OPINION: Congratulations Mr. Benton – AND Mayor Baroukh


July 23, 2010

This week the Falls Church News-Press printed edition number 1,000.  That is quite a feat.  Those of us involved in the Falls Church Times can tell you that it’s a lot of work to put together even an online publication.  A hard copy newspaper is a much bigger operation, and doing it 1,000 weeks in a row is an accomplishment to be proud of.

In this week’s edition, FCNP publisher Nick Benton includes two lengthy pieces about the paper’s history and his reflections on the meaning of a free press.  First, in a story entitled “1,000 Wednesday Nights at the Mighty News-Press,” Mr. Benton relates how the paper began and who helped him along the way.  It’s an interesting story, particularly in light of the fact that newspaper economics no longer work in many cases, causing paper after paper to shutter in recent years.

Mr. Benton started the paper in 1991.  The headline of his first edition was “Rancorous Public Hearing on School Cuts, Tax Increase” – one he could have re-used this spring.

With obvious delight, Mr. Benton writes that when the printer’s wheels began to turn on that first edition, “I began to bellow above the din of the press, ‘Let every tyrant tremble!  The free press is the voice of the people in defense of liberty and freedom everywhere!’”

And he notes that after staying up all night to finish the first edition, he looked outside to see “that the cherry trees lining N. Virginia Avenue [near his office] had blossomed into their full pink radiance.”

“It was a sign,” he said.

Mr. Benton started the FCNP in a small office behind the Exxon station at Broad and North Virginia.  He planned for the paper to be a monthly or bi-weekly publication, but started the second edition immediately after putting out the first one, giving birth to a weekly.

In Mr. Benton’s editorial this week, “A Celebration of the First Amendment,” he speaks to the importance of a free press and his role in it, mentioning a variety of figures including First Amendment author George Mason, White House correspondent Helen Thomas, and recently fired-and-rehired USDA employee Shirley Sherrod.  He goes on to note a number of public officials who accepted his invitation to sign a congratulatory ad that appears in this week’s FCNP, saying “The elected officials have every reason to affirm these things.”

Mr. Benton goes too far, however, when he reports that newly-elected Mayor Nader Baroukh declined the invitation to sign the ad – and pointedly contrasts him with other public officials who did sign the ad.

According to Benton, Mayor Baroukh’s reason for declining to lend his name to the ad was, “As an elected official I should not be in the business of congratulating the media on what it does or does not do.”

I believe Baroukh is right.

Although Baroukh was quickly criticized by former Mayor Robin Gardner and former Vice Mayor Lindy Hockenberry for not supporting a local business, it is important to remember that the media is not just another business.  Its business is reporting news and opining on it — most importantly, the news of government.  The media influences government action, and unabashedly so.

As a result, the media can be extremely powerful.  The adage, “Don’t pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel” is a wise reminder that the person who controls public information wields great power.  This is very relevant in Falls Church City, where Mr. Benton is the only person whose words touch every doorstep in town.  By the mere reach of those words, he is arguably the most influential person in Falls Church City.  And the fact that he would report Baroukh’s decision not to lend his name to a congratulatory ad indicates Mr. Benton’s willingness to use his influence.

That the press is powerful is not necessarily a bad thing.  Its power is necessary in order to offset the power of government.  But – and here is the thing — in order for the media and the government to work properly, they cannot become too cozy.  Government officials kowtowing to the press or vice versa could be a disastrous thing for democracy.

In my view, the FCNP’s ad has the feel of kowtowing.  It is one thing for community members to congratulate Mr. Benton, but it is another when a group of public officials, who may at any time receive the sting of his lash, line up to congratulate him.  Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable, and I think Mayor Baroukh was wise to decline the offer.    Yes, it is part of his job to promote local businesses, but a much more important part of his job is maintaining the proper relationship between institutions, particularly those upon which a democratic system depends.

Therefore, I believe two congratulations are in order.  Mr. Benton is to be congratulated for his remarkable run of a 1,000 weeks of newspapers.  And Mayor Baroukh is to be congratulated for his mindfulness of the appropriate line between government and the media.  May they both continue to do their jobs well.


19 Responses to “OPINION: Congratulations Mr. Benton – AND Mayor Baroukh”

  1. ITK on July 23rd, 2010 1:05 pm

    FYI – Nick Benton wrote his own congratulatory ad and asked elected officials and the people he deems “A-listers” to sign it.

  2. Steven Hill (Falls Church) on July 23rd, 2010 1:15 pm

    Reading the FCNP’s little whine about the Mayor brings this scene from Blazing Saddles to mind:

    The editor demanded a “harumph” out of everyone, and didn’t get it. Good for the Mayor.

  3. TFC on July 23rd, 2010 1:48 pm

    I agree. When I read it all I could think of was wah-wah-wah. I was not asked to sign it but that was not reported.

  4. Manny Little on July 23rd, 2010 3:41 pm

    We -the poor taxpayers – pay $5 a year for that rag. Maybe the new mayor can stop this shakedown. I would pay $5 just to stop the soon to be cat liter liner from being tossed into my flowerbeds – just as it was this week.
    Thanks Nick!

  5. Mike Novotny on July 23rd, 2010 3:54 pm

    So Mayor Baroukh is asked by Nick to sign his own ad congratulating himself for good journalism, and when Baroukh declines (on sound principles) Nick tries to set him straight for not playing ball?

    Wow, is this journalism, or is Nick sending a message and trying to use his influence? Power of the press gone “way” too far…thank you Mayor for standing up to the nonsense.

    Sure would be nice to see Nick report the news rather than create it.

  6. Dale Walton on July 23rd, 2010 4:24 pm

    Give ’em hell, Mr Mayor. You don’t need to bow to the wishes and act the same as those who preceded you. Shake it up a bit. I think that is what a lot of voters want to see. You certainly don’t need to be beholden to somone who writes some of the garbage that is opined in the FCNP.

  7. Dreamingin22046 on July 23rd, 2010 5:25 pm

    Poll question: Raise your hand if you don’t want the FCNP thrown into your yard.

  8. Barry Buschow on July 23rd, 2010 5:55 pm

    When the FCNP started in March of 1991 is was truly a hometown newspaper. You could read it and learn was was happening in All aspects of city life. There was point/counterpoint which gave both sides of a story and other interesting articles like Mike Hoovers always interesting column. Over the years it turned into a political statement as the only thing in it were political statements from elected officials and Nick and Realtor advertisements. Nick lost me because I wanted FC stories so people could learn about what VPIS is doing, what the Lions club and Rotary are up to doing community service, etc. Just like a real hometown paper. Many groups have complained about the lack of press the FCNP provided service organizations. He didn’t seem to care. However, I believe over the last year or so Nick has turned the corner and is starting to turn the NP into a meaningful read again. I have high hopes……..

  9. John Coleman on July 23rd, 2010 6:06 pm

    Perhaps the next “Question of the Week” in the News Press should be whether the Mayor should have put his name on the ad congratulating the FCNP.

  10. TFC on July 23rd, 2010 6:24 pm

    dreamin’…one hand raised here.
    I think Nick’s rag feels the heat from this site……… ’nuff said

  11. vlfrance, City of Falls Church on July 24th, 2010 7:26 am

    I like getting the FCNP weekly because, while not always, it gives me perspective on news in town and reminds me of various things going on in town. I also don’t mind tipping the carrier annually because it helps someone survive in this or any economy.

    As for the matter at hand, I agree Benton should be congratulated whether we agree with his journalism or not. He has certainly spurred offshoots to help balance City news. Also, I’m conflicted about Mayor Baroukh’s action. While I agree he should remain at arm’s length (I am highly irritated, in the reverse, by newspapers endorsing politicians since it takes away from being fair and balanced journalism), I believe some congratulations are in order. Perhaps if it could have been on behalf of the entire City Council. It’s a sticky wicket…

  12. Betsy Sherman, Falls Church, Va on July 24th, 2010 8:22 am

    A newspaper who uses as a correspondent the husband of the Mayor (former), is suspect. Particularly when the said correspondent has his own blog in which he regularly criticizes members of the Council of which his wife is Mayor (former). It’s just too cozy!

  13. Bill Brew Falls Church on July 24th, 2010 9:29 am

    As a 35-year resident of the Rodney Dangerfield part of the City (far east side, surrounded by Arlington)(now with a BJs literally in the back yard), there have been many worse slights through the years, but I need to correct the understanding that “Mr. Benton is the only person whose words touch every doorstep in town.” A few years back, the delivery of the FCNP to our neighborhood was cut off with no notice. Numerous requests for a resumption or at least an explanation — including reluctantly bearding Mr. Benton in public one Sunday morning as he ate breakfast — yielded nothing. So perhaps the notion could be revised slightly — ” Mr. Benton is the only person whose words touch nearly every doorstep in town.”

  14. Teddy Rutledge on July 24th, 2010 10:35 am

    Correspondent??? Ha, ha, ha! LMAO.

  15. Peggy Monahan, Falls Church City on July 24th, 2010 11:32 am

    Well said, Mr. Fendly, and well done Mr. Mayor.

  16. Mark Mellon, Falls Church on July 24th, 2010 1:14 pm

    Nicholas Benton can not write his way out of a wet paper bag with a hole punched in the bottom. He’s also a very pompous man who takes himself way too seriously (that bit about roaring “tyrants beware” when running off his first edition is a perfect example of this, that and the fact he keeps mentioning it). Given that, it’s no wonder he got snippy when Mayor Baroukh failed to give him the ego-stroking that he considers his due.

  17. Dudley McDonald Mechanicsville, VA on July 24th, 2010 2:24 pm

    As a reader since day one (and even today via the ‘Net), I do commend Mr. Benton for building a nice small business (which he deplores much of the time) out of whole cloth. I especially enjoy his national commentaries that simply must be widely read (otherwise, why would he place them in that section of his own paper??) from coast to coast.

    Fortunately for Falls Church, much of what he supports isn’t!

    I eagerly await 1001!

  18. Nick Doyle on July 24th, 2010 9:13 pm

    I have been reading the FCNP for five years and have become progressively nauseated by what I’ve seen. In fact, I have in the past called and asked that it not be delivered to my doorstep. It stopped for awhile — but began again. Its like a bad rash. I can’t seem to get rid of it. But I can’t stop scratching it. I now look forward to its arrival each week for comic relief. My kids and I play “Where’s Waldo” (only its “Where’s Benton”) when it arrives — to see who is the first to find Nick highlighted in his own publication. I’ve often thought that a real editor (or someone reasonably skilled in English) would improve it. Even better, maybe a bucket of periods (……) would vastly improve it and let me catch my breath in the middle of some of the paragraph-length sentences.

    I’m grateful and relieved that our Mayor responded in the way that he did. Adult leadership, at last!

    By the way, I’m grateful to the Falls Church Times for being a sensible alternative.

  19. William Barratt, Falls Church on July 24th, 2010 10:29 pm

    I disagree with Mr. Benton on almost every issue he writes about. That’s fine-it’s his paper and he can write what he wants (though it’s a shame if he is involuntarily supported by Falls Church taxpayers). What I really dislike is the way he regularly writes biased, strongly opinionated articles and calls them “news” when they read more like op-eds. It’s in violation of his own platform, which he proudly prints in each week’s edition. And it’s the reason I was so glad when a friend told me about the Falls Church Times last year.

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