Cumberland Times-News

Columns

May 18, 2013

If you can read this, thank the Founders

Now and then, people ask me if I am a conservative or a liberal.

I tell them, “Yes,” and that usually confuses them. Then I add that whether I am a conservative or a liberal depends upon the issue.

When it comes to things like civil rights, I am decidedly a liberal. That’s because I grew up during the one of the most active periods of what was, is now, and will continue to be, the Civil Rights Movement — as it applies not only to minorities, but also to genders or anyone else, for that matter.

My opinion of the wasteful spending and massive deficits that are run up by our federal government and some state governments could best be termed conservative. And so on.

I am a Republican, largely due to accident of birth. It runs in the family. Grandfather James E. Goldsworthy was a Republican and decidedly a conservative. The late Rep. Harley O. Staggers Sr., one of his best friends, was a Democrat and decidedly a liberal.

I am told that their debates in my grandfather’s barbershop were magnificent.

The Staggers family and my family have been friends since early in the 20th century when Harley and my Uncle Lohr Jackson played on the Keyser High football team.

Harley and his wife, Mary, had four daughters: Peggy, Mary Kaye, Susie and Ellen; and two sons: Harley Jr. and Danny — all of whom are now my friends.

Their kindnesses to my family are uncountable. When I was a little kid, Congressman Harley Sr. took my parents and me on a tour of places most folks never see in Washington.

We ate in the Senate cafeteria and visited the Capitol Building (where I sat in Vice President Nixon’s office chair), the White House and other government offices.

Harley Jr. also was a Congressman until he was gerrymandered out of office.

As a Roman Catholic, he is opposed to abortion. However, he told me, the House Right to Life Caucus would not allow him to be a member because — they said — he was too liberal otherwise.

That made no more sense to me than it did to him, although to be honest, neither of us was surprised by it.

Being around folks like the Staggers family has served me well in both my life and my profession, which is that of a newspaperman.

I cannot afford to have opinions that are strong enough to affect my judgment when it comes to things I will write about as an editor, a columnist or a reporter.

Like their father and my grandfather, the Staggers clan and I don’t agree on everything. But there are many more subjects on which we do agree and, unlike way too many other folks today (especially our politicians), we are willing to listen to what the other has to say.

Even if what we hear doesn’t change our minds, it enables us to have a new perspective. For this reason, other people’s opinions can be just as important as my own — maybe even more important.

One responsibility of my profession as a reporter was to present an accurate and unbiased version of the facts, absent of my own opinions, with enough information to allow the reader to form his or her own opinion. As a columnist or editorial writer, I am allowed to have an opinion — so long as it is within reason and agrees with the position management has taken, and I offer facts in support of it.

I have always taken my profession seriously. It is, in fact, the ONLY profession that is protected in the Bill of Rights.

The Founding Fathers took that step, even though they did not think highly of the press and manipulated it every chance they got. (Not much has changed, has it?)

Three quotes from Thomas Jefferson:

• “Nothing can now believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

• “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

• “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

(Mark Twain put it this way: “If you don't read the newspaper you are uninformed, if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed.”)

The Founders realized that the only defense the American people have against their own government is the free press. (Witness what happens in other countries, where there is no freedom of the press.)

Our government has tried often to muzzle it, starting with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 which, among other things, prohibited public opposition to the government.

Numerous newspaper editors were arrested and some were imprisoned, including Rep. Matthew Lyon of Vermont, who wrote that President John Adams had an “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and self avarice.”

During the Civil War, some Northern newspapers were subject to prosecution and other forms of retribution — sometimes of a violent nature — because they were sympathetic to the Confederacy or critical of President Lincoln’s administration.

None of our freedoms is absolute. Slander is not protected free speech, libel is not protected free press, and the people may assemble peacefully — but not to form lynch mobs.

With that in mind, what we as Americans call “rights” are actually limits placed on the ability of government to interfere with our ability to do as we please.

Now, it has been revealed that some agents of the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups for special attention (I would object equally to their targeting of liberal groups) and the Justice Department has secretly seized and examined Associated Press telephone records.

None of our freedoms is absolute. Slander is not protected free speech, libel is not protected free press, and so on. However, what we as Americans call “rights” are actually limits placed on the ability of government to interfere with our ability to do as we please.

Now, it has been revealed that some agents of the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups for special attention (I would object equally to their targeting of liberal groups) and the Justice Department has secretly seized and examined Associated Press telephone records.

Where this will lead is yet to be seen. And, depending upon whom you ask, more of our freedoms may be at risk. But that’s not new.

Someday it could be your rights ... or mine ... instead of someone else’s that are affected. And what’s being manipulated, or hidden from us, that we need to know? It is a thoroughly American trait to be suspicious of our government’s intentions ... and we have reason to be that way.

Were it not for a free press, we never would hear about such things until it was too late for us to do anything about them.

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