Truthtellers, a Free Press, and How Women Will Save the Republic

In a normal presidential election year—which this definitely is not—I might criticize my colleagues in the media for insufficiently reporting crucial news stories that don’t necessarily bleed, so don’t get to lead. For example, newly released Census Bureau annual reports on 2015 told us important news—that there was rapid growth in the incomes of ordinary families—median income rose a remarkable 5.2%—and a substantial decline in the poverty rate, plus a significant further rise in health insurance coverage after 2014 gains. Paul Krugman, the Nobel Award winning economist who writes a column for the New York Times, noted that this was a trifecta we haven’t hit since 1999.

But the only place I read or heard about that—and I’m a media junkie—was in his column. Had there been widespread coverage of such a story, including in online and broadcast media, it might’ve gone some way toward comforting people who feel no change has happened or is possible.

I’ve said before that had the media stepped up a year earlier to investigate both candidates with real equivalency—that is, with the same dogged intensity devoted for 30 years to only one of the two—we would not be in the situation we’re in today, where one of our great political parties is fracturing in agony, and the populace is confused and angry.

In fact, proof of the power of an active and healthy media is now palpably clear, in the public reaction since those same colleagues have in the past few months finally brought us investigative reporting worthy of Pulitzer Prizes, in particular David Farenthold of the Washington Post and Kurt Eichenwald of Newsweek.

Sadly, broadcast media has not done its part—ironic, since people are busy announcing that print media is dying. Yet in investigative reporting and on editorial pages across this country, print media has excelled in trying to address the crisis posed by this bizarre election.

In other words, writers and editors in print media have been committing journalism.

As for radio and television news, well, some say you can’t blame a TV executive for aiming at high ratings and consequent huge advertising profits.

Yeah? Like this widely reported statement by Les Moonves, chairman of CBS: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. The money’s rolling in, and this is fun. It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Then there’s Jeff Zucker, who, when appointed head of the NBC Entertainment Division in 2000, brought on a little show called “The Apprentice”—which became such a ratings machine that 7 years later Zucker was named president and CEO of NBC Universal overall. Under Zucker, NBC fell from being the number one rated network to the lowest rated of the four broadcast networks. He was paid between $30 and $40 million to leave NBC Universal. Nice golden parachute.

But Zucker rebounded and in 2013 became head of CNN Worldwide—the third-most-trafficked news outlet in the world, attracting more than 120 million unique visitors to its web and mobile properties.

And starting in 2015, it was Zucker who set a competitive ratings standard for other cable news stations by giving his former reality show star vast amounts of free exposure in the presidential primary, and at speeches and rallies—coverage usually lacking critical fact-checking. And Zucker recently hired as a CNN commentator former Trump campaign manager Corey Landowski.

But what, you may ask, is an executive who started out heading the entertainment division of a network doing as president of CNN worldwide, anyway? Ted Turner, founder of CNN, envisioned 24/7 coverage of real news. (True, cable news networks these days only seem able to cover one story at a time 24/7—either the hurricane or the election—when news actually happens, surprise!: in multiple forms and concurrently. Then again, there’s always the blessed reliable dullness of PBS or the BBC.)

Corporate journalism is as much a reality as it is an oxymoron. But. When the suits in the corner offices are forced to unleash the journalists themselves, the press does do its job—often brilliantly and at considerable personal cost.

An October 7 article by Kurt Eichenwald in Newsweek‘s “The Scoop,” detailed how someone tried to murder him via the Internet. Eichenwald has never made a secret of having epilepsy, controlled but not completely. He’d written earlier criticizing Fox News commentator Sean Hannity for falsely proclaiming that Hillary Clinton suffered from seizures because she acted goofy in a video clip. Eichenwald wrote that Hannity was propagating stereotypes about people with seizures. A few weeks later, Newsweek ran an Eichenwald investigative piece on Trump business interests. The journalist then got a tweet from someone with the handle “Mike’s deplorable AF.” The tweet, since deleted, mentioned seizures and included a video. It contained images of Pepe the frog, a cartoon character identified by the Antidefamation League as a hate symbol of the alt right. The video then turned into a strobe light with flashing circles. That’s called epileptogenic—something that triggers severe seizures. Eichenwald dropped his iPad the instant he realized what was happening, escaping a violent seizure that could well have killed him. He has received innumerable death threats, some anti-Semitic (though he’s Episcopalian) and some of which named (accurately) the schools his kids attend. For the first time in his distinguished career, Eichenwald consulted his family as to whether he should pursue his coverage. They stood by him, as he continues to stand by the truth.

He’s hardly the only journalist exposed to violent racist and sexist threats by forces unearthed and given permission to thrive by the Trump campaign.

Charles Blow, African American columnist for the New York Times, has been bombarded with racist emails. Katy Tur of NBC famously had to be escorted from a Trump rally by Secret Service to protect her from the crowd, which had been urged against her, by name, in the speech. She too gets death threats. So does Bethany Mandel, a conservative essayist who questioned Trump’s being a real conservative—she’s been so violently attacked on social media that she bought a gun for protection. Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for the Atlantic, received emails informing him he’d be sent to a camp after the election. Julia Ioff, a Jewish journalist, received tweets showing an anti-Semitic caricature of a Jewish man on his knees being shot in the back of the head. Jonathan Wiseman, Deputy Washington editor of the New York Times, was bombarded with tweets saying “Get used to it you fucking kike. You people will be made to pay for the fraud you’ve committed against us.”

Eichenwald wrote, “This is not an unavoidable consequence of a contentious political campaign. This is exceptional. That our country has reached this point, where the line between modern American political supporters and Hitler’s brownshirts is becoming thinner by the day, is unacceptable. That GOP candidates have stood by and allowed this ugliness to flourish without aggressively condemning their candidate for what he has set loose, will stain the Republican Party for decades.”

That, my friends, is the voice of a journalist.

May there be more of him, as our press now remembers it’s a free press—and finally begins to step up to meet this challenge.

Meanwhile, there are people who are stepping up—like an army of truthtellers.

Women are making history in this election and in this country, right now, as you hear this these words.

In the wake of already notorious taped comments made by two men on a bus about sexually assaulting women, which in turn were followed by the second presidential debate, a woman named Kelly Oxford took to social media, writing: “Women: tweet me your first assaults. They aren’t just stats. I’ll go first: old man on city bus grabs my “Pussy” and smiles at me. I’m 12.” Kelly Oxford later said she’d expected no more than a handful of replies since it was such a personal question, yet by the next morning she was getting as many as 50 responses per minute, often explicit first person accounts of molestation. This became hashtag not okay as tweets continued to pour in—in two days, nearly 27 million people had responded or visited Oxford’s Twitter page.

One woman tweeted “This is rape culture—the conditioning of men and boys to feel entitled to treat women as objects.” Another wrote that she’d never before thought about those moments cumulatively, in part because they seemed not worthy of consideration compared to what many women experience. That’s because, she added, “All of us already live in Trump’s world, where these behaviors are commonplace.”

This is the power of social media, but even more, this is the power of women. Keep in mind that this happened days before other women began coming forward in waves with personal testaments specific to their experiences, which appallingly match the boasts on the bus.

This groundswell of women rising up to tell the truth about their lives, which we have done again and again for almost half a century, unheard, now cannot be stopped. It’s not a conspiracy by the media, the RNC, the DNC, any campaign’s political opposition research, or even the feminist movement. It’s simply the truth. Sexual violence against women in myriad forms is epidemic.

But this time, the reaction is changing in men. While some are calling for the repeal of the 19th Amendment (no joke), male athletes in major league baseball and football and basketball are coming forward to say that such supposed “locker room talk” doesn’t happen in their locker rooms. Many more men, men of conscience, are taking to social media and traditional media and in conversations across this land to stand with women and our rights as human beings.

The First Lady of the United States declares, “It is intolerable that a powerful individual bragged about sexually assaulting women. This is not normal. This is not politics as usual.”

News breaking on this issue and its effect on the election, is now a volcanic eruption, flowing with such volume and speed it can’t possibly be covered in a one hour weekly program such as this. But I can say that although a woman is close to becoming the first female president of the United States, history will reveal the bigger story—that women all over this country, and indeed the planet, are demanding to be heard in a louder chorus than ever before.

I think of the late poet Muriel Ruckeyser’s lines, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

It’s splitting open, people. It’s splitting open.