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Serving ‘something larger than themselves’

“Stray from the truth, and whoever corrects you can be dismissed as ‘the other side.’ The strategy runs on a dangerous assumption — that we’re not all in this together.”

— Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year article

When it was reported that Time magazine had named the “guardians” as their person of the year, I have to admit to the sin of pride.

The guardians it was referring to were reporters and journalists, those with media outlets large and small who toil daily to inform on important and fundamental issues so that we might be better citizens.

In particular, Time magazine pointed to Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered by the current Saudi regime; the staff of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, where five staffers were murdered earlier this year; Reuters reporters imprisoned in Myanmar; and another woman who runs a news site critical of the government the Phillippines. These reporters have been killed, imprisoned or very badly harassed for reporting the truth.

Truth. 

That’s the essential word when it comes to what these reporters are being honored for. And in this season when we celebrate faith and encourage our children’s fantasies, perhaps there’s no better time talk about truth and its link to our common good. 

The Time magazine article quoted a professor form UNC Chapel Hill. A recent study he led found that in today’s media landscape, even cold hard facts are called into question by those who hold a different viewpoint:

“Even things that are demonstrably true, people are skeptical about, and that’s a pretty dangerous slope to be on,” says Marc Hetherington, a political-science professor at the University of North Carolina and author of Why Trust Matters.

If truth becomes debatable, we will lose our cohesiveness as a society. Time pointed to the evolving way authoritarian regimes use social media and the internet. Our machines make it impossible to control the amount of information that people receive. Instead, the new method of spreading propaganda is to deliver posts and stories that call into question legitimate information:

“The modern despot, finding that more difficult, foments mistrust of credible fact, thrives on the confusion loosed by social media and fashions the illusion of legitimacy from supplicants,” according to Time.

Look, most of this is happening at the national level. We all know — whether there was any collusion is irrelevant to this argument — how the Russians interfered in our election to boost Trump and discredit Hillary Clinton. It’s a fact, and it should scare all of us.

At the beginning of this piece, I noted I was guilty of the sin of pride. Our small regional newspaper — like The Mountaineer, the Sylva Herald, the Franklin Press, the Smoky Mountain Times, the Crossroads Chronicle, the Highlander, and The Macon County News — is still out there trying to help the people of Western North Carolina make their communities a better place, trying to report stories in a way that foment the common good rather than plant the seeds of divisiveness.

But it’s becoming more difficult. This also from the Times article: A poll released in August by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit devoted to improving journalism, found that more than 70 percent of Americans express either “a fair amount” or “a great deal” of trust in both their local papers and local TV news, even as resources for both continue to shrink. It’s what you might expect of neighbors. At the local level, journalists and community remain mutually reinforcing.

I think that poll holds true for our region. But what if the local newspapers disappeared? Look, the sales staff at our company works every day to diversify our income streams and find different ways to get dollars in the door. I’m OK with that, because we do it in order that we can provide quality journalism. 

But another study, again conducted by professors at our flagship university, discovered this about local newspapers: “Since 2004, the U.S. lost nearly 1,800 newspapers, the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media found in an October report. Half of the 3,143 counties in the U.S. now have just one newspaper, usually a small weekly. Nearly 200 counties have no newspaper. And ‘between 1,300 and 1,400 communities that had newspapers of their own in 2004 now have no local news coverage at all.’”

Think about that: no local news coverage except what you might find on the internet. No verifiable record of what the county commissioners or the town board did, except maybe what they might put on their own websites. That’s a recipe for poor government and out-of-control leaders.

The founders knew that even with our esteemed Constitution, we needed a free press in order to function, as pointed out in the Time article: “Accuracy, fairness, professionalism — the pillars of journalism took root in the U.S. and Britain, spread around the world, and remain the standard. In the U.S., the press retains qualities of a citadel, protected not only by laws and court decisions, but the awareness of the great majority of public officials who serve something larger than themselves.”

The dictum — serving something “larger than themselves” — is embraced by great leaders at the national and local level. And believe it or not, that’s also what inspires journalists to roll up their sleeves, break out their notebooks, recorders and laptop and get to work every day delivering a sometimes mundane but fundamentally important information. I for one am proud to have spent my career as a part of this institution.

Wishing the best to all our readers in 2019.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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