Anniversaries afford a unique and useful opportunity to step back and reflect on one's purpose and history.
This is particularly apt when a news medium observes its birthday, as WEDNESDAY JOURNAL does this month. Because newspapers and the electronic media are so pervasive, touching so many lives, periodic reflection on their role is especially important.
Simply put, the issue is democracy. What are the necessary prerequisites if citizens are to participate in government in an informed way? The media play an important role in a democracy by providing citizens with the information and views necessary to exercise their right?#34;and obligation?#34;to help shape policy and to evaluate the activities of elected officials.
The power of government: Because of the power that government has over the lives of its citizens, the media are especially important. There are two sources of this power.
FIRST, government at all levels?#34;federal, state, and local?#34;is a monopoly, almost by definition. The citizen cannot exercise choice as to the provider of his/her services. At the local level one cannot select one municipality for police services, another for street maintenance, another for traffic control, another for the hauling of waste, and still another for programs in the parks.
Thus, local government has the advantage of intrinsic monopoly power, and does not have to compete with other towns in an open marketplace where the citizens can freely choose from among various providers of municipal services.
Certainly it would be inefficient if, say, Oak Park provided police protection to certain residents of Berwyn because some of their citizens selected Oak Park's police department. Unnecessary costs would follow if Forest Park repaired the curbs in Elmwood Park based on current citizen preferences.
Government must be a monopoly. Citizens have no choice. But that
fact further accentuates the need for the media to keep citizens informed as to public policies and practices, so they may better monitor and affect them.
SECOND, government can exercise the "coercive power of the state." That is, if the citizen refuses to pay for local municipal services by withholding taxes, very bad things will happen. One's home will eventually be involuntarily sold.
We must pay for local municipal programs. No exceptions allowed. End of discussion.
Thus the purpose of the press: Because government at all levels holds monopoly power which is backed up by the ability to force the payment of taxes, it is especially important that the citizen must be informed as to the policies and practices by which government governs.
But it is difficult for average citizens personally to monitor government. In Oak Park, 53,000 residents cannot fit into village hall chambers to observe and evaluate their elected officials. Further, many families find it difficult to watch their actions on cable TV, or to attend village board executive sessions where important decisions are really made.
Enter the newspapers. To exercise citizenship we must rely on the reports of the media whose job it is to observe, evaluate, and report on the activities of government.
An implicit contract exists between the citizenry and the media, wherein the former agree that the latter will provide them the information they need to govern within a democracy.
Oak Parkers thus are fortunate that the two local newspapers have accepted these democratic responsibilities. Democracy is in good hands.
Kudos to WEDNESDAY JOURNAL on its 25th birthday!
? Galen Gockel recently finished his term as Oak Park village trustee. He is a former member of the WEDNESDAY JOURNAL board of directors.