Slusher: The power of the press - and its limits

Posted5/10/2018 1:00 AM

Google "the power of the press" and you'll get thousands of responses - many extolling the ability of mass media to effect change by influencing public opinion, a growing number debating how that power is (take your pick) declining/growing/transforming and some decrying how the entire subject has been swallowed up in the confusing conversation over "fake news." It's an interesting and important topic, but wherever you find yourself entering into the conversation, keep in mind two Illinois government stories from this week. One, provided by the Bloomberg news service, took account of the floundering public employee pension system to note that every man, woman and child in Illinois owes $11,000 just to service pension debt. A second, which we acknowledged in an editorial on Sunday, saw yet another deadline for fixing our corrupt system for setting political boundaries slip quietly beneath the surface of public consciousness.

Even before the election of Democrat Pat Quinn as governor, we and other news media around the state were calling attention to the public employee pension crisis. First, we fretted over shortfalls in the tens of billions of dollars. Then, we sounded the alarm over deficits in the scores of billions. As the figure approached $100 billion in 2013, we added our editorial voice in support of a legislative solution. The state Supreme Court shot down that solution two years later and now, in 2018, the pension debt is in the range of $150 billion and mounting by the millions every day. Power of the press indeed.


We've been clamoring for most of this decade for changes in the way Illinois lawmakers contemptuously manipulate legislative boundaries to protect incumbency and consolidate power. And we've reported on repeated drives to reform the process, only to see them founder - like the latest move this week - in the squalor of legislative pretense or the outright scorn of official confrontation.

When it comes to change, even change the public clearly wants, the press can't do it alone. We in newspapers are assaulted every day with claims that we abuse our position to subvert truth and misshape public opinion. It's a contention worthy of discussion though steeped in generalities, distortion and selective documentation. But today, I'm more struck by the power we clearly don't have than that which so many people seem to think we do.

This is, of course, a certain amount of bitter personal grumbling. In other stories of the past week, we've called attention to increasing costs of community colleges, showed how one resolute citizen can produce legislation to protect pets, described efforts to combat drug abuse and more. We do plenty that does indeed produce positive results for individuals and communities.

But, lest we ever feel inclined to take credit for those results or lest others feel inclined to think we hold massive sway over the mind of the public and the levers of government, one needn't look too far to realize the limits of our influence. Ultimately, our ability to influence the world extends only as far as we can help show others how or where it might be influenced. On the matters of public pensions, political boundaries and no doubt dozens of other topics, we still have our work cut out for us in that regard. And that's OK. We'll keep reporting the facts and sounding the alarms. It's not actually power by itself - but it helps people get things done, if not always as fast as we'd like.

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