Wednesday, March 18, 2009

March 19: Sounding the Alarm About the Future Of the Press - And "Silent Stinkers"

By Sylvia Gurinsky

This is Sunshine Week, when newspapers generally communicate with the public about the importance of freedom of the press.

This week, there's an added incentive: The importance of the existence of the press.

It's ironic that this is the week that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer chose to end its print edition and go to the Web. The Rocky Mountain News closed entirely a few weeks ago. Other papers, including The San Francisco Chronicle, have their immediate futures threatened. In South Florida, both The Miami Herald and The South Florida Sun-Sentinel are in trouble, with layoffs by the Herald last week and more expected by the Sun-Sentinel.

Earlier this week at a luncheon in Tallahassee, Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters' Committee For Freedom of the Press and a longtime champion of free press and First Amendment rights, spoke about the dangers faced by not having the press working in the public's favor. Florida Public Radio's "Capitol Report" played some of her words:

"The mainstream media's been heavily involved in efforts to protect whistleblowers and other confidential sources through state and federal shield laws and whistleblower protection, so that people who have information about government or institutional malfaesance can come forward. When they can't get anyone in the government to do what needs to be done to correct the problem, they go to the media, the media protects those sources and the public knows what's going on.....They (media companies) spent a lot of that money fighting for the public's right to know what its public and private institutions were up to. They spent that money on your behalf.....Now, you may have noticed your local media have hit hard times. They're doing much worse than the economy as a whole, if that's even possible, but they are. I'm afraid. I'm very afraid that these folks won't be able to continue this battle. And who's going to suffer? We all will."


Also mentioned on Monday were a collection of bills that could prove perilous during the Florida Legislature's session.

They're known as "shell bills," but there's nothing pretty about them. They are bills that present a general purpose and don't have much detail when they're filed, but the devilish details are added later.

The First Amendment Foundation has a more detailed nickname for these bills: "Silent Stinkers:"

Once upon a pre-Internet time, the Society of Professional Journalists, an organization I've been part of for 19 years, had a motto on a T-shirt: "If the press doesn't tell you, who will?" There are some others - but only some.

We need a free and independent press more than ever.

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