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The Last Burning Screed

It's time to sweep up and make way for John Schuster to open up this here pop stand next week.

We haven't met. But the almost-ex boss says John's got good contacts in the local TV and radio sector. I wish him all the best on this gig.

I'm glad Jimmy Boegle kept the faith and found a way to keep the column going. Y'see, Tucson needs someone asking questions about the media, about how the news is processed between the time it happens and the time it's delivered to the TV screen, the radio speakers, the computer or the front yard.

Tucson's not alone in that need. When you look at the numbers year after year in the Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual reports on the state of the news media, it's hard not to think there's a widening disconnect between the public and the minions of the First Amendment.

If you really believe in democracy, that should scare the hell out of you. Y'see, this whole free-press idea started with Thomas Jefferson, whose views on the potential for government officials to harass and abuse the public made Lord Acton ("power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely") seem like an optimist. And at the same time, he believed heavily in the public's conscience and willingness to pursue a good and just course.

So Jefferson hit upon the idea of a free press as a barking watchdog. It wasn't so much that he envisioned investigative journalism as that he believed the potential for public exposure by the press would be a deterrent.

There was one caveat, and one that seldom surfaces when journalists start tossing around T.J.'s comments about the role of a free press: He realized that a free press could only be an effective deterrent if everyone looked upon being informed as a public obligation. But Jefferson, wise man though he was, forgot to ask the one question every chicken farmer ends up asking when the sun comes up to reveal Ol' Toby's muzzle smeared with blood and feathers.

Who's watching the watchdog?

It's a critical question now. Beltway journalists have become talk-show stars but have no idea how the rest of America views the feds. Plagiarists have become as termites hollowing journalism's reputation. In some organizations, public service seems to happen if it doesn't threaten the profit margin.

(By the way, when some chains whine about tough times, look at their financials. It's not that they're losing money; their profits just aren't as high as the shareholders would like.) It's a time for self-examination in journalism, but that kind of soul-searching is only effective when the public sees the outcome--and a renewed effort to do the job the way it needs to be done.

And the profession is long overdue for an attitude change, a renewed awareness that the people we really work for are the folks who read us, who listen to us and who watch us, not the owners and shareholders.

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