Financial pressure has caused the Banner-Herald publisher to ban controversy from the paperâ€™s editorial pages, to avoid the possibility of offending advertisers, politicians or anybody else. Thus does he offend the whole community by abrogating his newspaperâ€™s duty to â€œprint the news and raise hell.â€ Printing the news is vital but is not enough. A newspaper serves its town by raising important issues and speaking to them, and itâ€™s not enough to sanitize the paper while surreptitiously introducing a chorus of malevolent commenters online as the paper looks the other way.
The abdication of the Banner-Herald’s core journalistic responsibility hobbles Athensâ€™ civic life and emboldens those who advance their own agendas to the detriment of the community as a whole: the rampant growth of medical buildings in the Prince Avenue area, the continuing proliferation of student housing, the WalMartization of downtown, the balkanization of our political boundaries, the encroachment of the university, proposals to siphon our meager public school money into private academies, senators and representatives whose first allegiance is to the other, rural communities that surround us.
One could of course be grateful for this silence, since there have been so many times in the past when the Banner-Herald has led the charge for all of the above, but at least it had a voice. The present eerie silence means that a powerful beacon has been switched off, leaving deals to be done in the dark.
Though we try to keep our pages open to anyone with something worthwhile to say, Flagpoleâ€™s editorial stance is unabashedly liberal. The absence of a counterpoint from the Banner-Herald can make us sound shrill and one-sided. With the daily paper diminished to a whisper, weâ€™ll have to recalibrate our own voice, to be sure that the whole community gets a hearing.
We tend to forget that newspapers are also businesses and that a publisher, who is a general manager responsible for the business as well as the journalism, always has a balancing act. Few publishers will err on the side of letting the journalism harm the business; usually it is the other way around, though there are some notable exceptions like the Washington Post curtailing its advertising to keep its news pages strong during World War II, when newsprint was scarce.
Until the present economic downturn, we were more familiar with the pattern of newspaper chains buying their competition and putting them out of business, the sad meetings in the newsroom to hear the announcements that it was all over, that the hardworking reporters and editors were out of their jobs, not because they didnâ€™t do them well, but because their owners had sold them out. (It happened here back in 1967 when the Morris corporation, which had just bought the Banner-Herald, forced the locally owned upstart, The Athens Daily-News, to sell outâ€”though Morris continued to operate both papers.)
Now the Morris corporation, because of similar though much larger deals all over the country using borrowed money, canâ€™t meet its debt obligations and is leaning on all its newspapers for money to prop up the parent company. Hence the Banner-Herald publisherâ€™s desperation, because no matter how much he squeezes out of the Banner-Herald through layoffs and cutbacks and a timid editorial policy, the Morrises continue to demand more. What used to be the strength of the Banner-Herald, the Morris corporation behind it, is now its weakness.
And that weakness means that the dark forces in our community have more room to expand. Our Republican legislative leaders, for instanceâ€”Senators Cowsert and Ginn and Representative McKillipâ€”are freer to continue their attacks on our governmental integrity, to continue subdividing us, splitting our community of interest, our political cohesiveness, our geographical boundaries, the support of our public schoolsâ€”because they do not represent Athens. They can only get re-elected by pleasing the people in Walton County, in Oconee County, in Madison County. They show those folks their loyalty by stepping on Athens.
With the Banner-Herald silent or supportive, an improving economy will mean our community is up for grabs by developers, the university, the hospitals, as well as our politiciansâ€”everybody who stands to gain by subverting the safeguards that protect the integrity of our town.
Flagpole will continue fighting for our community. It would be good to have more help.
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