Commentary: Democracy Dies in the Darkness.

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Democracy Dies in the Darkness

By Mike Sparks

A few years ago I decided to go back to MTSU and take the remaining few hours to complete my college degree. After attending a few semesters part-time, I needed one additional class and I decided to complete a Maymester course.

I was searching the MTSU online platform and came across a class titled, Free Expression. The class, at first really didn’t interest me until I met the class professor Dr. Larry Burriss.

Larry Burriss, a professor in Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Mass Communication and president of the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame, welcomes the crowd before the induction ceremonies at the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters conference in Murfreesboro for the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame. (MTSU photo by Andrew Oppmann)

With the course titled Free Expression I was expecting the class to be taught by someone in a tie-dye shirt and wearing sandals.

On the contrary, the professor was a tough former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force who had served on active duty in various parts of the world and even at the Pentagon. Dr. Burriss held a wealth of knowledge and well experienced in the many facets in the school of journalism, including serving as the former director of the School of Journalism and dean of the College of Mass Communications.

The subject was in regards to the expression of free speech and the First Amendment. I had often listened to Dr. Burriss’s commentary on WGNS Radio and enjoyed his insight and opinions. Needless to say, his Free Expression class and his lectures about the importance of the First Amendment piqued my interest.

The subject of free expression encouraged me to take a few other journalism courses at the MTSU school of journalism located in the John Bragg building named in honor of the former Tennessee State Representative. All the MTSU journalism professors were thought provoking and very helpful, I especially enjoyed completing former WTVF (NewsChannel5) legendary anchorman Chris Clark’s broadcasting class.

Legendary WTVF Channel 5 Anchorman Chris Clark

Just hearing the sound of Professor Clark’s voice took me back to my younger years since he was a huge part of coming into our family home via television and listening to him deliver the news every evening.

During Professor Clark’s first day of class he handed each student a small card with the First Amendment written on it. As he handed it to me I quoted Voltaire,

“I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It.

I keep his First Amendment card with me each day. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Serving in and around politics for many years I have personally witnessed false narratives used to attack those, who, that particular media outlet disagreed with or didn’t line up with their political persuasion. Often times I have witnessed a headline that would often appear being used to shed a negative light on an elected official and their words twisted and taken out of context.

One experience  I witnessed that violated the First Amendment was of an African-American church, Word of Life. The church was not allowed to worship in their own church. The irony is that a white church, Giles Creek Baptist Church of Smyrna helped to build that particular church by donating all the labor to help construct the building. The small church of little means was not allowed to congregate in their own building for 2 years due to an easement dispute with the city. The church was out of pocket in excess of $56,000 on building payments, a considerable sum, yet couldn’t worship in their own church. I recall sitting in the Tennessee General Assembly just after session a few years ago and calling Pastor Wellington Johnson and asking him what the latest was and he stated, “Brother Sparks, I don’t know what else to do but to let it go.“ I responded, “Pastor, you can’t let the church go.” To my surprise when I mentioned this to a few local reporters no one seemed to be concerned, finally, Mikayl Lewis, a former reporter with Fox 17 returned my call and reported on it.

Fox 17 news story by Mikayla Lewis on Word of Life Church
I have also personally witnessed a reporter call me to ask for an interview. I asked, “What is the issue?” The reporter, who I knew and thought very highly of responded, “There was a pray said at the opening ceremony of Stewarts Creek High School.” I asked, “Who complained and why is this newsworthy?” He stated, “No one complained, but I have to cover what my producers want me to cover?’ Needless to say I was rather surprised that WSMV, channel 4 thought this was even newsworthy. Ironically, the reporter couldn’t find anyone in our community who complained so he contacted a “separation of church and state” group in Washington D.C. to get a comment.
I have also witnessed an African-American church, Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church, a beautiful old church much like the one on Little House On the Prairie suffer vandalism and it was heavily reported, but the kindness of Smyrna’s Parkway Baptist and a few others churches who donated to them after was not reported. In my opinion, often the media is more about drama and more interested in “clickbait headlines” and ad revenue than helping to find solutions. Historic Ebeneezer Primitive Baptist Church which dates back to the pre-civil war, located on Old Nashville Hwy in Murfreesboro, Tn.

Naturally, many in the newsroom will not like or agree with my thoughts or experiences, I have found that many of them are good people and I consider them friends of mine. I do believe it is the editors and newsroom producers who seek that drama to attract more eyeballs, thus sell more ads.

Edmund Burke, the Irish born British statesman, parliamentary orator, and political thinker stated, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Today it seems that many are very reluctant to do something, take a stand and voice their opinion for what they believe is right.

Bob Dylan said, “The Times they are a-Changin.’”

The Times they are a-Changin’ especially in the newspaper industry, Newsrooms have been hit very hard with over 1800 newspapers shutting down since 2004,
(Source: UNC School of Media and Journalism. Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media)
over 32,000 news personnel losing their jobs and many rural areas becoming “news deserts” due to lack of reporting.
This week I was proud to that my colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, passed my House Bill 0899, which exempt the taxes off monthly periodical newspapers. The effort may be a small one for our mom and pop newspapers, but it is a step that could save them a few hundred dollars each month to pay a reporter to cover their local school boards, potential solutions to an overcrowded landfill, local sports and other important issues facing ones community.
The First Amendment should be a vital concern for all American citizens, both Republican and Democrat, rich and poor, black and white, conservative or liberal and others. Freedom of expression, no doubt, is the cornerstone of a free democratic society without it our society will suffer because…..

     Democracy Dies in the Darkness.

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