29 May Enemy of the People
Plans change. I’m tempted to write about Jared Kushner. I’m tempted to write about Trump’s mortifying adventures abroad. Even before either of those stories broke, I’d intended to focus this week’s post on the alternative to impeachment.
It’s the alternative that can be more swiftly employed when a president is incapacitated or unable to properly execute the duties of the office: the 25th Amendment. But all that must wait for another week. Because right now, it’s the First Amendment that needs our urgent attention.
Last Wednesday, Republican candidate in Montana’s special election for its sole congressional seat, Greg Gianforte, physically attacked Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian. Jacobs’ tape recorder, still running, captured audio of a scuffle and Gianforte yelling “Get the hell out” and “I’m sick and tired of you guys” [reporters]. Police were called, and an ambulance took Jacobs to the hospital for x-rays. As the audio went public, Gianforte’s campaign issued a brazenly false statement that “aggressive action by a liberal reporter” had precipitated the candidate’s “defense.” This lie unraveled when witnesses in the room—another journalist, Alicia Acuna, and her team—reported that Jacobs had simply asked Gianforte a question about the GOP health-care plan, and had done nothing whatsoever to provoke the body-slam attack, adding, “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground.” She and her team “watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the man.”
And here’s the shocker: Alicia Acuna and her team are with Fox News.
She reported having felt stunned. Indeed, no one in the room stepped forward to intervene or help Jacobs, and when we hear him on tape asking others in the room for their names as witnesses, there’s silence. Perhaps Acosta felt she had to check with Fox News before coming forward; if so, I like to think she fought against any of her bosses there who might have ordered her to shelve the story, a likely outcome had Roger Ailes still been in charge. Maybe there’s hope for Fox News yet. In any event, I congratulate Acuna for acting like a citizen—and a real journalist.
The leading Montana newspapers all withdrew their endorsements of Gianforte, who stands charged with assault. But he won. More than half of the eligible voters had already cast early absentee ballots, with Gianforte favored over Democrat Rob Quist in a state Trump had won by 20 points. There was briefly a question as to Gianforte’s now being ineligible to assume a Congressional seat, but Speaker Paul Ryan made clear he welcomed another Republican, though he suggested “the gentleman” should apologize. Gianforte then did, but only for the physical attack, with not a mention of the bald lie blaming the reporter. His followers shouted back that he need not apologize at all, and one told a reporter present he was lucky not to get “popped,” pointing to the NRA signs all over campaign headquarters. Gianforte has to appear in court before June 7, and if convicted could face six months in jail (highly unlikely) or a $500 fine (he’s a tech millionaire).
Still, two hopeful signs: Quist narrowed the gap, losing by only 6 points. Furthermore, government offices were flooded with phone calls from Montanans wanting to change their early vote. They were told no. Message to Big Sky voters: You can mount a recall campaign, you know!
We are living in a new, golden—and terrifying—age of journalism, due mostly to newspapers (that dying print medium, remember?). The daily, often hourly, breaking-news competition between The Washington Post and The New York Times has raised standards for investigative journalism to new heights. That’s where the golden comes in. The terrifying comes in because abuse of journalists is increasing, and that’s always the frontline that authoritarianism must breach in order to succeed.
Personally, I’ve had it easy. As a public feminist, I’ve lived with hate mail and on occasion physical threat and actual physical violence, for decades, so its increase—and my own security precautions—are so far manageable. Journalists much more visible than I risk a different experience. Newsweek‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Kurt Eichenwald, who has epilepsy, has endured repeated attempts to gravely injure or even kill him via strobe-flashing GIFs deliberately tweeted at him to successfully induce severe seizures from which he barely survived. In such a context, how is it a “joke” when Texas Governor Greg Abbott, after testing some guns at a shooting range last Friday, held up his bullet-riddled target sheet and chuckled, “I’m gonna carry this around in case I see any reporters”?
This sort of escalation, this normalizing of violence against those who practice accurate reporting, can be traced directly to Donald Trump’s rhetoric, his example, and the climate he established and still fosters.
Starting with his campaign, he has consistently provoked rage against reporters, penning the press like cattle at his rallies; urging his followers to jeer at, threaten, and shove them; defending his aides when they rough up reporters; threatening to tighten libel laws, jail journalists, and cease holding press conferences; denouncing stories he doesn’t like as fake news, lying media, witch-hunts; defining the press as the opposition party, the adversary, and finally as the enemy of the people—a term not wielded against the press since Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia.
American journalism, remembering its front-line position in defending democracy by equipping people with truthful information, has risen to the challenge of this verbal and physical battery. Unlike Trump, it has almost always acted responsibly, withholding classified details that could harm individuals or populations. Rudely awakened by the election results, and now armed with checked and re-checked facts, it has fought the rumor, gossip, and propaganda that masquerade as news and metastasize across the Internet.
I’m proud to be part of that fight. Words have always been my passion, and while poetry is my rock foundation and fiction my hearth, political journalism has literally and metaphorically fed me, given me the tools to further ideas I hold dear. These crafts are all related. Great journalism is a process of distillation, like poetry (but on steroids).
When Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem and I founded The Women’s Media Center in 2005, we knew we weren’t the only three who longed to “make women visible and powerful in the media,” because we knew that half the population’s report of reality does not represent reality. We’ve also tried to model a different kind of journalism on my syndicated radio show and iTunes podcast “WMC Live with Robin Morgan.” Over twelve years, individually and via the WMC, we have been gadflies, critical of press institutions—including the newspapers mentioned above—for coverage, hiring, and promotion practices that inadequately welcome women or welcome men of color. That criticism will not abate as long as it’s warranted. But let no one mistake that criticism for anything other than fierce loyalty to our free press, and a resolve to improve, broaden, and strengthen its trustworthiness.
What can you do? Support and subscribe to your local newspapers. Defend our free press in conversations in your communities. Ask yourself and others who is the real enemy of the people: those who report the facts without fear or favor, or those who would control information so as to control public opinion?
Thomas Jefferson and the other Framers could and sometimes did fulminate against the press when they felt coverage was untrue (or too true). But they never doubted that an informed electorate reliant on press freedom was as necessary to democracy as oxygen to a citizen. In 1787, Jefferson wrote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”
That’s why there is only one profession specifically protected by name in The Constitution of the United States: the press.