Freepdom of Expression

In a rare and dramatic move, the Detroit Free Press has devoted the entirety of today’s front page to a graphic editorial urging Congress to approve the auto makers’ bailout:

The editorial, which takes the form of an open letter—copies of the print edition, editor Paul Anger noted, are being sent to lawmakers—begins, “DEAR MEMBERS OF CONGRESS, You don’t want an economic disaster on your hands. Not when you could have prevented it. And not in times that are already the worst in a generation.”

The letter concludes,

The Detroit automakers are hemorrhaging cash to stay in business. Two of them are nearly drained, and the third is getting by on a transfusion. They can get well. They have shown how. But first they have to survive. And their survival is in America’s best interests.

You can help them. And if you don’t, make no mistake: There will be bleeding throughout the land.

All this is, to be sure, a blurring of the line between the news and opinion sections of the paper—a purposeful reversal of the front-page-is-for-news tradition. And yet the Freep’s bold visuals and the ardent message in this case combine to suggest what we all know to be true: that some news items transcend their status as “news,” that some stories are so big that they inherently blur the line between what can be reported passionately and dispassionately. For Detroit—the local community the Freep serves—and, in many ways, for the country at large, the life-or-death status of the auto makers is such a story.

In a text box embedded in the letter, Anger explains the logic of the editorial to readers:

Why we’re sending this message

The Free Press is sending copies of this edition to members of Congress.

We have chronicled the U.S. auto industry since its birth, as Detroit became the world’s Motor City, as cars and trucks changed the American culture and landscape, as assembly line jobs gave rise to the American middle class. Our journalists have reported the automakers’ triumphs and exposed their troubles. We know this industry better than anyone.

We also know that while a newspaper needs to inform, there are times when a newspaper needs to speak up for what’s right.

We know what automakers and autoworkers mean to this nation. We know what will happen if one of the auto companies is allowed to collapse. We know because this industry has been our story since it started.

And we know that America needs this story to continue.

— Paul Anger, editor

We already know that, if the Big Three—and the American auto industry overall—are to survive, their continuity will require not only government assistance in the short term, but also creative thinking and audacious ideas in the long. The Freep’s bold move today suggests that, no matter what future Congress carves for Detroit, the city’s biggest hometown paper is thinking outside the box.

[h/t Joe Strupp]

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.