Enemy of the People
Murphy Gardiner, the fictional reporter in Burying My Dead, was born Lili Gardiner, but her inquisitive nature at an early age earned her the nickname “Murphy” after the TV sitcom character Murphy Brown. “I make my living gathering facts,” Murphy muses. “Untangling concepts. Solving puzzles. It’s in my genes.” She doesn’t make her living trying to destroy the public she serves.
So I could not let this week go by without heaping this modest blog atop the 300-plus newspaper editorials that collectively defended the freedom and integrity of the press against a president who declares that the media is “the enemy of the people” and that all news that does not comport with his view of “the facts” is fake. Powerful sentiments in support of journalists were echoed in editorial columns from coast to coast, in well-known papers like the New York Times and rural papers like the Freeman Courier in South Dakota. Other prestigious papers, like the San Francisco Examiner and the Washington Post, declined to participate in the show of solidarity, citing concerns that the effort, according to the Seattle Times editorial, “plays directly into the president’s us-versus-him narrative that the news media is of one mind, we don’t like him and are doing everything we can to sink his presidency.” The irony, of course, is that even these newspapers had to explain their stand, and, in the process, created their own defense of an independent media.
Everyone agrees that tension between media and government is not new. It is, in fact, almost the definition of the relationship. Ask questions, look behind the curtain, provide another perspective. Editorials serve their role, too, in a country that used to pride itself on a vibrant exchange of views. Boy, how times have changed. I find myself longing for the reasoned arguments made politely by conservative William Buckley on Firing Line. Today, thanks to Trump’s repeated, strategic attacks on the media, 85 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents says that the news media has a negative effect on the country, up from 68 percent in 2010. Those statistics come from Pew Research one year ago.
Clearly, a free press should not be a concept supported along political party lines. Not in a democracy! But in Trump's view, anyone who disagrees with him is a target. Just ask Former CIA Director John Brennan, whose security clearance was revoked this week in an unprecedented use of presidential authority. Trump is threatening dozens of others with the same fate, using his power to punish.
Trump’s repeated use of the term “enemy of the people” has a particularly onerous ring. In the last century, the phrase has been a favorite of dictators and autocrats of all stripes. In 1941, the year my parents were lucky enough to arrive in the U.S. after fleeing Nazi Germany, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels declared that Jews – and those who deal with them – are "a sworn enemy of the German people." Both Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin used the term to refer to those who disagreed with the ideologies of their respective regimes. In Lenin’s time, the term was hurled at clergy and bourgeoisie, among others. Under Stalin, the moniker could result in imprisonment, life in the Gulag, or even execution. So emotionally fraught was the term that even Nikita Krushchev, the shoe-pounding Communist leader, denounced its use. His great-granddaughter, Nina Khrushcheva, is now an international affairs professor in New York; she was shocked to hear the phrase “in a non-Soviet, non-Stalinist setting.”
This week’s editorials may only be a momentary blip in the endless barrage of baseless and base Tweets coming from Trump’s bullying bully pulpit. But the editorials are worth a look, if only to raise our awareness of how much there is to lose by our silence and acquiescence. And they are an important reminder that reporters, who cover everything from city council meetings to county fairs, are just people – not crooks or liars or worse. Just people trying to do a critical job on our behalf.
“Some think we're rude to question and challenge,” wrote the Portland Tribune. “We know it's our obligation…. As women's rights pioneer and investigative journalist Ida B. Wells wrote in 1892: The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press."
The Topeka Capital-Journal, which operates in a state that voted solidly for Trump, wrote: "Not covering him aggressively would be a dereliction of duty. We know that's not always a popular stance, but it doesn't make the press the enemy of anyone. We're not separate from the public. We are the public. We live and work and play in Topeka and surrounding areas. We go to restaurants and send our children to school. We drive the same roads, see the same doctors. We're not the enemy of the people. We are the people."
In 1973, Paul Simon, (who, as many of you know, was my next-door neighbor in Queens, New York) was disillusioned by the times. Still reeling from a decade of violence and assassinations, we were mired in Vietnam and stunned by the Watergate scandal. The classic, American Tune, came out of the emotion of that era. Give a listen. Its melancholy rings painfully true today. Still, I’ll cling to its morsel of hope as we live to struggle another day.