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Opinion: Value of a Free Press

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Linly Stum

Mid-morning January 1, 2018, on my way home from the store in Sheridan Lake, I stopped and counted the airliner vapor trails crisscrossing the sky above. There were 24. Seventeen years ago, when I spent some time in Russia with an agronomy professor friend, we were the only airliner arriving. When we left, we were the only plane leaving, and Moscow is a very large city of over 12 million. This is why this volume of airline traffic was so noticed by me.

Air traffic is considered a very good barometer of commercial activity in a country. It is true that this was a very low period in Russian economy, and we can be sure that it is much better today. But still, this disparity of commercial activity that is us, the USA, who also comprise only %5 of world population, emphasizes that we voters need to do a better job monitoring what those men and women we elect actually do to protect what we have. An economy this size of ours means there are quite a number of groups and individuals that have achieved great wealth and power. This happens with a free economy, but, at the same time some of those with great power are not satisfied with the status quo and simply want more and more and more. This is well-stated by the following very old quote attributed to Lord Acton and expressed in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1877: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Great wealth certainly carries with it great influence. Likewise, the ability to influence people through the spoken word can have tremendous impact. Even on a small scale—from the preacher at church to the local politician—the aptitude to stand in front of a group of people and influence those who listen imbues a sense of power in the speaker that can be intoxicating and requires great wisdom to contain. Examples of such wise men are found throughout history. Abraham Lincoln as a prime example. Unfortunately, examples of those overcome by the intoxication of influence can be found, as well. Jim Jones come to mind. David Koresh, Lenin, Stalin and, most notably Hitler.

However, just as wisdom is required of those who are powerful speakers, equally great wisdom is required of those who listen. Wisdom, knowledge, persistence and the conscious act of being well informed are the tools required in discerning what is true from what is not, what appeals to our better selves from what appeals to the baser instincts.

As complacent and uninterested people can go the path of the Romans.

For this, we are very dependent on a free press. At the same time, those with the most to fear from a free press will complain the most about it. 1930’s German History shows what can happen if those in power can dictate what the press can print. It matters not what we might think about the press; the press is what stands between us and a dictator.

For you history buffs, I have an English translation of Hitler’s 1936 speech to the German people where he disclosed his horrible plans for eliminating non-Aryan people and for world domination by Germany, ultimately influencing millions of people through the power of his words alone. Other countries paid very little attention. If they would have paid attention and reacted then, could WWII not have happened?

In another more recent—and, perhaps, relevant—example, if a reporter had not disclosed that our main trade negotiator had made the nasty comment that “farmers were just a bunch of whiners”, those who read the article and shared it with others would not have had about 30 Republican legislators plus some Democrats sign a letter of protest—a letter that, notable, is missing Senator Gardner’s signature. This is troubling because he is from a major agriculture area—Yuma, Colorado. The absence of that signature says a great deal as well.

It is incumbent upon us, the voters, the listeners, the ones who populate the crowds to monitor what elected officials are doing—or not—on our behalf. A free press—and an informed public—is vital if we are going to do our part.

I wrote this in 2018, but after what happened to a small Kansas newspaper, I believe it needs to be repeated and reprinted.