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Guest Commentary

Of E.B. White, croquet balls and the press



Writer E.B. White has a well-deserved warm place in the hearts of millions of people. It would be nice if his writing  also had a place among those who place profits ahead of informing people.

White (1899-1985) gave us Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little and gave The New Yorker magazine profound and witty essays and fillers. His Elements of Style — a reworking of a book by his Cornell English teacher William Strunk, Jr. — remains treasured by anyone who cares about writing and thinking.

Unfortunately, such people are an endangered species these days.

That’s why today’s Cityview lesson deals with croquet balls and eggs. It’s based on a metaphor White offered in contrasting a market-driven society with one whose survival depends upon cherished principles — like free expression and having reasonable expectations of what we owe one another, without dollar signs attached.

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The croquet-eggs approach was hatched in White’s mind by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 state of the union address. FDR said humankind is entitled to four freedoms: freedom of expression, freedom to worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.”

What troubled White was whether promises of economic security and freedom of expression should be part of the same package: “If you were to pack croquet balls and eggs in a single container and take them traveling, you would probably end your journey with some broken eggs. I believe that if you put a free press into the same bill will a full belly [or economic security], you will likely end the journey with a controlled press.”

White’s concern speaks to the fear that today’s press and broadcast media are more dedicated to their shareholders than they are to readers, viewers and listeners.

The core purpose of the First Amendment is to have an informed electorate capable of self-government. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” In the past 20 to 25 years, however, the press has become more of a stray than a watchdog of government

As one well-experienced journalist put it: “Citizens who want to know what is going on in their communities — in the schools, in their city government and county government — have a much, much more difficult time keeping themselves informed these days. Of course, those citizens are fully informed about the Pokemon players who enjoy craft beer.”

Of course, market-driven advocates might complain: “You mean you’re against making a profit?”  But it is not an either-or-question. Pension programs investments and personalized 401K plans lead most of us to root for shareholders to do well. But at what cost?

David Kruidenier (1921-2006) — the Cowles family publisher of the Des Moines Register and Tribune — had it right when he talked about how the press differs from other businesses because, “We have a First Amendment franchise” — you make a profit to have a press, not vice versa.

To take an obvious example: For much of its ownership by the Cowles family, the Des Moines Register had single-digit returns, averaging 5 or 6 percent over decades. After the 1985 sale to Gannett, the expectation of returns became four or more times that much — probably exceeding 20 percent.

Radio, TV and press reporters are now strangers to city and county offices.

Throw in all changes you want regarding today’s new technology — it still is folly to think you can pack croquet balls and eggs in the same basket.

Perhaps one answer lies in a not-for-profit press to accompany public TV. Any answer should pay attention to White, Jefferson and Kruidenier. CV


Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.strentz21

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