What it really comes down to is osmosis.
You remember osmosis from high school science, don’t you? That’s the process that lets stuff pass through the membrane around your cells. Osmosis lets the good stuff in and the bad stuff out, trading spent fuel for new fuel. It keeps you alive.
The funny thing about osmosis (other than the name) is that it’s automatic. There’s no conscious thought involved.
That’s why if you get stranded at sea, like Tom Hanks in “Castaway,” you mustn’t drink seawater, even if you’re dying of thirst. If you drink seawater, osmosis is what will kill you. It will move the fresh water out of your cells and take salt water in until you’re basically a pickle.
You can’t stop it, any more than you can consciously make your nose stop running.
You don’t have a choice.
Switch gears from water to information, from your cells to your mind.
There is an enormous amount of information out there, every day, trying to get into your head. Advertising. Celebrity fluff. Sports statistics. Dates. Disclaimers. Passwords. Information you will never need competes with information you vitally need – all jockeying for space with that long poem you had to learn in junior high.
But unlike osmosis, when it comes to information, you have a choice. You control what goes into your head. That’s what makes newspapers such an irreplaceable, vital part of this free society.
In America, we take the free flow of information for granted. We count on being able to pick up the newspaper, turn on the radio, browse the Internet, flip on the TV and check out the smorgasbord of data to see what we need and what we don’t. We are our own filter.
The fact that all this information is out there is the foundation of this country and absolutely essential to the freedoms we enjoy.
It’s not that way everywhere. In many countries, dictators take over the media and strive mightily to control the flow of information to the people they wish to keep in subjection.
The first thing they do isn’t “kill all the lawyers” as Shakespeare wrote (tongue-in-cheek) – the first thing they do is take over the newspapers, radio and TV stations and shut down internet access.
They know, as we’ve seen throughout history, that once information begins to flow freely, it’s difficult to keep people under the thumb of repression.
Here in Wise County, we have lots of terrific public officials. But all of us in journalism have seen that impulse to keep it quiet:
- the school superintendent who doesn’t want board members to talk to teachers,
- the city council that wants to stifle comments at meetings,
- judges who issue unneeded gag orders,
- commissioners who want to work it all out behind the scenes and have every vote unanimous.
- the volunteer fire chief who threatens to take your camera.
They think they know better. They don’t get it.
Newspapers fight this battle every day, at every level, because the free flow of information is ultimately what guarantees our freedom.
Don’t take that freedom for granted. Information should be out there for everyone to read, available to all. Anything that takes it away is something we should resist.
It’s a step toward osmosis, toward not having control.
And as we learned in science class, that will kill you.
Bob Buckel is editorial director of the Messenger.