I ask you: do I look like an enemy of the people? Given my 30+ years in journalism (including Boston Phoenix, WGBH-TV, WCVB-TV) and nearly a decade more as a blogger, Donald Trump would probably say yes. Journalism is certainly in my DNA. Which is why I’m so proud of what my local newspaper is doing. The Boston Globe is urging a national response to the President’s war against the free press, calling for editorials Thursday from press outlets across the political spectrum to decry the attacks. Right or left, those editorial boards know the importance of press freedom to a flourishing democracy.
More than a few of Thursday’s editorials will probably mention Thomas Jefferson, famous for saying, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Yes, even though I cringe when the press is sloppy and sharply criticize when it is occasionally malign. Without the free flow of information and a vigorous marketplace of ideas, we cannot have an informed electorate and a sustainable democracy.
Sadly, our Bully-In-Chief keeps dismissing the media as “fake, fake disgusting news,” referring, of course, to anything that challenges his alternate reality or the 4,229 lies that Trump has told from the beginning of his administration to August 1, as documented by the Washington Post. What’s even more disturbing than the name calling is how the President is increasingly inciting his rally audiences to violence against the press.
Thankfully, we haven’t yet reached the point where journalists are being imprisoned or sentenced to death as they are in Iran, Mexico, Russia and Turkey (the leading jailer of journalists). But, as with most Trump obsessions, with this increase of attacks on the news media, can the slippery slope be far off?
The journalists I know are hard-working and mission-driven. They certainly aren’t in it for the money or, for that matter, job security. They’re willing to do the tedious work of chasing down facts, scouring documents, making uncomfortable phone calls and sometimes coming up empty-handed, double and triple checking, all to get the story the public has a right to know. Whether it’s a community paper identifying political payoffs to local officials awarding street paving contracts or a national outlet exposing wrong-doing at the highest levels of government, it is the print and electronic media who are our representatives holding powerful institutions and individuals accountable.
Do they make mistakes? Too often. Do they overreach? Sometimes. Do they occasionally mix news and opinion? The firewall isn’t as clear as it used to be or should be. But, as an editorial in The Guardian pointed out after the killing of five journalists in the Annapolis, MD Capital Gazette, the “real enmity lies not between the press and the people, but the free press (and people) and the powerful.”
Our job, as consumers of news, has become more complicated at a time when social media (sadly, the main source of news for most people) have been expropriated by non-journalists who traffic in made-up stories and falsehoods. Think Pizzagate, the made-up story of Hillary Clinton running a pedophile ring in the basement of a pizza parlor. Probably started by a Russian disinformation operative, advanced by self-serving far-right conspiracy promoters like Breitbart and Alex Jones, retweeted by gullible Hillary haters and eventually picked up by mainstream media, this totally fake story shows how important it is that we all work to sort the wheat from the chaff. But we can’t do it without the serious work of the mainstream news media.
We need to read multiple sources, and we need to be vigilant. And, whether you support or despise the President, please know that on this issue he is dead wrong. The media are not the enemy. They are one of our best friends and must continue to be free to do their job so we can have the information to do ours.