The voice mail message for the Mountain Express
publisher came right to the point: The Wood River Valley, said the caller,
"is too small" and neighborly for the Express to report
on such things as the arrests of two local businessmen for their alleged
international drug smuggling.
The hint was that the Express should turn a blind
eye to small town shortcomings of neighbors and fulfill some lesser role,
perhaps confining itself to being a billboard of notices and abandon the
more formidable and traditional role of newspapers—serving as a
conscience of the community and watchdog of the public’s interests.
Newspapers are institutions with a vital civic calling,
shaped by legacies of men and women journalists who’ve charted the
course for the American free press and free speech by enduring
imprisonment, giving their lives for their profession and risking public
ridicule by those who fear an audit of their conduct.
Newspaper journalists are bound to their calling by codes
born in the sacrifices and courage of the likes of colonial pamphleteer
Tom Paine and printer John Peter Zenger, whose defiance of government
authority more than 200 years ago gave heart to a free press that today is
the envy of the world.
As the only profession named in the U.S. Constitution and
guaranteed freedom from government interference, members of the press take
their tasks with more understandable seriousness.
Challenges now faced by the U.S. press are unparalleled.
It must not only sort out a virtual flood tide of information and news at
home and abroad that influences the lives of Americans, but it must audit
the increasingly large and complex functions of public agencies that’re
inclined to resent oversight.
In Idaho alone, the political trend is a return to secrecy
in their deliberations. Their rationale: they can’t function efficiently
with the public and the press looking over their shoulders.
In Blaine County, taxpayers have scant few places to turn
for a champion of open government except the press when secrecy reigns.
The county prosecutor, nominally the public’s champion
against political abuse, recently gave his stamp of approval to
closed-door negotiations between Blaine County and St. Luke’s Regional
Euphemistically known as "mediation," the county’s
secret meetings were exposed and condemned by the Express, which intends
to rigorously continue unmasking complicity by public officials to deny
the public a rightful place at the table in public deliberations.
Were the Express to limit its civic
responsibilities and mute its editorial voice in behalf of the people’s
right to know, as some would hope, then politicians and quasi-public
institutions that prefer the comfort of secrecy and unaudited conduct
would be free to run roughshod over the public interest and once again
return government to the days of smoke filled back rooms.