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Local view: Decline of free press frightful

Nothing is more worrisome for me to consider, in our democracy, than the loss of our free press. I admit my personal prejudice for the printed word and the personal convenience of the daily newspaper. Yes, for the young readers, who are feeling s...

Nothing is more worrisome for me to consider, in our democracy, than the loss of our free press.

I admit my personal prejudice for the printed word and the personal convenience of the daily newspaper.

Yes, for the young readers, who are feeling sorry for the old fogy destitute of the new technology, I do have a computer and access to the Internet. But since I entered the workaday world -- a long, long time ago -- reading the daily paper became a pleasant information habit that I don't want to lose.

And I truly believe the free press is an essential component in our democracy. Was it Thomas Jefferson who said, "A nation which expects to be ignorant and free expects what never was and never will be"? We need information, and we need it from more than one source. As reporter Paul Harvey said so often while still alive, "And now for the rest of the story." We do need to hear the rest of those stories from more than one source.

And most of us are now aware that this nongovernmental access privilege and opportunity has already begun to be taken away. Consolidations have left us with only a very few sources of nongovernmental news, and this practice is continuing, unfortunately. Now with the economic catastrophe, major newspapers in major cities have had to stop their presses. Almost every newspaper has had major cutbacks and staff reductions. One example in our own Twin Ports is that one of our former dailies is now a twice-weekly.

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Are there any real reasons for keeping our written free press newspapers? Or is it just this old fella who can't keep up with modern-day technology? I and many others consider the free press our fourth estate. The congressional branch of government is the first estate, the executive branch is the second estate, the judicial is the third, and we have this nongovernmental fourth estate, which has come, in my opinion, to be our guarantee of church and state separation.

Religious majorities, even in democracies, can be altered by cultural changes and immigration. We have only to look at Pakistan now with the Taliban and the very, very serious problems that nation faces. These problems multiply when church and state are intertwined, with the bones of accumulated contention running long and deep.

The June 5 issue of The Week magazine cited a contemporary reason why our country's separation of church and state makes America more accepting and comfortable for immigrating groups. Muslims claim to get less hassle here over religious garb such as head scarves. The conclusion, according to the magazine: "The U.S. emphasizes citizenship as a series of rights and responsibilities that have nothing to do with ethnicity or religion."

I sincerely hope we can keep it that way. But without the fourth estate, that could become a very tenuous proposition.

Our free press, our fourth estate, has kept us from many pitiless struggles which never seem to end around our world. Most genocide has been the result; difficult to fathom. How can religions stray so far from their brother-love principles?

In any case, we need to be cognizant of the importance of our free press -- our fourth estate. We need to be especially careful not to let the rapidly advancing technology throw out this most important baby with the bath water.

BERNIE HUGHES of Superior is professor emeritus of educational administration at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

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