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Shutting down the press?

By Todd Franko

Sunday, August 12, 2018

When I get ID’d somewhere in public as “The Vindicator guy,” people will often come up to me with this announcement:

“I have a question for you.”

Honestly, in 11 years here, I need two or three fingers to count the number of times that moment has been awkward or hostile. Most folks who want to talk truly just want to talk. That’s nice.

When they ask me that question, I toy with them and give them an answer before they can ask their question. I say:

“Yes, Bertram de Souza is one of my favorite co-workers and is one of the nicest guys around the office.”

They smile. Oddly, more times than not, their question was along those lines.

It is a true statement. The Bertram who has been experienced on The Vindicator pages for several decades – tough, antagonizing, one-sided – is not the guy he is in life. The Sunday guy is the job he’s taken; the uniform he wears. Police wear a badge; UPS drivers wear brown.

Bertram wears a tough coat of journalism. It’s not one I always agree with. But I don’t always agree with my mom, either.

But I love the greater good that my mom delivers; same with Bertram. Without either, there are gaps in life and actions that happen or do not.

I have had two or three occasions where officials actually said they flinched on purchasing and hiring decisions – marginal decisions, mind you, in that they were not illegal, but not the most popular or the most clean decisions.

Their reason for their decisions was not because of workplace pressure, or public pressure, but because of how Bertram would scrutinize the decision on Sundays.

It’s a Bertram effect on public actions. It’s also a journalism effect.

We ran a story a few weeks back about what happens to towns when such journalism ends. Two economists did a study following an importance-of-journalism rant by HBO satirist John Oliver.

The news agency CityLab reported on the study with this conclusion: When local journalism shut its doors, communities lose out. Citylab wrote:

“People and their stories can’t find coverage. Politicos take liberties when it’s nobody’s job to hold them accountable. What the public doesn’t know winds up hurting them. The city feels poorer, politically and culturally.

“Cities where newspapers closed up shop saw increases in government costs as a result of the lack of scrutiny over local deals, say researchers who tracked the decline of local news outlets between 1996 and 2015. Disruptions in local news coverage are soon followed by higher long-term borrowing costs for cities. Costs for bonds can rise as much as 11 basis points after the closure of a local newspaper – a finding that can’t be attributed to other underlying economic conditions, the authors say. Those civic watchdogs make a difference to the bottom line.”

So why get on this bandwagon today?

Check out the headline of a study this week from the group Ipsos:

A poll found that 43 percent of Republicans want President Trump to have the powers to shut down media that is of bad behavior. Don’t gloat Democrats and Independents – 12 percent and 21 percent of you, respectively, agreed with the same question.

Stripped of political leaning and just aggregated – its 26 percent of the 1,000 people surveyed who believe in handing such powers to the president.

Last year, a similar study had that measure at 25 percent of Americans, with the number reaching 42 percent among Trump supporters.

Now, this result is not entirely new. A poll in 1979 had this number at 20 percent.

But the growth of the recent numbers is worth a longer look in light of a president who is unflinching in his attacks on media, specifically the New York Times and CNN and anyone else that dares to question him.

“The news media is the enemy of the American people,” he tweets and states.

That line from the world’s most powerful leader was laughable at first, much like the taunts in the early days of his campaign.

Then that campaign, and its repeated bullying and chiding, left his Republican foes wondering what the heck just hit them – as they were bowing out.

There’s a trend here worth watching and standing up against.

Turn out the media? Then turn out the lights.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.