What exactly is an “enemy of the people”? According to the current president of the United States, Donald Trump, it is me.
It is all journalists whose job it is to give you the facts and information about the events shaping our communities and our lives, to shine light in dark places, and to hold government accountable to the people. According to Trump, we are enemies of the people — fake news, liars, hackers — simply because we are doing our jobs.
Two weeks ago, a right wing social media site appears to have echoed that sentiment and incited its followers to kill journalists. The next day a gunman burst into the open newsroom of a community newspaper, the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., and gunned down five employees, four of them journalists in their newsroom. They were doing their jobs.
I don’t know if what happened at the Capitol Gazette has any connection to the president’s fake news campaign. But the constant litany coming from the very top of our executive branch, echoing all the way down to the local community level, is disturbing and should alarm us all.
Our nation’s founders considered a free press so important to democracy, that freedom of the press is enshrined as one of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. There is a reason the First Amendment comes first. Without these key tenets of our union, democracy itself would be at risk in America. Perhaps it is now.
Former President George W. Bush said the media is an essential component holding governments accountable. “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. … Power can be very addictive.”
According to Radio Free Europe, in 2017 65 media workers were killed, 326 imprisoned and 54 were held hostage around the world*. Until two weeks ago, I would have told you that Mexico, Syria, Somalia, China, Iran and Russia were the most dangerous places for journalists to work. Statistically now, the U.S. has moved up the list of dangerous places for a journalist to work.
Who would have believed that even a few years ago?
Our job as journalists is to seek truth and report it. Our personal opinions do not come into play, unless we are writing editorials. What we think about an issue has absolutely nothing to do with any other stories we cover. As managing editor, I have full editorial control of Ark Valley Voice, but this is not a license to create fiction. This means we have to get our facts straight, minimize harm to any sources who come forward to share news and information, and be accountable and transparent. If we mess up, we take responsibility.
The preamble to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalism speaks of the role we journalists fill in a democratic society saying, “Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.”
Explaining one’s decisions to the public is the responsibility of elected officials. This is true at all levels of government. It is our responsibility as journalists to report their actions, pose questions about their priorities, and point out attacks on the democratic guardrails of our representative republic.
But that job is not ours alone. An informed and questioning public has to pay attention, speak up and take action too. Silence allows authoritarianism to grow stronger. If Nazi Germany is a cautionary tale, then we all must stand up for the freedom of the press. If we don’t speak up, we deserve the oppressive government that could arise.