Nobody goes into journalism to make friends.
When we expose, catch or correct the people in power, we don’t expect them to like it. We expect them to strike back.
The struggle between political power and the American press is as old as the Alien and Sedition Acts under President John Adams, the “Muckrakers” invective of Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson’s bullying or Richard Nixon’s enemies list.
What’s new in the age of Donald J. Trump is the way power fights. It doesn’t merely complain or explain. It attacks to destroy.
“Enemy of the people,” it bleats. “Fake news.”
When President Trump first called reporters “enemies of the people” in early 2017, it was a shock. The term came from the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, via the Third Reich’s Josef Goebbels via the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.
“Fake News” has its own ignoble lineage. Like George Orwell’s “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” in the novel 1984, “Fake News” is pure double think.
If it’s fake, it’s not news. If it’s news, it can’t be fake.
But like Big Brother before him, President Trump repeats and repeats and repeats until words lose their meaning. “Alternative facts” enters the lexicon.
The tension between the Trump administration and the press isn’t about party or politics. It’s about the meaning and importance of truth in American society.
And while Washington, D.C. is the main theater of combat, journalists across the country are refugees from the war of words. They’re in newsrooms from Baltimore to Chicago to Los Angeles, where rhetoric has coarsened, threats have yielded violence, or editors have lost their cool.
At the Better Government Association, we produce investigative journalism and policy advocacy that advances transparency, efficiency and accountability in government. Day by day, we see the attack on truth affecting our work and the polity of our state.
We watched in dismay this week when the state’s wealthy Republican governor contributed $1 million to his party’s attorney general candidate then sicced her on his Democratic nemesis the speaker of the Illinois House. “I hope he’s been doing something illegal,” Gov. Bruce Rauner said.
Did Rauner provide a hint of evidence, much less proof, that Speaker Mike Madigan has broken a law? Not hardly. In the age of “alternative facts,” politicians treat proof as optional, innuendo as enough.
Illinoisans are skeptical of coincidences. So pardon the people who wonder if a President who said there were good people on both sides—both sides—in a Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville emboldened the Nazi who sneaked onto the ballot of an Illinois congressional race.
The BGA produces PolitiFact Illinois, which has become a full-time job for one of our colleagues. She’ll need reinforcements if the “Pants on Fire” prevarication builds as the November midterms approach.
The BGA’s reporters have been hassled and accused of bias in ways not previously seen. But at least they’re not among the three reporters arrested, the 31 attacked or the 14 subpoenaed nationwide this year, according to a tally by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
It’s hard to say whether FOIA bureaucrats across the country are emboldened by the anti-press rhetoric from Washington. But just as journalists last year filed more than 100 FOIA lawsuits nationwide, double the rate in 2016, we are filing more lawsuits, too, in the face of FOIA resistance by Democratic officials in Chicago.
At the BGA, we believe the search for unalloyed truth is an essential function of democracy. We and other not-for-profit newsrooms are providing investigative resources and content to legacy media that, like the “failing New York Times” and others, are seeing their newsroom budgets cut.
We have been around for 95 years. Founded in the years after Upton Sinclair—a Teddy Roosevelt “muckraker”–brought food safety and workplace dignity to Chicago’s stockyards, we began by attacking corruption in Al Capone’s Chicago.
Over the years, we have investigated crooked governors, trigger happy cops, graft-prone health inspectors and ethically challenged lawmakers. We have defended the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right to know.
‘The truth will always have its enemies. But eventually, truth wins out. It will eradicate “enemies of the people” and “fake news,” just as it slayed other slanders over the years. The reckoning cannot come soon enough.