Commentary

Liberty depends on a free press

By Lawrence McConnell, publisher, The Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Va.
Posted 4/29/14
Lawrence McConnell

So far as I've been able to determine, Thomas Jefferson has not yet made it into the Virginia Commonwealth University Communications Hall of Fame. That may be, in part, because he committed the error of founding the University of Virginia instead of the real University of the Commonwealth of Virginia, VCU.

Or could it be that Jefferson did not make the Hall of Fame short list because he wrote some dumb stuff? ... Unlike, of course, true Hall of Fame members.

Here's an example of something really dumb from the pen of Thomas Jefferson in a letter to John Norvell in 1807: "Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle."

T.J. wrote this? Really?

Of course, perhaps we should be more understanding and tolerant of Jefferson's aforementioned quote, given that he was well into his second term as president by then, and doubtless was having a bad press day.

I, like many another journalist, prefer to overlook Jeffersonian quotes like that. My rationalization goes like this: If Jefferson had the temerity to edit the Bible to his liking, we in the newspaper business can certainly pick the quotations that suit us.

I certainly did, back when I was a boy publisher in South Carolina in the mid-70s. Straddling the Gutenberg era and the dawn of digitization, The Georgetown Times still had handset type cases for its job shop. I asked our journeyman printer there to handset and print a Jefferson quote. I framed it and have kept it for four decades. Most of you know it by heart:

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

During my time in the business, I've been fortunate to have been associated with people for whom this quote wasn't just a slogan. They lived it.

I'll tell you about one: The late Doyle Harvill was my boss in Montgomery and Tampa for more than a decade. He was an American original: a Florida cracker, Marine, Korean War veteran, University of Texas J-school graduate, two-fisted newspaper editor, get-it-done publisher, raconteur and self-styled expert in every subject you could name and some you'd never heard of.

But chiefly, above all else, he was a fierce believer in the First Amendment. He'd tell me, in his way, which was by getting right up in your face and saying: "You know, McConnell, we're right up there with God in the First Amendment." That was his way of saying that the freedom of the press was precious, something to be revered, treasured, defended – and passed on to the next generation.

Our time as leaders in our chosen fields will be brief. But the one commonality we all share is the legacy of that First Amendment.

How well all of us teach the next generation by word and example may well determine whether our First Amendment freedoms will be sustained – and our liberty as a free people preserved.

Lawrence McConnell, publisher of The Daily Progress in Charlottesville since 1995, was recently named to the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame. He also serves as regional publisher of the Charlottesville Newspaper Group under BH Media, which owns the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This column is based on the speech he gave at the Hall of Fame induction dinner earlier this month. Contact him at LMcConnell@dailyprogress.com.

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