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Today's Press Needs to Be Revolutionary, Not "Above Reproach"

Not one of America's founding principles
Not one of America's founding principles
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The nation seems to be splitting in half, so why shouldn’t journalism? Right now we seem to have two camps — the half of the craft that recognizes the kind of lying crooks they’re dealing with and knows what it will take to beat them and the other half, the ones who think the press should be professional.

Al Tompkins, a teacher of journalism, and Kelly McBride, an expert on media ethics, both associated with the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism foundation, have written an opinion piece taking CNN reporter Jim Acosta to task for behaving in what they say was an ill-mannered fashion in a recent exchange with President Donald Trump.

Acosta refused to give up a microphone or sit down during a press conference. He was badgering the president about calling immigrants “invaders.”

The White House banned Acosta, falsely accusing him of molesting a female White House employee who had tried to seize the mic from him. Later Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, tried to back up the fake molestation charges by sharing a doctored video from the world’s most infamous font of doctored videos, Infowars. The fake Infowars video was edited to make it look like Acosta had put his hands on the female employee. He did not. It was a lie.

In the Poynter piece, the co-authors say, “In this time of difficult relations between the press and the White House, reporters who operate above reproach, while still challenging the power of the office, will build credibility.”

Difficult relations? Difficult relations? What planet do these people inhabit? This is not about relations. It’s about the basic survival of the republic. Where that is concerned, we are drifting toward the edge of the known Earth.

Trump’s never going to let Special Counsel Robert Mueller publish his investigative report, and he’s never going to respond in any way to any of the investigations that Democrats intend to cook up in their newly captured House of Representatives. Why would he hand over his tax returns? He owns the Supreme Court. He’s got the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card in his pocket.

Trump has attracted to his cause an enormous mob of white people so blinded by racial animus that they are impervious to any appeal to law, logic or morality. And some of Trump is hard for even reasonable people to believe or grasp.

I don’t expect people with lives to live to read the parade of books that have exposed the Trump family’s deep, long-running, international criminal ties, but it’s a parade of books. The most authoritatively damning are the works of David Cay Johnston and Craig Unger.

The Trumps have prison terms and the collapse of their wealth to worry about. They’re not going to cry uncle if they don’t have to.

But you don’t have to read the books. Just watch the man. What kind of president slanders the FBI right away? Why would a president want the people of the United States to think poorly of the Justice Department?

I think if we could douse even his most faithful followers with a bucket of cold water, give them a couple of sharp slaps and get them to wake up, even they would admit that somewhere deep in the bowels of their beings they know these are the behaviors of a guilty person. That’s not a matter of law. It’s a matter of primeval instinct, and we all feel it.

So in this context, is the proper role of the press to “operate above reproach” and “gain credibility?” And that’s how things will get sorted out?

Listen, when push finally comes to shove, the primary and most important actor will not even be the press. It will be the brave patriot who risks prison by leaking the Mueller report. In the end the nation’s best and probably only hope will be that person.

Trump will try to stifle the report. Mueller himself will never leak it. He has been the straightest of straight arrows since boyhood. If his new boss tells him to deep-six the report, he will do exactly as he is told, no matter who the boss may be, no matter what Mueller may think personally of the order. It will be up to someone else to get it out.

When that person leaks the report — or the good stuff underlying it — that leak will be a violation of law. The saga will not have the feel-good ending that reporters all saw and loved in the movie about the Pentagon papers, The Post, where the Supreme Court rode in like the last-minute cavalry to save the day for a free press.

Are you kidding? If the leaker gets caught and the Kavanaugh court gets a whack at him or her, they’ll string the poor devil up from the portico and invite the children in to throw darts. This person will need 10 times the protection that Woodward and Bernstein gave Deep Throat.

What good will leaking do? That’s uncertain. Putting the unvarnished truth about Trump before the public will be the greatest existential test of democracy that history has ever seen. Those of us who believe in democracy must hope that the truth about Trump will serve as that great bucket of water and two sharp slaps that democracy seems to need right now.

Maybe not. There is every indication in the body politic today that putting the truth about Trump before the public could have the opposite effect. Maybe the body will say, “We don’t care. We care only about racial tribalism and the survival of white privilege. Screw your truth. Our truth is our color.”

But that’s the election we must finally have. It’s the one we’ve been dancing around and whispering about behind our hands since Richard Nixon invented the Southern strategy. This needs to come to a vote. The only way that can happen is for the Mueller report to leak. Then we will have the issue out at last.

Either there will be a revulsion from Trump and a return to democratic sanity, or it all goes down the racist fascist sewer. It doesn’t matter if we’re afraid of that question. That question is before us whether we like it or not.

Thomas Jefferson believed devoutly in freedom of the press, hated reporters.
Thomas Jefferson believed devoutly in freedom of the press, hated reporters.
Rembrandt Peale, Wikipedia

So let me ask you something. While this brave patriot, whoever she or he may be, is contemplating the risk and sacrifice involved in leaking the Mueller report, what is the proper posture of the press?

Should journalists be busy holding themselves above reproach so that they may build credibility? Is that really the appropriate approach? Think about the would-be leaker, weighing the possibility of getting reproached into a federal penitentiary for a good long stretch.

In order to heed that painful call of conscience, the leaker must be a guerrilla, a revolutionary, a minuteman or minutewoman. For that to happen, the leaker will need co-conspirators, others willing to risk breaking the law in order to get the story out.

So let’s see. Where would we go looking for this militia, these revolutionary woods-runners? Um … Poynter Institute? I do not think so.

I don’t think the folks at Poynter are going to be up for it. They’re going to be pretty busy holding themselves above reproach and building credibility. You know, if I were looking for somebody willing to risk doing time, I would concentrate more on people I thought might be capable of doing time.

The image of the press has an interesting history in America. Thomas Jefferson, the great champion of press freedom, said if forced to choose he would keep the free press and give up the government.

But he also said journalists were people who, “ravin on the agonies of their victims, as wolves do on the blood of the lamb.” Jefferson said, “I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors …”

Jefferson, who resisted efforts to contain the press through strengthened libel laws, said, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put in that polluted vehicle.”

He believed in a free press, but Jefferson hated reporters. He believed in the free press not because he admired journalists but because he saw the free press as an excoriating wall of fire through which wealth and power must pass in order to earn their place in democracy. The press was Jefferson’s bulwark against the slow creep of aristocracy, in part because members of the press were the opposite of aristocrats.

It never occurred to Jefferson that the press would be above reproach. He reproached the press bitterly throughout his public career (even more bitterly after the press outed him for his relationship with an enslaved woman with whom he had children).

I would even say the best reporters, the ones who get the job done, seem to sort of like being reproached. They’re not reproach-a-holics exactly, but a few stiff doses now and then seem to wake them up like the hair of the dog that bit them. I do not see that quality in the Poynter Institute.

We’re up against hoods. Somehow the hoods have seized control of the White House and the Supreme Court. Tell me it was the will of the people. OK, then I guess we need to have a conversation about the will of the people. I don’t think all the people are hoods, but I could be wrong. I do see now that a lot of them are.

But to have this out, to get it out on the street where it belongs, somebody has got to break the law and leak that report. That person will need a partner. I would recommend Jim Acosta. I would not recommend the Poynter Institute.

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