August 4, 2019 Sermon
I read a NY Times article titled “Dying Gasp of One Local Newspaper” when I came
back from Sodorin on August the 1st, where we are not allowed to have access to any
outside news. On May 7, 2019, a 121-year old local newspaper of a small Minnesota town,
called the Warroad Pioneer, folded up its printing presses. Its publisher, Rebecca Colden,
had fought hard to keep it going. The weekly Warroad Pioneer printed about 1,100 copies
per week. However, they finally could not make ends meet.
Warroad is a tiny town located just below the Canadian border with a population of less
than 1,800 people. It seemed that the newspaper was the heart and soul of their small town.
Let me quote something from the article:
In Warroad, The Pioneer was full of soft-focus features on residents, reprinted
news releases, photos of fishermen with their outsize catches, and news of
awards won by children and Shriners. There were the occasional stories, too,
about city officials, the school board and local sports.
This, then, was what the desert might look like: No hometown paper to print
the obituaries from the Helgeson Funeral Home. No place to chronicle the
exploits of the beloved high school hockey teams. No historical record for the
little town museum, which had carefully kept the newspaper in boxes going
back to 1897.
The headline of the paper’s last edition read “FINAL EDITION” in large caps. There is not
enough print revenue to pay for the expense of public service journalism. The changing
face of our economy has had a great influence on this paper. Hardly anyone took out a
classified ad anymore. Doug’s Supermarket, which happens to be the only grocer in
Warroad, puts their ads in a free, ads-only mailer called the Northland Trading Post.
Besides, where winters drop to minus 35 degrees in parts of Minnesota, everyone is
thankful for doorstep delivery by Amazon.
This newspaper joined sixty-five other newspapers that have closed down in Minnesota
since 2004, and approximately 2000 newspapers that have closed down in the U.S. in the
last fifteen years. This little town seems cohesive and helpful of each other. Let us assume
that they could live without the news of the fishing expeditions of their residents, or who
became the valedictorian of their local high school, or even whether Doug’s Supermarket
would be closed on Labor Day. One of the most important role of a newspaper has been to
be the conscience of their readership. Who will be keeping things in check? Who will be
the purveyor of truth? People in this small town believe that important news would now be
passed from person to person, or on social media like Facebook. They are afraid that
important news will make their way unchecked. Lots of half-truths and outright lies may
now prevail. Of government, someone asked, “Is there going to be somebody to hold their
feet to the fire?”
The Warroad Pioneer had served as the conscience of its small town. We may feel
comfortably safe in our daily lives, but it is often because we have had a robust network of news outlets who were keeping people in check. Truth is a rare commodity. We need to
make sure that our sources have the conscience to do good. Nichiren Shonin was very
aware of this as well. He said in his Kyoki Jikoku Sho 『教機時国鈔』, that the Buddha
once warned, “it is more harmful to meet a bad leader than it is to meet a bad elephant.”
One may end up being killed upon meeting a crazed elephant. But, it is still better than
meeting an evil leader who will corrupt, and defile one’s mind to the effect that its
contamination will eventually destroy one’s mind and body with lingering repercussions,
culminating into one’s fall into the depths of hell. That is, it is better to die with virtuous
thoughts than to be polluted by misinformation and bad direction.
One’s conscience is as important as one’s physical health. For the Buddha, one’s
conscience or principle to stand for good was prioritized over one’s life. As vital as our free
press is, it is being tested by new developments and conveniences. The proliferation of
information from sources both reputable and not, compounded by its ready and potent
dissemination make it difficult to determine exactly what the truth is. This serves as an
existential problem for all of us. Where there is no press, there will come a time when we
as individuals would have to take the initiative, step forward to separate truth from
falsehood, and dispel any menace that may threaten our society. As Buddhism is a search
for truth, we should be accustomed and qualified to lead in this role where there is no press.