Stephen Handelman is a prize-winning former columnist, foreign correspondent, and senior writer/columnist for TIME magazine and The Toronto Star. He is the author of three books, including the New York Times’ selection for New & Noteworthy books of 1997 : Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya, the first account of the rise of organized crime in post-Soviet Russia, praised by The NY Times reviewer as a “masterly and very courageous job of reporting.”

The book is particularly relevant now as Russia pursues its unprovoked war on Ukraine. Many of the dynamic forces revealed by Stephen Handelman in the post-Soviet era continue to drive Russia’s actions today, and help to understand the role of the military and intelligence services. That’s one reason Stephen Handelman believes it is important for all those who support democracy to understand the role of journalism in a thriving democracy. Today, Stephen Handelman will delve into the reasons journalism remains important.

In 1787, while serving as minister to France in Paris, Thomas Jefferson said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Stephen Handelman notes that Thomas Jefferson keenly understood what it meant to live in a country where authority could not be questioned. As an essential figure in the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson understood that even when the press reported on subjects that didn’t paint him positively, they still played an essential role in a democratic society.

Stephen Handelman believes journalism should hold the powerful accountable and inform the public so that they can make informed decisions when they head to the ballot box. While the news media is shifting rapidly due to technology and a reliance on advertising revenue, a lot of journalism has shifted to punditry. While pundits can sometimes be entertaining, they don’t do much to provide the public with information they can use to form their own opinions.

This is important for those who consider journalism the fourth estate. The fourth estate refers to journalism as the fourth branch of the United States government. The first amendment not only calls for free speech but also states that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press. Journalism is meant to report the facts and hold those in our most powerful positions accountable to the public.

With information at our fingertips on smartphones, tablets, and television screens, people must understand the source before considering the information’s relevancy. Some neutral sources that report the facts still exist and illuminate voices that aren’t often heard. When newspapers debuted in America, the editor’s role was to facilitate public discourse by printing the facts of the day.

As columns developed, they were often used to reprint arguments made by people challenging organizations or figureheads in power. It was not uncommon for labor industry workers to submit columns on their working conditions to their local newspapers. These columns helped hold the powerful accountable and put important changes into action. A lot of medical information was also delivered by journalists. Urgent public health news like the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia would have been even worse if people were not made aware of the epidemic’s progress in their local newspapers.

Readers continued having a place to share their voices via columns in newspapers throughout the 19th century. Editors, in turn, would read the letters sent in and get a better understanding of what issues were most important to their audience. While arguments were just as common back then as they are today, Stephen Handelman notes there was a much more free-flowing dialogue between people on both sides of the aisle. In fact, many columns were followed up with another column from an editor or public person who had a completely different opinion.

As the need to sell ad space grew, the importance of an engaged citizenry slowly started to drop off. A lot of the more serious reporting moved to its own section, and the political affiliations of newspaper owners started to bleed into the content they would allow to be published. Journalism should remain focused on reporting on the actions of the powerful and amplifying the voice of those without power.

Stephen Handelman believes that journalism at its best is impartial and completely independent from both economical and political interests. The coverage of Russia today is hampered by state efforts to persecute Russian as well as foreign journalists, and it is a reminder that autocracies fear most of all a free and open press. And it is a continuing lesson for democracies, even as economic pressures threaten the survival of the press. No matter who hires a journalist, the true boss is the public. If we are to live in a society where the people are in charge, they must be able to make decisions based on accurate information. This is only possible through independent and fearless journalism.

Categories: News