Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Reed Anfinson
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

What it takes to hold power accountable

 

December 19, 2019



Good government depends on a system of checks and balances. Those who govern and those who administer the government know they are answerable to the citizenry of the community. Citizens hold government accountable through the information they are provided by the watchdogs who make up the Fourth Estate – the press.

Often in our small communities we elect good people who then hire competent and good-intentioned civil servants. Our governments run smoothly, taxes are reasonable, and services are provided cost-effectively. However, too frequently we hear the stories of trust abused and violated. That is why we need a strong, attentive and respected press that provides a common source of trusted information to citizens.

Today that vital link between the governors and the citizens is threatened as Facebook, Google, Craigslist, and other web sites drain the advertising revenue from newspapers. They could care less about good government or informed citizens – particularly in small town, rural America.

As we lose community newspapers, we face a very real threat to the future of citizen knowledge and the ability to keep a watchful check on government. It takes power and influence to hold those in power accountable. If you don’t meet them on equal footing, your chances of getting responses to questions evaporates.

Newspapers have influence in their communities and with government for five primary reasons:

Community-wide reach

Newspapers have a deep reach among citizens in their communities. Elected leaders know that a story printed in the newspaper will circulate throughout the towns and rural areas. Subscribers will share stories with friends and family.

But the newspaper can also be found in the library, the restaurant, the tavern, and on the park bench. The photos and stories are there at a glance at counters in stores throughout the community. People who don’t subscribe still get to find out what is happening in their community at no charge and with no electronic device required.

Trusted source of information

Survey after survey has found that local, small town newspapers are the most trusted source of information in their communities. Local newspapers are seen as a fair, reasoned voice, especially in this internet and social media age of vitriolic divisiveness.

One of the reasons we are trusted is because people in the community know us and feel they can give us direct feedback if they think we are being unfair or slanted in the news we write.

Financial strength

When a newspaper is financially healthy, it has the ability to challenge power when it would frustrate the public’s right to know.

When government officials refuse to hand over public documents or illegally close a public meeting, we will take them to court. Citizens often aren’t willing to, or are unable to, muster the finances to challenge government actions in court. We do. Through the Minnesota Newspaper Association, the state’s newspapers have access to the state’s top expert in laws that demand an open and transparent government.

We’re always on duty

We show up – day after day, month after month, year after year. The public officials know that we will be at every meeting writing stories about what is discussed. We will follow up, reminding citizens of past successes as well as misdeeds.

Knowledge of the law

Our knowledge of the laws that govern public officials such as the Minnesota Open Meeting laws and laws that dictate public access to government documents ensures transparency and accountability. The average citizen can easily be told by public officials that government has the right to keep documents private, or that meetings can be closed for “executive sessions.” We know better.

 

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