check on the judicial, the legislative and, perhaps above all, the executive. The Founders wrote freedom of the press into the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights because they knew that in order to do its work the press would have to be free of all restraints. The Founders had seen the evil effects of controls put on the press by the British government -- honest criticism of government squelched by censorship, printers jailed for daring to tell the truth about the government. They subscribed heartily to John Milton's plea: "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." With Milton, they believed that the press ought to serve as a forum for argument and that through argument truth would prevail: "Let her [truth] and Falsehood grapple; whoever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"

To our own Thomas Jefferson, liberty of the press was the "palladium of all of our liberties." More specifically, in a letter to a friend Jefferson wrote: "The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

For Milton, Jefferson and the other Founders, competition among newspapers was essential to serving the public adequately. They drew an analogy to the markets of their time where buyers could select the beans they preferred from one vendor, peas from another, perhaps, and melons from still another. Their ideal was an "open marketplace of ideas."

In our own time the marketplace seldom exists, whether for vegetables or for news and information. For a great number of reasons, too often there's only one market. The "only wheel in town." That wheel gives us its own narrow view of candidates for public office. It provides its own take on the way office holders are operating, in city hall or the county court house. Sad to say, it is often subject to pressures, economic or political, which demand that some news be printed and that other news be quashed.

That's why we ought to rejoice when a new newspaper is born. It brings competition and a different way of viewing the world around us. That can only help us be better citizens And if we are better citizens, we will enjoy better government, and every one of us will be a winner.

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