You know that “doctor” who was sent to jail for life Wednesday after molesting hundreds of female athletes, including members of the United States gymnastics teams? He’d probably still be doing it if not for a newspaper.
Larry Nassar, 54, had already been sentenced to 60 years in prison for child pornography, and then this week a judge slapped him with another 40 to 175 years, which means he’ll never get out. More than 150 women and girls gave statements.
His downfall started when the Indianapolis Star investigated USA Gymnastics for its response to sexual abuse allegations against coaches. A former gymnast contacted the newspaper about Nassar, and from there, his fate was sealed.
The newspaper’s investigation occurred in 2016, when, you might recall, the 24-hour TV news networks were focused on the reality show that was the presidential campaign. Which is understandable, because that really was good TV.
The newspaper industry has had a tough time the past couple of decades. Like many media outlets, newspapers are struggling to hang onto their share of today’s highly fragmented audiences. There’s just too much information and entertainment competing for our limited attention. Moreover, the industry is a victim of its own business model. When the internet became a thing, newspapers moved online and prioritized keeping readers engaged at all costs while they figured out how to make money later. Unfortunately, the industry trained consumers to expect its products to be free. Meanwhile, Google and Facebook gobbled up the advertising revenue, and now Amazon will be selling ads big time.
While Google and Facebook are incredibly useful, newspapers historically have been an indispensable tool in connecting people to their community and their democracy. Nothing keeps politicians more honest than knowing their name could appear on the front page in big, bold print alongside a scandal. Unlike a little blue web link, that kind of headline is highly visible, even to passersby and the casually interested.
But how the news is delivered to you is not as important as how it’s gathered and presented, and newspapers provide a unique information-sharing service whether they are accessed in print or online. The daily or weekly deadlines provide enough time for calm, balanced reporting, but the space limitations and traditions ensure most of the fat and fluff are trimmed away. In most communities, there’s no other objective source that will sit through a three-hour school board meeting so you don’t have to, and then tell you what happened in an easily digestible form – and, importantly, trust you to draw your own conclusions.
That’s what we’ve got to keep – not so much the paper, but that type of reporting. If we ever lose it, then we’ll have lost an irreplaceable check and balance on the government and other powerful interests. And what will be left? Fact-free comment wars on Facebook?
Do newspapers make mistakes? Of course. Are reporters biased? Yes. All of us.
But most newspaper stories are reasonably fair and balanced, considering they’re being produced by human beings. Often when people complain about “fake news” and the excesses of the media, they’re talking about national TV and other major outlets that have blurred the line between news and entertainment, and obliterated the one between news and opinion.
Do yourself and your democracy a favor: Turn it off. Subtract 10-20 minutes from the time you’re spending watching TV shoutfests or listening to talk radio blowhards, and use it to read your local newspaper. It may or may not expose a major scandal like the Indianapolis Star did, but it will connect you to your community, from the mayor’s office to who died and who got married. Subscribe if you’re not already doing so, knowing you’re supporting a real news source, and that you can make your money back by taking advantage of coupons, advertised bargains and garage sale ads.
In other words, it’s better than free, and it’s not fake.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.