Being independent and being free of unwanted influence or control has always come at a supreme cost. Like almost everything else these days the cost of being independent is on the rise. As with all goods and services, it takes money to be independent. Being independent takes training, tools and resources. But the essential lifeblood of independence is calculated in the currency of trust. And, dear friends and patriots, the cost of trust in America today is being counted in thousands of preventable COVID-19 deaths, anti-democracy conspiracy theories and a U.S. Capitol building now guarded behind razor wire. Mistrust and distrust abound; the truth is on the run.
We are not dismissing that men have fought wars and died to preserve our independence. But we uphold that never have so many Americans refused to invest in the treasury and trust that has bound America together for 232 years as a free and independent nation. The scourge of distrust and threats to independent voices now stretches from the U.S. Congress to hundreds of local school boards. Local law enforcement, courts (including the U.S. Supreme Court), scientists, journalists, college professors, our intelligence agencies, public health officers, climate forecasters, whole religions and who knows who else, are all being threatened with a loss of their independence and credence.
Being independent means being impartial, fact-based, transparent and accountable. All individuals, institutions or agencies that claim to be independent must be subject to constant external monitoring by the public or the public’s agents they claim to serve.
When we most need independent watchdogs — especially well-supported and well-funded journalists — we find, instead, a crisis of disinformation campaigns, the death of newspapers and the total breakdown in our U.S. Congress where party loyalty trumps allegiance to country.
Imagine what America — and our own public life in Sonoma County — will look like when we lose impartial and independent courts of law or equal protection for all citizens. Here in Sonoma County, just like everywhere else in America, we have lost dozens of independent journalists’ jobs. Their previous watchdog roles are not being replaced.
We have other local watchdog and independent agencies. These include the Civil Grand Jury, the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO), numerous school board budget advisory committees, independent government auditors, an independent and apolitical Voter’s Registrar’s office, and, we have an open meetings law (Brown Act) that requires all government business be done if full public view.
But, as with all 232 years of America’s history, all of these public bodies and citizen committees would be doing their work in near total darkness without the steadfast scrutiny of an independent press. (When is the last time you read a grand jury report or an entire school budget?)
We, maybe, have taken our independent watchdogs and democratic guardrails too much for granted over way too many years. We certainly have not paid enough attention or actual dollars in support of these brave, lonely, often under-appreciated individuals and small can-do citizen committees like our local chapters of the League of Women Voters and our Peace and Justice Center.
Think about what is the opposite of being independent. Consider a void of trust where no one can be guaranteed a fair day in court or at the ballot box. Look at history. So far, America is the world’s oldest surviving democracy, forged originally by the words of a declaration of independence in 1776.
Once upon a time we held certain truths to be self-evident — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Any of us can declare our support for independence, but our free society will not prevail without more support for more independent watchdogs and guardians.