To hear some tell it, I’m an enemy of the state. Or a threat to democracy, or fake, or failing, or some variation of miserable human waste, which means that you don’t have any reason to listen to a word I say or write.
Well, that’s fine for dictatorships, but not the United States of America – at least not at the moment. But who knows where things are headed.
This is the week our nation turns 241 years old. From a declaration to a Constitution to a Bill of Rights and through ups, downs, conflicts and peace, America has survived plenty of turbulence that has wrecked lesser nations and systems of government.
Through all of it, though, the notion of a free press has mostly survived intact. Oh sure, John Adams tried to sit on it through Alien and Sedition acts, and various wars have led to various forms of censorship, some of it justified, some of it not.
Now, though, the dangers are much more real. It’s one thing to bash the media (everyone has, and everyone will), but it’s quite another to threaten the very future of journalism through means of intimidation, violence or some other artificial disruption.
A new Netflix documentary deals with this troubling pattern head-on. It’s called Nobody Speak, and centers around the recent trial where a Florida jury awarded Hulk Hogan $115 million in damages for invasion of privacy because the news site Gawker put up on its web page an edited sex tape involving the pro wrestling legend.
The story was tawdry enough, with plenty of dirt everywhere you looked. However, what’s indisputable was that a Silicon Valley billionaire named Peter Thiel funded Hogan’s defense, angry at a story Gawker wrote about him nearly a decade earlier, and the verdict caused Gawker to all but go out of business.
In other words, a very rich man, under flimsy pretenses, used his wealth and power to destroy a media organization he did not like. That’s chilling stuff, but it also didn’t occur in a vacuum, and that’s the truly scary part.
It just so happens that Thiel was, and is, a close ally of the billionaire now occupying the Oval Office, who, as you might have heard, bashes the media a lot. And when that isn’t happening, reporters are getting shut out of daily White House briefings.
Meanwhile, in Montana a congressional candidate body-slammed a reporter who had the temerity to ask a question – and wins his race anyway. Another reporter in West Virginia got arrested for….asking Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price a question.
To top it off, the Las Vegas Review-Journal gets bought by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, all but guaranteeing that fair, independent reports about the gambling business in Sin City by the newspaper in that city won’t see much daylight.
Put it all together, and it’s a literal and figurative assault on our profession, and it might succeed because a large segment of the population swallows the “fake news” narrative without question or pause, choosing to listen to only what they like to hear, factual or not, and quite often it’s the latter.
Just for a minute or two, put yourself in our position. Most of us who do this for a living aren’t rich. We dwell in modest houses or apartments. We have to struggle each week and month to pay bills and take care of our families – normal human stuff. We know that you have to do the same, and admire and respect you for it.
Yet it’s quite likely that, in your daily life, you never have to hear people tell you that your work is fake, or carries an agenda, or some variation of that complaint. Imagine how hurt and angry you would feel if that did happen, on a continual basis, with no logic or reason behind those attacks.
Then you might understand how vulnerable we feel at this moment. It’s difficult enough that our business has shed tens of thousands of jobs in the last two decades, casualties of an ever more tech-savvy culture that favors hot takes and sound bites over wisdom and substance.
Add to it the existential threat posed by rich men (and they’re always men) in powerful positions, and even the protections of the First Amendment might fold in the face of mounting legal bills and the desire by some to “teach the media a lesson” by resisting, ignoring or slamming coverage they don’t like.
Look, you don’t have to like what we do. In fact, you should criticize it day and night — it’s what makes us better. All we ask for is the right to do that work, because if we don’t hold rich and powerful people responsible for their actions, it’s doubtful anyone else will.
Freedom in America means celebrating its virtues and acknowledging its blemishes. As we go through another Independence Day, it’s fine to honor and remember our nation’s accomplishments – and quite patriotic to point out where we could improve.