The historian and political scientist Alan Gibson argues that much of the contemporary discussion the founders of the United States misses the political point. In his new book, Understanding the Founding: The Crucial Questions, Gibson, a professor at California State University, Chico notes that conservatives often claim the framers of the Constitution for their own agenda a position he calls historically inaccurate.
James Madison in particular was very much a progressive thinker, says Gibson (who is one of the winners of the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists' freedom of information awards this year, see page 15). The fourth president of the United States particularly believed that a free press was crucial to democracy.
I thought about that this week as I followed the news that the San Francisco Chronicle may shut down and read stories from the Chauncey Bailey Project and the Chronicle about the murder of the Oakland journalist. On March 7, the project reported that an Oakland homicide inspector had close ties with the head of Your Black Muslim Bakery, Yusef Bey IV, who it now appears may have played a role in the killing. The Chronicle reported March 8 that Bailey was caught up in a power struggle at the bakery (and that the publisher of the Oakland Post was afraid to run Bailey's stories). These detailed investigative pieces will almost certainly help ensure that Bailey's killers are brought to justice. Without this press attention, the Oakland cops would have gotten away with bungling the case.
Without full-time, paid reporters on the job, those stories would never have come to light.
I'm as pissed at the Chron as anyone, and I've been watching the paper self-destruct for many years. And I'm not sure what sort of financial model will keep a daily paper going in the next decade.
But I know that a model exists because it has to. Democracy can't survive without a free press, and a free press can't survive without staff to do the work. That's something to remember as we celebrate the James Madison Awards and our annual Freedom of Information issue. * *