Why Thomas Jefferson and I applaud the West Texas Tribune

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By Dr. Doug Mendenhall | May 5, 2022

Quoting someone from 235 years ago is a winding way to decide what forces should drive the United States of America into the future. That quote had better be clear, timeless and central to the beliefs of the person who wrote it, or it will drive you right off a cliff.

However, I trust a 1787 quote from Thomas Jefferson, found in a letter he wrote from France to his friend Edward Carrington, an American statesman and Revolutionary War artillery officer. The letter starts with chitchat – there’s a package of seeds and roots that Jefferson hopes Carrington will pass along to mutual acquaintances; Lafayette has many friends and many enemies; the Count de Vergennes is 10 days into a gout attack.

Then Jefferson gets down to business:

“I am persuaded myself that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves. . . . To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people.

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

This quote comes more than a decade after Jefferson wrote the U.S. Constitution, and more than a decade before he assumed the presidency. It seems central to his ideas of how to provide the framework for the new nation’s people to prosper far, far into the future.

Where we live, 235 years downstream.

And what do we make of Jefferson’s bold claim that America would be better off with lots of newspapers and zero government than it would be with zero newspapers and plenty of government?

We who live in a generation that uses “mainstream media” as an insult. As if “marginal media” or “extremist media” were to be preferred?

We who routinely budget $10 per month – times five or 10 – for entertainment streaming services but not a dollar for news subscriptions?

We who spend hours per day on social media without learning that when anybody can post any old made-up thing, most posts are not worth a single cent?

We who are living through the death spiral of the newspaper industry without worrying about what will replace it? Or what will happen if Jefferson’s bugaboo comes true and we turn into a nation with a government but no newspapers?

Don’t get stuck on that term “newspaper.” I worked in community newspapers for 26 years and loved the hum of the presses and the art of collecting stories needed to keep them humming, but what Jefferson was writing about was more dependent on the flow of solid information, informed debate and community transparency than about the lovely odor of ink or paper.

Jefferson’s quote is about what a newspaper represents, its potentials, its duties, its powers. Those can be transferred to websites, TV screens or phone apps and still remain just as important as our founding father thought they were.

OK, I’m still partial to old-school newspapers. I’m glad to see the West Texas Tribune forging ahead, deeper into the future – in print and in cyberspace.

What Jefferson wrote about the importance of the free press remains just as true as we look into that future.

Citizens of this nation need access to reliable information so that they can make clear-minded decisions today, then replace those with even clearer-minded decisions when new information is mined and added to the mix. A paper like West Texas Tribune can help that happen when it covers local issues.

Citizens of this nation need a place to discuss all sides of a societal issue without the discussion being bombed by name-calling, lies or bullying. A paper like West Texas Tribune can provide that in its reasoned, diverse opinion forums.

Citizens of this nation need to know what their governing bodies are up to, from the local school board, city council and county commission all the way up to those in Austin and Washington D.C. A paper like West Texas Tribune can be a community watchdog on the powers that be, barking when something doesn’t smell right.

Citizens of this nation need a free press as their powerful ally, or they eventually become something much less than the type of citizens envisioned by Jefferson.

Later in the letter, Jefferson discusses nations he’s seen in which the masses don’t have access to the papers – or don’t take the time to digest them. His view is that eventually those nations contain only two classes, wolves and sheep.

The sheep are the people who don’t see the need for a free press. They get eaten by the powerful wolves.
Don’t be a sheep. Appreciate the West Texas Tribune.

Dr. Doug Mendenhall teaches at Abilene Christian University in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, where he holds the title “journalist in residence.”

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