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Press must hold up its end of democracy

If only the press would mind its own business ...

We don’t hear that every day.

But we hear it often enough by well-meaning folks who don’t understand the press.

Or democracy.

MOUNT CARROLL IS on the north edge of our market area, so we monitor news developments there.

We recently published an article about a payroll dispute among city government officials, as did the Prairie Advocate newspaper.

The media attention led City Attorney Ron Coplan to write the mayor a letter to chastise the officials who raised the issue publicly.

“Contacting the news media and giving statements and information to the news media is divisive to the workings and working relationships within the council, with the mayor, and with the employees,” Coplan wrote.

At a recent council meeting, Mount Carroll business owner Leonard Anderson said he was bothered by a report in this newspaper about the city’s controversial loan agreement with a nonprofit group.

“If you have a problem, fix it,” Anderson told the council, “but not in the newspaper.”

DEMOCRACY IS A three-legged stool.

One leg is the people – who vote, pay taxes, and live with the actions of government officials.

One leg is the government – the people, actually, as represented by elected and appointed officials and public employees who carry out functions of the bureaucracy.

And the third leg – thanks to the First Amendment – is the press.

Each plays a vital role in a functioning democracy.

The people choose government leaders to represent the interests of the public.

Government officials and employees perform public functions to serve the people.

And the press is obligated to keep an eye on government operations to make sure the people are served.

In a perfect world.

BUT THAT STOOL sometimes breaks down when people in government positions – like City Attorney Coplan – begin to believe they are the government.

They are not, of course. The citizens are the government. The officials merely perform government operations on behalf of the citizens.

Information in the press – the news media – is how most people find out what their government officials are up to.

And some officials would rather the public didn’t know what was going on.

If officials find the reporting of government actions and activities “divisive to the workings and working relationships within the council, with the mayor, and with the employees,” ... well, tough.

Do they know whom they work for? Do they know who pays the bills?

Government is not supposed to operate in secret. Government is supposed to be effective, but not necessarily efficient.

And if officials find it inconvenient for the public to learn about government functions, ... well, tough.

It’s the people’s government. By, for, and of the people.

That’s our democracy.

LAWYERS SOMETIMES decline to comment to reporters on legal matters because, they say, they don’t want to “try the case in the newspaper.”

That usually means they don’t believe they can win in the court of public opinion.

Likewise, government officials with a problem can “fix it,” as Mr. Anderson told the Mount Carroll Council, without talking about the issue in the newspaper.

But again, the officials who are responsible for fixing the problem are not the government – they are merely representatives of the people, who are really the government.

The newspaper’s job is to report on the “fixing” process. And just as important, the press facilitates – through news stories, letters to the editor, and online comments – a public discussion about that fix.

Any “not in the newspaper” solution is bound to generate suspicion about what officials are trying to hide.

The people in government who deserve public skepticism are those who do not want people to find out about the fix by reading the newspaper.

And that is not how democracy works.

READERS USUALLY support this newspaper’s efforts to hold government officials accountable.

But not always.

Brandy was among several people who posted comments on our website critical of our reporting on the Nativity scene on the lawn of the Lee County Courthouse.

“This story is a) NOT newsworthy, and b) insulting to even read,” Brandy wrote. “Why in the world does it matter if there is a Nativity scene? Look at the state of this nation and the devastation in this world – does it really matter that a Nativity scene (whom many still believe is a comfort) is set up?... Shame on you Sauk Valley/Shaw Media for even writing an article like this. ...”

Why in the world does it matter?

Because we are a nation of laws, not of well-meaning men and women.

AS REPORTER DAVID Giuliani wrote, courts have set down rules for religious displays on public property.

And Lee County failed to comply with those rules.

The First Amendment’s “establishment clause” – Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ... – has been broadly interpreted by the courts.

Many seemingly innocent actions of government – and by people who work for government – have been found to violate Americans’ constitutional right to not be subjected to a government-sanctioned religion.

While placing a Nativity scene – depicting the birth of Christ – on the courthouse lawn might be a tradition, it’s a religious practice than can be inferred to be county government’s endorsement of Christianity.

Why does that matter?

Because local governments that are a lot like Lee County have spent tons of taxpayers’ money to defend lawsuits (that they never win) over such things as Nativity scenes on government property and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings.

So, if this newspaper’s reporting can help to ensure that county government complies with court restrictions (the law) on religious displays, and to avoid the wasting of tens of thousands of tax dollars on a lost legal cause, then we’ve done our job.

If that’s not a role of the press, nothing is.

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