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King: Our press is free, but at a price to us
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Someone once said that freedom of the press is more important than the right to vote, because without a free press the right to vote is meaningless.

In the 1950s, New York City had eight major dailies and innumerable smaller papers. Today, the majority of those news outlets are gone. The same thing has happened around the country. The newspapers that are left tend to concentrate on local events. Most counties have a weekly paper that lists births, deaths and various community activities. The Times is a daily paper covering Hall and surrounding counties, but it doesn't have the resources to do any firsthand national or international reporting. The Times must rely on the wire services for that.

Those few struggling papers that do have foreign correspondents and bureau chiefs around the world, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the like, are not readily available outside of our major cities.

They are available online, but this requires a laptop and Internet hookup. You can't read the NYT on a bus.
The majority of Americans do not read their national and international news; they watch it on a screen, and the information they get this way comes from fewer and fewer sources because of the cost involved in keeping reporters on the front lines and the expensive technology needed to transmit it to consumers.
The Web — e-mail, blogs, Tweeter and Facebook — covers a wider spectrum but these outlets are not subject to the same degree of verification and control as print.

The world is shrinking while the amount of important information is expanding. At the same time, people are becoming more polarized and, unfortunately, more convinced that they are right and the other guy is wrong.

Does "a free press" include the electronic media? And does that then lead to a better-educated public and a more informed vote? I'm not so sure. It is much harder to pin down and verify the spoken word when it flashes by on a screen or is heard on talk radio, and there are fewer consequences when misinformation or downright lies are spread electronically.

Furthermore, TV and radio are repetitive. Say something often enough and it becomes part of the public psyche. This is the natural consequence of a 24-hour news station or talk radio. Moreover, much of what passes for news today is really entertainment. It is never critiqued for veracity because it isn't meant to be factual.

While the people in the media are as hard-working and dedicated as any you will find, the media itself is a business. That means it must give the public what it wants. Anger your customer and he will go elsewhere. Anger your sponsors and you will go broke.

Journalist and writer A.J. Liebling said, "The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role in society is to make money."

Can the media ethically do both? Yes, but it depends on the degree to which the public understands its own role in the process.

The right to vote carries with it the obligation to think and question. The free press, print or electronic, requires a responsible public. I not only question the media, I question they way the public uses the media.

As the news has passed from print to screen, it has, all to often, passed from fact to entertainment, and its goal, to convince rather than inform. We are all vulnerable. Certainly I would prefer to read or listen to something that supports my own view of life, but I learn more when I read a well-reasoned and well written challenge to my own thinking.

Joan King is a Sautee resident whose columns appear every other Tuesday and on