Journalists must challenge government

By Keith Robinson

Journalists must continue to aggressively challenge authority in government even though the public does not hold the news media in such high regard as it once did, the editor of USA Today said Thursday.

Ken Paulson said the framers of the Constitution guaranteed a free press “that would take a stand for liberty and justice, and that mission has not changed.”

“They gave us this job,” Paulson said Thursday at a conference on the importance of an open government. “People often talk about the press, and they say ‘Who appointed you?’ Well, Jefferson, Madison and the boys, really. Is that good enough?”

Paulson spoke to an audience of journalists, lawyers and other members of the public at the forum sponsored by the Indiana Coalition of Open Government, the Hoosier State Press Association and the Indiana State Bar Association.

He said monitoring government officials requires journalists to ask “tough questions, sometimes rude questions, sometimes leading questions.”

“And we have that attitude whether you’re Republican, Libertarian, Democrat — whatever you happen to be,” he said. “We’ll ask you the same tough questions because that’s our job.”

Paulson said journalists are no longer depicted in a heroic way, as they were in comic books and movies decades ago, when Superman had a secret identity as a newspaper reporter, Spider-Man as a photographer and the Green Hornet as a newspaper publisher.

He said he often seeks inspiration from the 1952 movie “Deadline U.S.A.,” in which Humphrey Bogart plays the managing editor of a New York newspaper who takes on the mob. He also has a poster of the movie on his wall at work.

“The real heroes of American journalism are, of course, not fictional,” he said. “They are the men and women who use freedom of the press to make a real difference in American society and make a difference for democracy.”

Paulson said recent surveys indicate erosion of the public’s support of free speech, especially that which could be considered offensive to some.

“That boggles my mind because clearly these people forget who Martin Luther King was and what he did,” Paulson said. “In this country, you do not accomplish meaningful social change by engaging in pleasantries with those you disagree with or just talking to people who agree with you. Sometimes you’ve got to get in the face of people and say ‘This is wrong; this has got to stop.’

“And yet somehow Americans think it’s much better for us all to … scale back at bit on free speech.”