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In Defense of Journalism

The front page of the June 18, 1972 issue of the Washington Post centered around the Nixon administration’s efforts in North Vietnam, Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern’s chances in the New York primary, and an impending US appeals court ruling involving an airline pilot strike and its demands for stronger protections against hijacking. However, among the other articles on the front page, one became the most important, not only for that day, but for the ensuing two years. “5 Held in Plot to Bug Democrats’ Office Here,” was the headline for an article by veteran Post reporter Alfred Lewis. “Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here,” Lewis reported.

It was the beginning of the “long, national nightmare” of Watergate, a scandal so deep and so intricate that it took two years, multiple news reports, congressional testimonies, and a near impeachment to end. The linchpin that kept democracy safe against further abuses of the 37th President was a free press, the news. Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein’s subsequent reporting in the Washington Post blew the story wide open, took down a president, and made them legends in the process. A free press and unadulterated journalism pushed Richard M. Nixon to resign and for Washington to clean up what had gone wrong for so very long.

It is easy to make parallels from Watergate to our own times. Perhaps our White House’s current occupant is as corrupt, if not more corrupt, than “Tricky Dick.” However the chips may fall with regards to Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with the Russians, it was because of good, unfaltering journalism that we know about it. And a lot of it has come from the very same institution that went after Nixon: the Washington Post.

As it is easy to mention Watergate, it is equally easy to trash the press. Many times, they make it easy for us. When three CNN reports recently went too early and played too loose with sources on a Trump-Russia story, they were asked to resign. Weeks later, CNN went after a reddit user who had a created a WWE-style, smackdown gif of Trump, body slamming a person with their logo over his face, that the president later tweeted. The redditor has since apologized and removed his original gif, but the news network wrote:

CNN is not publishing “HanA**holeSolo’s” name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same. CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.

The last sentence, which sent shockwaves through the American zeitgeist, amounted to what some called “blackmail.” In fact, there was even a hashtag started, “CNNblackmail,” addressing their step of potential editorial overreach.

I agree with the critics of CNN in concluding that its actions were extremely unethical, not to mention downright silly. Our country faces immense challenges and you’re wasting time and news copy on a person who goes by the name, “HanAssholeSolo”? It gives Trump and all those who seek to undermine the press the very fuel they need to continue their crusades. CNN shouldn’t have let it get to it and focused on good reporting and solid analysis. But it is cable news, so it doesn’t always act idealistically.

Despite its problems, a free and independent press is essential for the flourishing of our American democracy. Journalism is a bulwark against those who oppress, undermine, and disparage a free society. The post-inaugural success of outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post speaks to just how important the press is as an institution. They do get things wrong, but the difference between them and Trump, for the most part, is they own their mistakes. When the CNN reporters ran their Trump-Russia story too early, they apologized, retracted the piece, and left CNN respectfully. Imagine Trump apologizing for a falsehood or a complete fabrication. It’s pretty difficult to, right? The press will get things wrong; it doesn’t mean they should be disregarded outright.

It’s pretty fashionable to disparage the media these days. It seems like everyone is getting in on it, despite the fact that it is an indispensable part of our lives and social contract. The goal shouldn’t be to abandon the press altogether. Rather, one should use critical thinking when reading a story. Read something a couple of times. Check the sources in the piece. If an article has hyperlinks, click on them and check out what they’re citing. Read an opposing viewpoint; read many of them. And most importantly, don’t get too comfortable in your own bubble. We all have them; puncture yours every once and awhile and see if you learn something in the process. More often than not, you will.

This issue (no pun intended) matters to me because I see the big picture in ways that others have not. I work with historic newspapers from the state of Indiana every single working day. I’ve seen nearly 200 years of papers, from before we were a state to just a few years ago. It gives me a broader and less cynical perspective. Papers back then were wildly partisan and got things wrong all the time! Some even told you their leanings in the masthead. Papers like the Greencastle Democrat and the Marshall County Republican let you know right off the bat just what kind of paper they were. It compels me, as an historian, to look at multiple papers about the same topic, to get a flavor of how people thought about it back then. People these days think that there was a time when news wasn’t partisan, it was just about the “facts.” That’s a load of bullshit. In reality, papers were incredibly biased and gave you just as much commentary as they did pure news content. That doesn’t mean they weren’t important or weren’t valuable; it just underscored how a free and open press will give you so many ways of seeing events. Your job as a citizen was, and still is, to separate the wheat from the chaff, the good reporting from nonsense.

The reason we must be mindful of journalism’s place in our society is that it is the very thing that can keep our country free. Watergate, the failures of Vietnam, Iran Contra, the failed War in Iraq, and the alleged corruption of the Trump administration were all brought to light by journalism. They work tirelessly, and often thanklessly, to get the story right. They fail, like all people do, but it shouldn’t completely destroy our confidence in them. If we do, our civic life will fall apart. Thus, the founders believed that a free press lived at the heart of our American experiment. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “. . . 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 that latter.” I feel exactly the same way.

The Special Comment: What are we to make of Georgia 6th?

So, what to make of last week’s Georgia 6th special congressional election? The most expensive congressional race in American history, the Democrats were hoping to pull off an upset that would upend President Trump’s chances at a post-election mandate by the voters. Sadly, this didn’t happen. Instead, Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff by 3.8 percent of the vote. Ossoff did worse in this election than Hillary Clinton did last November, when Trump won the district by only 1.5 percent. Are the Democrats right to be worried about their prospects in the era of Trump? Should Republicans celebrate this victory and then prepare for the future battle of the 2018 midterms?

I think it is a little of both. The Democrats put too much stock in this election, overspending and overhyping a candidate that wasn’t much to write home about. While the enthusiasm was there, Ossoff himself was a generic person with a generic campaign message in an age that demands clear ideas. He refused to go after Trump, to talk more about the impending health care repeal, and to make clear distinctions between him and his opponent. He seems like a nice guy, but he couldn’t get over the “carpetbagger” narrative. While Georgia election laws allow a candidate to live anywhere in the state while running for a specific congressional district, that fact that he didn’t live in the district was politically disastrous. His reasoning was that he lived with his fiancee, a training medical student whose residence is close to where she works. Laudable personal choice; terrible political choice.

Also, Handel was well known in her district. She had served in state government and had run multiple times for higher elected office. In many respects, she had a running start. The 6th Congressional District had to be filled when Tom Price left congress to become Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary. When he won reelection in 2016, he won by more than 20% against a largely nonexistent democrat the apparently only spent around $350. It was also former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s district. The fact that Democrats did as well as they did is pretty remarkable.

Here’s my message to the Democrats. I applaud your efforts in trying to win this race. It shows that you understand the importance of local elections again. However, the special election in South Carolina, which occurred on the same day and you seemed not to care as much about, was even closer than Georgia. There’s a trend happening here that favors the Democrats. Nevertheless, you’re 0-4 in these special election races. Think about what you could’ve done better, regroup, and come back ten times as hard. There’s no time to waste.

Now is the time to focus on the 2018 midterms. Educate people on the policies you support and play to their identities as well. If you’re in a working class district, focus on jobs, economic growth, wage fairness, and health care. If you’re in a white collar district, talk about tax reform, economic growth, and paid family leave. If you’re in a minority district, focus on the issues of police overreach, mass incarceration, wage fairness, and improving education.

Democrats should rebuild their part as a big tent, with working class labor, white collar business, and minority activism. However, these groups need to put their smaller, ideological differences aside and focus on the big, electoral picture. Identity politics can only take you so far; you also need to focus on economic issues as well. If they do, Democrats have a good shot at taking back the house in 2018. For now, fight the craziness of Trump & give voters a distinct choice, because if the choices are republican and republican light, people will go republican. Rediscover what it means to be a Democrat; be the party that embraces and celebratespoliticall, as well as cultural and ethnic, diversity. Then you will win and the Republicans will never know what hit them.

Point of Crisis

The United States hinges on trust. Trust in our institutions; trust in our people; trust in our laws; trust in our traditions. Our “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” endure explicitly from the ability of our citizenry to have faith in the leaders of our nation. Sadly, the past few months have shown that this trust has frayed to a cataclysmic degree.

As Thomas Paine once wrote in “The American Crisis,” “these are the times that try men’s souls.” I would most certainly agree. We are living in our own American crisis, with a president unwilling to listen, unphased by embarrassment, undisciplined to the call of duty. James Comey’s testimony last week underscored a central problem our country has had since Donald Trump took office nearly six months ago: we have a completely incapable man-child at the helm of the greatest country on Earth. A thug, no better than the plutocrats that he adores, and with one in particular, helped him win office. It pains me to say this, but every day Trump occupies the oval office our country creeps towards becoming a Banana Republic.

And yet, the Republicans largely don’t acknowledge this mess. Paul Ryan told us to be patient with Trump, that “he’s new to this. . . .” Well I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough. What if the Democratic leadership had said that about Obama when he took office? The GOP certainly wouldn’t think this was good enough. The utter spinelessness of these people highlights that the resistance has much more to do. We have to fight smarter, harder, and with more determination.

The defeat of Trump and all he stands for represents a bulwark against the internal machinations that are destroying the United States, and broadly, Western Civilization. We have to put our petty divisions aside and do what is best for the country. For the Republicans, it means starting to acknowledge that your experiment with populism failed, that Trump has decimated your moral standing as a political institution, and that you must truly stand for limited government by checking his executive grabs and abuses of power. For the Democrats, that means being a steadfast resistance, interrupting town halls, emailing and calling your elected officials, and come out strong at the ballot boxes in 2018.

If we want a world that is more reasonable, more tolerant, and more secular, than Trump’s defeat is a necessary fight. The world is watching how we respond to this. We can’t let his immovable “38%” control how the rest of us want to live. We are the point of crisis; let’s rise to the challenge.