Chicanery from the bully pulpit: Trump’s threat to democracy and the power of the press

Squish. Stomp. Trounce it like the filthy bug it is. Threats to silence the press and suppress democracy must be addressed swiftly, with dexterity, resolve, and necessary evidence. (Seems that the bugs have rights, too.)  We have the skill and determination to defend our constitutional rights; every generation must defend them afresh. McCarthy’s tyrannical senate hearings tested the resolve of the press early in the Cold War era; Murrow provided the evidence to squish that attempt flat. Nixon abused the press and attempted to stomp on the Constitution when streaking was a thing and Nixon was hiding a cover-up; Woodward and Bernstein followed the money; tricky Dick was out. (I was only a kid then, and now when I think about it, I’m pissed that Ford pardoned him.) President Trump’s daily histrionic chicanery vilifying the press must be squashed just as the skullduggery of McCarthy and Nixon was crushed. Eventually.

As the journalism team that reported on the Nixon administration’s Watergate scandal in the 1970s, Woodward and Bernstein are not strangers to the negative consequences of anonymous sources, having made one error in reporting a source in the course of that series of articles.  Yet, without their investigative journalism, history surrounding the Nixon administration might have turned out quite differently.  Any reasonable person will agree that we are all subject to human flaws, error and poor judgment among them.  Journalists are subject to the same human flaws just as the rest of us, but theirs are public – and sometimes cause severe harm. Journalists are keenly aware of this, and those with integrity follow the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Ethical journalists seek to establish credibility and secure the trust of their audience; they do not cite anonymous sources lightly. It is always preferable to be able to cite a source; however, it is sometimes necessary to provide confidential protection for a source at risk. Available on the internet, anyone can find guidelines regarding anonymous sources for The Reuters Handbook of Journalism, NPR, and the Society of Professional Journalists.* Anyone with a twitter account and an internet connection can find these guidelines.

A confidential source is the least preferable type of source because it is most likely to be challenged.  Any professional journalist or researcher establishes and verifies the credibility of sources.  No professional journalist knowingly risks publishing inaccurate information; the subject of an article can dismiss the information and as a lie or claim that the story is “fake news.”  Journalists of integrity know it isn’t their job to tell people how to think; rather it is a journalist’s job to point to information worthy of the attention and scrutiny of the public. Good journalism acknowledges bias and endeavors to present balanced, impartial information. Professional journalists can err and occasionally do make poor choices regarding sources; the consequences are harsh.  Few journalists who have made such errors in judgment recover their credibility and the trust of the public; those who regain the public’s trust are heavily scrutinized for months, years, or perhaps the rest of their lives. Sensationalist tabloid reporters are not hard to find, but I wouldn’t call them journalists.

We need journalists like Edward R. Murrow, whose investigative journalism exposed Senator McCarthy‘s fanatic, unconstitutional crusade against ‘suspected’ communists in the 1950s. We need journalists like Woodward and Bernstein who are willing to investigate and expose government corruption and wrongdoing. We rely on journalists to be the watchdogs of democracy, and, when errors are made, to retract those errors quickly and clearly.  We will not abide a dishonest press; likewise, we will not tolerate being lied to by the President, or any other elected official.

And we certainly will not abide a president who attempts to bully the press and US citizens into submission and servile fealty at his every whim and bluster. McCarthy learned that lesson as a senator. Nixon learned that lesson as a President. Other presidents and senators who dare to stomp on the Constitution will learn that lesson.
chicanery_2-19-2017Eventually.

But we aren’t willing to wait for eventually; we can’t afford to wait. If our democracy is to work the way it was designed to work, the press cannot be stifled, and legitimate anonymous sources must be protected. Informants who are willing to risk their income, and perhaps more, in order to reveal government corruption, illegal practices, and/or gross negligence by elected public officials or their appointees should have their identity protected.  People trusted Murrow, a well-respected journalist of integrity and perseverance who stood up and told truth to power and to the people.

Yes, reliable journalists DO refer to anonymous sources and investigate tips with deliberate care, but what about those who call themselves journalists but are mere hacks who prey on the misfortunes of others? That is the condition of free speech and a fair marketplace. Some people are attracted to the hacks who publish misinformation and  rumor in sensationalist articles. It is STILL a free country; but civic-minded, critical thinking citizens will recognize hackery tabloid reporting for what it is: entertainment, not journalism.

Failure to hold either the press or elected officials accountable is deliberate civic negligence or apathetic ignorance.

Some will choose negligence or ignorance rather than civic engagement. We all have free will, not everyone uses it in the same way. But we all enjoy the rights and protections under the First Amendment.

To paraphrase, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and prohibits the government from restricting freedom of the press; it also prohibits the government from establishing a religion or favoring any religion over another as well as guaranteeing our right to peacefully assemble and petition the government to address our grievances.

We must embrace our rights, hold them sacred, memorize them, and trounce every threat made against them by anyone, up to and including the President of the United States.

President Theodore Roosevelt offers excellent advice regarding the accountability to which a president is subject in a letter published in the Kansas City Star on May 7, 1918:

SEDITION, A FREE PRESS, AND PERSONAL RULE

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.”

Our Constitutional rights are only as secure as our present generation; the next generation will not inherit those rights unless we protect and defend them against those who threaten them.

We cannot take our democracy for granted. Subscribe to a reliable source for investigative journalism.Don’t believe everything on the internet. When the people stand together, democracy will thrive.

*In addition to the hyperlinked sources, I found background information on journalism at INQUIRIES Journal, an online open-access academic peer-reviewed journal, and I consulted the version of Roosevelt’s letter included in the book, The Nation at War (1918).
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