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Friday, August 6, 2010

Why we need muckraking

The News & Observer, Raleigh’s daily newspaper, has been doing a fine job of muckraking in recent years. Today there’s a story about a firm that has captured contracts to print election ballots in 95 of the state’s 100 counties – despite prices that are twice the competition’s. As one would expect, the ballot printing company has strong ties to powers-at-be in state government.

Earlier this week the N&O ran a story about use of a private chartered airplane by the influential chairman of the State Board of Elections – ironically to attend a deposition about unreported use of private airplanes by candidates for public office. The chairman’s presence at the deposition was unnecessary, and the excuse for the charter is that he wanted to attend a family event back in Asheville that evening.

These two revelations are merely the latest in recent years. The North Carolina press has exposed former Governor Mike Easley and his wife Mary, former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, former Speaker of the House Jim Black, former Lottery Commissioner Kevin Geddings, former Congressman Frank Ballance, former Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong, former State Representative Thomas Wright, and on and on. Despite large reductions in their workforce, the N&O and other papers still appear to be able to perform the critical function of the Fourth Estate.

I don’t know what the government of North Carolina would be like without the Fourth Estate. No, the truth is that I know exactly what it would be like: corrupt, self-enriching, and under the near-total control of special interests who toss money around. Unencumbered by the press in Raleigh, Charlotte, Wilmington, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina could probably outdo New Jersey and other well-known bastions of corruption.

Because of Raleigh’s rapid growth, the N&O is one of the few papers nationally that shows an increase in readership. Even so the N&O is not immune to the ills of modern papers. They can’t monetize their websites adequately; they don’t appeal to the under-30 audience; and cash cows like classified ads have been killed by the Internet. Consequently the N&O is a much smaller paper (page count as well as page size) than it once was.

Clearly we need a muckraker on the job here, and I don't believe the TV stations ,the weekly alternative papers, or the fledgling web-only newspapers can do it. I hope that the N&O continues to find a way to perform this role even if we don’t need it for sports scores, comics, crossword puzzles, or movie listings anymore.