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Our Opinion: State lawmakers know newspapers serve a vital role

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Journalists and lawmakers don’t always see eye to eye. But three state legislators agree that North Carolina needs a free and independent press to hold elected officials and government agencies accountable.

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, and Rep. Robert M. Reives II, D-Chatham, offered inspiring words during the North Carolina Press Association’s News, Editorial and Photojournalism Contest awards banquet last week. Rep. Stephen Ross, R-Alamance, accepted the association’s 2019 William C. Lassiter First Amendment Award for his work to support open government.

Lewis, the influential House Rules Committee chairman who serves as top lieutenant to Speaker Tim Moore, said the press performs a valuable public service in an age where the line between fact and opinion can be blurry.

“The role of newspapers has never been more important than it is today. The people are truly hungry to know the news,” Lewis said, later adding: “I do sincerely value the role of watchdog, seeker of the truth that newspapers and reporters work to provide. I encourage you to keep fighting the good fight.”

Lewis mentioned his longtime friendship with Bart Adams, who owns The Daily Record of Dunn with siblings Brent Adams and Maere Kay Lashmit, and praised local newspapers’ mission to keep their communities informed.

“The old saying that all politics is local, I think, really applies to the news as well,” he said. “All news is local. All news can be made relevant when it’s viewed through the lens of the local press.”

Lewis has faced scrutiny for his leadership role in the Republican-led legislative redistricting process, but he’s remained a champion of open government and press freedom. We applaud the rules chairman and Harnett County farmer for advocating for the people’s right to know what state government is doing in their name.

Rieves, the House deputy Democratic leader, said newspapers remain a vital resource in the fight for truth.

Without the press, he said, “there is nobody to tell us about the governmental bad things and the governmental good things. There’s nobody to let us know what’s happening, why it’s happening. There’s no discerning voice to say ‘Here are the facts and just the facts.”

Lawmakers drew a distinction between the media and the local press, noting that newspapers provide more in-depth reporting, more nuance and more substance than cable news shoutfests.

“In the 24-hour news cycle, things that shouldn’t become news become news, whereas what your local newspapers do is make sure we stay in touch with our communities,” Rieves said.

The N.C. General Assembly has long been a battleground in the fight for press freedom. Bills designed to hobble the newspaper industry by allowing governments to post public notices on their little-used websites instead of in local papers and on their heavily trafficked news websites are a perpetual threat. Often, sponsors of the legislation want to punish the press for unfavorable coverage.

Ross, who leads the House Commerce Committee as its senior chairman and serves as a co-chairman on the House Finance Committee, earned the Lassiter Award for his work to defeat a public notices bill and a bill to designate newspaper carriers as employees rather than independent contractors.

The latter legislation “could have spelled the end of cost-effective distribution of print editions of newspapers in the state,” said Paul Mauney, Adams Publishing Group regional president for Tennessee, North Carolina and southern Virginia and the former publisher of Ross’ hometown paper, the Times-News in Burlington.

Ross’ support is rooted in a long tradition of American statesmen’s respect for the Fourth Estate.

“We continue to fight to make sure that the press stays free and the press has got what it needs to tell the truth, get the message out and keep government in check,” Ross said. “That was exactly what our Founding Fathers had in mind when Madison drafted the First Amendment.”

The natural tension between government and the press is often necessary, but at the end of the day, stakeholders understand that these vital institutions need each other.