Pushing back against an attack on our democracy

This column originally appeared in GroundTruth’s newsletter. You can subscribe here

BOSTON — When Donald Trump started his populist war against the media “elites” as a candidate way back in 2016, I think many of us just rolled our eyes and figured he was a tabloid clown who would soon vanish from the national stage.

I know I did.

Then when he flailed his arms in the 2016 campaign making fun of and mocking a New York Times reporter born with a birth defect, he was insulting a longtime friend of mine, Serge Kovaleski, who is a very talented street reporter and a great colleague.

Then it got personal.

And then Trump stepped up his verbal assaults in February 2017 by saying that the “dishonest press … doesn’t want to report” on terrorist attacks, ignoring the courage and commitment of colleagues like Jim Foley who literally gave his life reporting in Syria and so many other friends and colleagues who’ve been killed doing their jobs as reporters.

Then it became disgraceful.

And then when Trump went over the top by calling journalists “the enemy of the people” and tweeted that the media were “very dangerous & sick” he was hammering away at the very cornerstone of our democracy: a free press.

Then it became dangerous.

So yesterday when he took a potshot at my alma mater, The Boston Globe, for its editorial against his sustained attacks on the First Amendment by accusing the Globe of “collusion with other papers,” he was entering uncharted territory in our democracy that should concern every American.

Then journalism pushed back.

Marjorie Pritchard, deputy managing editor of The Boston Globe has said Trump is waging a “dirty war” against journalism. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Trump has consistently pursued a “dirty war” against journalism, as Marjorie Pritchard, the deputy managing editor of The Boston Globe who oversees the paper’s editorial page, dubbed his tactics. It was Pritchard who led the call early this month for newspapers to publish editorials pushing back on Trump’s assault on our press freedoms and his personal attacks on journalists doing their jobs.   

Responding to the Globe’s invitation, more than 300 news organizations to publish editorials challenging Trump’s attack on the media, including The New York Times, New York Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, San Jose Mercury News and the Idaho Statesman.

“To label the press ‘the enemy of the people’ is as un-American as it is dangerous to the civic compact we have shared for more than two centuries,” the Globe wrote in its Thursday editorial.

“Insisting that truths you don’t like are ‘fake news’ is dangerous to the lifeblood of democracy. And calling journalists the ‘enemy of the people’ is dangerous, period,” The New York Times editorial board wrote.

It’s time for all of us to stand up and fight against Trump’s war on journalism. I love the statement by Washington Post Martin Baron, who was also my former editor at the Boston Globe, when he was asked whether the media is at war with the president. He said, “We’re not at war, we’re at work.”

Absolutely true and stated with Baron’s trademark for a powerful economy of words. But we as practitioners of the craft of journalism and we the people within this democracy are indeed in a struggle against tyranny, and it is time to stand up and push back in defense of the First Amendment and our right to a free press.

This is not a partisan issue, it is truly a question of patriotism, a need to stand up for who we are and what our founding fathers envisioned.

At GroundTruth, we support and train a new generation of journalists. We see their talent and their commitment to being there ‘on the ground’ to tell the stories that matter from every corner of the world and across the United States. Here is some of the recent work they’ve done:

  • A piece titled “War Children” by photographer and writer Alex Potter who focused on how the children of Iraq suffered the assault on Mosul and are left with lingering trauma.
  • An interactive multimedia series in partnership with PBS FRONTLINE titled “The Last Generation” about the devastating consequences of climate change on the Marshall Islands
  • Daily news reporting by Will Wright from the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky where he uncovered a story about the poor water quality that has plagued rural communities there.

Will Wright is part of GroundTruth’s newest initiative, Report for America, a public service program dedicated to calling emerging journalists to serve under-reported communities across America by reporting on local issues for host news organizations.

We have 13 Report for America ‘corps members,’ as we call them, who are doing this kind of public service every day for local news organizations in Appalachia, in the Mississippi Delta, in inner-city Chicago and in parts of Texas still recovering from the devastating hurricane Harvey. Report for America is born out of a realization which is enshrined on our home page: The crisis in journalism has become a crisis for our democracy.

On Thursday, it was pretty thrilling to see these outstanding, local reporters let their voices be heard in support of The Boston Globe editorial, writing posts about why the attack on journalism should matter to all of us. They embody the best of local reporters — fair, balanced, non-partisan and doing the true leg work that it takes to cover local news.

They are there to listen and give voice to communities that are not being heard in America. True public service which is at the heart of good journalism.

And every time I read their stories I realize that we need to all care about the future of journalism, about the next generation and about supporting them in carrying out a sacred freedom: the freedom of the press.