Contrary to President’s Comments, Media Protects Democracy
March 22, 2017
Filed under Opinion
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Some part of me has always been drawn to journalism. Where others idealized nurses or firefighters or admired the sea-shell pink and tan-colored leotards of ballerinas, I found a more uncommon career to which to aspire; the heroes of my youth were the journalists on CNN and NBC, those serious-faced reporters who stood in downpours, seemingly unaffected by the weather, or the idiotic waving of civilians behind them, those tough question-slingers whose loafers could be heard squeaking in hallways as they persistently questioned politicians who attempted to duck the camera and the public’s scrutiny.
For as long as I care to remember, I’ve held two images of patron saints: the first a grainy image of F. Scott Fitzgerald tucked into my wallet, the latter a scene stolen from our kitchen TV of a dark haired journalist in an obnoxious yellow raincoat, reporting despite a storm.
Having grown up in a family of intellectuals, a grandfather scientist, a lawyer mother, the Irish heritage which held so high the value of education, truth was always my imperative. In a way, I have never given up my desire for the truth. Just as it was never enough, in elementary school, when someone said they might have served snickerdoodles at so-and-so’s birthday party, today it is not enough to know that a friend might have gone out Saturday night, or that a classmate may or may not have achieved a perfect score on a recent test. I’ve never put stock in indefinites. What I’ve wanted for many years, maybe my whole life, is for the world to be broken down into the simplicity of newspaper columns. I want facts. I want certainty.
Given my immediate family’s lack of religious denomination, we have no pompousness, little ceremony. When I had to study for a math test and miss out on the usual routine of buying the Christmas tree as a family, there was no pushback. There was not so much as a recognition in the change of our familial inertia. We just keep going, not propelled by any force or spirit, but by our sheer and unwavering dedication to the truth.
The kitchen TV is our family’s shrine, is a nod to what we regard highest: the truth. For as long as I can remember my mother littered the space around it with articles from The New Yorker, the WSJ, the NYT. Where other families have a shared baseball team–enter my cousins’ Red Sox obsession–or a common culinary taste–enter another family member’s daily potato routine–mine has the journalistic news media as a catheter for communication. There is a familial patriotism fostered in our common journalistic imbibing; my mother sends New Yorker articles in our family group message with no need of elaboration; a Sunday hasn’t passed where my father hasn’t volleyed snippets of the week’s Wall Street Journal from his sun-basked office chair to my mother across the hall.
Our kitchen table is my haven, because it is in this location that I am comforted by the usual sounds and colors, the familiar visceral indications of my youth: the smell of cooking onions, the voices of news anchors on the screen, the cherry colored band marked “CNN” as permanent a piece of our house’s worst TV as the screen itself. The locked liquors are kept in a cabinet beneath this TV; it is here that I throw a New Yorker for which, at present, I am too busy, where my father prepares his wine, where my mother hovers protectively at the suggestion we eat a meal without a place for Anderson Cooper.
Given this particularly reverent attitude for the news my formative years have cultivated, one of the most jarring aspects of the recent presidential election for me was the conservative backlash against the “liberal news media.” This recent anti-journalistic rhetoric is not upsetting because of the aim it takes at my childhood heroes, however, but more so because of the aim it takes at the very values those heroes represent, the values we understand as so fundamentally American.
New President Donald Trump, like him or not, has threatened limiting the press, an age-old means of controlling thought and issuing state-mandated propaganda. He recently took to Twitter to express his belief that the news media, listing reputable publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, is “the enemy of the American People!” You’ve probably heard a lot of talk about this controversial comment; in fact, you’ve probably read a lot of articles about it. But what, really, you may be asking yourself, is the importance of the news media after all?
The Associated Press defines the purpose of journalism as communication that keeps us informed of the changing events, issues, and characters in the world outside. Though it may be interesting or even entertaining, the foremost value of news is as a utility to empower the informed.
A few weeks ago in English we talked about the idea of subjectivity being involved in all aspects of life, in the idea that one cannot remove reality from the eyes through which it is seen, just as one cannot, by our world’s principles, remove an image from the film on which it is captured. Each of us is biased in our view of the world; the scope of our perception of our surroundings are, by our very nature, inherently limited.
Take, for a bad example, the varied connotation of the phrase “apple picking”. Having grown up in the Northeast, I understand apple-picking as a common, autumn tradition. I look favorably upon the phrase. My friends however, having neither any background with nor nostalgic stock in this tradition, have a different connotation. At my suggestion this fall that my friends partake in the activity, this became apparent when one friend asked, “Why would we drive two hours to pick fruit we could buy at Safeway?” To me this was an affront on a childhood tradition; to my friend, it was a logical response.
While it is obvious we can never free ourselves of subjectivity, it is also obvious that the pursuit of objectivity is one, if not the greatest, of our worldly pursuits. The pursuit of objectivity is the pursuit of a knowledge from which we achieve the kind of fair, logical, and moral decisions responsible for society’s progress.
Take the case of an experience I’ve drawn out of the papel picado and anxiety-ridden recesses of my high school acquaintance with the Spanish language. It was a Thursday, test day, and in bubbly purple Expo marker the word prueba (test) was sprawled across the whiteboard. Having spent multiple days studying conjugation charts and lists of farm animals and fruits and vegetables, the word scrawled on the board caused me no discomfort. The same, however, couldn’t be said for one of my classmates, a girl in a magenta Lululemon shirt to whom the word “prueba” had evidently come as a surprise strong enough to send her back through the same door she had just entered.
Journalism students, myself included, might sometimes grow bored with the 5 W’s (who, what, when, where, why), but the fact is that these words are more than news article requirements; they are markers relevant to all situations. Because she had not (for whatever fault, probably her own) been presented the facts of the situation, she was not able to make the most logical or moral decision in that situation.
Had she been presented with the who, what, when, where, why, she would have been prepared to make this kind of decision. The “who” would have told her that she was taking the test, the “what” would have told her what it was: the test. “When” would have told her the date, “where” the room number, “why” the teacher or the textbook’s objective in the test. Had she had access to factual information, which is the very information journalists provide through a democratic and free press, she would have been sitting in her chair instead of fleeing the room, easily conjugating “to run” into “nosotros form” instead of experiencing her pulse beat out a war song against the purple athletic fabric across her chest.
In other words, journalism is a tool for existing in as close proximity to the kind of objectivity conducive to fairness and morality as we can. Where, as humans, our lenses for viewing and therefore for acting in the world are inherently fogged by our own perception, journalism is a means of translation, like GoogleMaps or the dictionary.
The role journalism plays in the daily life of an American is often forgotten. In a nation where the nightly news is a multi-billion dollar powerhouse, that Trump’s presidency poses a threat to the strength of the media may seem less than frightening, but the fact is that little of the world has access to a free and unadulterated press.
If we learned anything from this past election it’s that, despite those self-aggrandizing superlatives which suggest otherwise: it can happen here. If Trump’s presidency does nothing else of benefit for the American people, it will have at least succeeded in convincing them of that fact. Though many will argue otherwise, we are not, nor have we ever been invincible. We are a nation no more or less at the mercy of the world’s will and actions than is any other nation. The dangers we face today, suppression of the press among them, are not ones from which we were previously guarded, but rather are long-present threats whose respective likelihoods have proceeded to skyrocket with Trump’s election.
In 2013, Freedom House, a U.S. based 501 U.S. Government funded non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, reported that “less than 14 percent of the world’s people—or roughly one in six—live in countries where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.”
An easy way to understand the freedom of press we enjoy in the states is to contrast our national procedures with that of less journalistically privileged nations. In holding America’s freedoms against those of a society such as North Korea or Russia, our privileges become glaring.
In North Korea there is only one word, and that word comes from the government. According to Foreignpolicy.com, the country’s constitution outlines that “News coverage should conform to the ‘collective spirit,'” an Orwellian phrase that in practice means building up the image of the leader as loved by his own people and feared by everyone else and condemning regime critics as “hyenas,” ” jackals,” and other stock insults from an archaic totalitarian vocabulary that other dictatorships abandoned decades ago.” The site also notes that for average North Korean citizens, “web access is available only to nationwide intranet — the Kwangmyong — that does not link to foreign sites,” a development which squelches hopes many entertained about Internet news media such as CNN.com and other like sites acting as a force of truth.
News coverage is equally dim in countries such as Turkmenistan, Cuba and Russia, whose conditions many have understood to be similar to those of a Soviet state. Foreignpolicy.com reports that when human rights defender Nataliya Shabunts criticized the Turkmenistan government in a interview, “a blood sheep’s head was placed at her door,” and that in Cuba “the sentence for writing ‘counterrevolutionary’ articles for foreign websites is 20 years.”
The Guardian similarly reports that 49 journalists have been murdered in Russia since 1992, painting the statistic’s gore with a personal focus. The subject of this focus is Russian journalist Mikhail Beketov, editor of Khimkinskaya Pravda, a newspaper notorious for reporting government corruption. Under the strict press suppression in Russia, Beketov has seen his car set aflame, his dog left dead on his front lawn, and recently, an attack in which he was beat near to death, from which he has emerged in a dangerous coma.
Beketov’s friend Ludmilla Fedotova told The Guardian of this phenomenon, painting a bloody image of the measures regimes outside of America take to suppress government criticism and to rein public opinion. “When I saw him he looked terrible,” said Fedotova, “His face is all swollen. His skin looks like glass. He has a tube in his throat. It’s very dangerous in Russia to be a journalist who writes the truth.”
While the atrocities that mar countries such as Russia seem distant to us, that our nation managed to elect an unpredictable and dangerous demagogue this past November brings such atrocities nearer than they perhaps have ever been. Our identity as a people, in whatever italics and under whatever pretenses we place it, is by no measure a safeguard against our democracy’s frailty. In order to make moral and fair decisions we need access to facts, and in an increasingly divided, bi-partisan political sphere in which some are willing to swallow fake massacres and “alternative facts,” the truth is that we need facts more than we ever have before.
A recent article on NPR notes that, “Traditional journalists have long believed that this form of fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy and that without enough of this healthy nourishment, democracy will weaken, sicken, or even fail.” We may not have the kind of democratic fatality case on our hands as citizens of nations such as Russia or Cuba do, but with a President who’s pegged the news media as “the enemy of the American people,” a statement which couldn’t be farther from the reality that the media is the watchdog of corruption, the ally of ethics, it appears many of us have, in fact, forgotten the very core values of our society. Freedom of speech is not only an amendment in our Constitution, but the first. It is the touchstone, the foundation, the freedom from which all succeeding freedoms follow.
If Trump aims to “Make America Great Again” he surely does not intend to make America America again, for America, despite the surge of belief to the contrary, is not the press-shuttering, diversity-discouraging and fear-mongering society he aims for it to be. If he aims to return to some past glory he surely does not intend that clear-eyed revolutionary spirit in which the rest of us believe, for it was Thomas Jefferson himself who said that, were it left to him to decide between a government without newspapers and newspapers without a government he “should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Trump says that he is rebuilding America, but one wonders at the construction of which he speaks; his is a place in which up is down, economic progress is tax breaks given to those with annual household incomes over $125,000, gender equality is the defunding of Planned Parenthood, equal opportunity for young Americans is decreased funding to programs for young people such as the National Endowment for the Arts, and safety is the scaling down of the Coast Guard to allow for the building up of a stronger standing army to interfere in matters thousands of miles from America’s shores.
In other words, Trump is not building America up to whatever state he’s convinced others he’s aiming at. Trump is not building America up at all. He’s breaking it down. He’s chipping with his racism, his arrogance, his dangerous lack of self-control at the very values we hold dearest. Clinton understood this in stating that “America never stopped being great” and that the task lays not in seeking some vague definition of greatness, but rather in making our nation “whole again.” But we did not listen to Clinton. We ignored her message of the importance of kindness, the importance of truth; it is for this error that we are in the position we are now, shaking frightened as though adults forced into a bomb shelter by their own inability for reconciliation, like children nursing wounds from dangers of which they had been warned.
Clinton was right. We need to make America whole again. We need to come together as a nation. Abraham Lincoln said that “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” and his words ring no less true today than they rang a hundred years ago. We cannot go on forever engaged in the bi-partisan war in which we are now engaged; we cannot progress as we currently exist, two respective kiddie soccer teams in red and blue, divided by a stretch of field, staring out at each other with a rage but failing to move, furious and immobile with an anger that would be more effective, less corrosive, were it channeled into action.
We need to talk about the issues that define us as a people. We need to lay out plans to combat these issues. We need to come together. Most of all, because it is the foundation from which we will do all else, we need to arm ourselves with facts.
Despite what Republicans will do or say to convince you otherwise, Trump’s squandering of truth is not a bi-partisan issue. As actress Ruth Negga stated in explaining her support of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), “Human rights has very little to do with politics.” As the ACLU itself stated on their website, “Once the government has the power to violate one person’s rights, it can use that power against everyone.” In other words, the dangers presented by his attack on the press and the liberties it guards are a danger to both Democrats and Republicans.
Images which capture other countries’ suppressed freedoms–Mikhail Beketov’s face battered with bruises and skin hung like fractured glass, the empty and brightly-hued boxes of North Korea’s fake grocery stores, mailboxes opened to decapitated chicken heads in Belarus–appear outcomes from which our physical isolation and believed ideological upper-hand spare us, but so too did Brexit’s violently nationalist turn appear other-worldly before our own shift; so too did sweeping gashes in our national identity seem improbable before we came to sustain them.
That the president of the United States, a job title which usually supposes that unofficial moniker “leader of the free world” referred to journalists as the people’s enemy is so preposterous that it would be easy to find it humorous–that is, if such treatment of a threat to American freedoms wasn’t, as it is, so incredibly dangerous. Trump’s comment as it stands is not a joke. Neither is it normal. It is an act of aggression against the very cornerstone of our national identity. It is this kind of speech itself, and not the journalists who highlight for the people its danger, which is the people’s enemy.
Far from enemies, journalists like Beketov are the watchdogs of corruption, the guards of truth, the persistent voices holding the powerful accountable for their freedom-squelching transgressions. And from where we now stand, sustaining bruises as Beketov does, they remain our friends, our peers, the citizens who, in our mission for a more whole and equal America, have revealed themselves as our last and loyal allies.