“To a great many Americans … it is no longer an honorable thing to be a newscaster. The Administration has set the country against us — apparently by some design. Because, if you can discredit the press, then it doesn’t matter … what they say.”
While this sentiment could have been expressed this week, the late journalist Daniel Schorr uttered these words roughly 45 years ago. Testifying before Congress, Schorr was referring to President Richard Nixon. (Nixon had placed Schorr on his infamous “enemies list” — people he attacked using the vast powers of government.)
The First Amendment enshrines five great freedoms: religion, speech, assembly, petitioning of the government — and the press. At its best, the press is a beacon of light. It is a load bearing wall that upholds the structure of a free society. If the press didn’t exist, it would have to be invented.
For approximately 200 years, the term “the fourth estate” has been applied to the press. In other words, the media is an independent agent that acts as a check on the three branches of government (executive, judicial and legislative). The media, among other responsibilities, should hold the government accountable for its actions — or lack thereof.
Not surprisingly, governments — ancient and contemporary — have loathed the media because of its tendency to expose corruption, vice, abuses of power and other ills in which politicians engage. In the same way that defense attorneys zealously advocate on behalf of their clients, the media should be an indefatigable defender of truth.
The tension between the media and the government is natural and even necessary. Left unchecked, each is subject to abusing its power. However, the nation is weakened when each is out to destroy the other. Presidential declarations that the media is “the enemy of the people” undermine and, to some degree, destabilize civil society. For every unscrupulous reporter, there are scores of others who take seriously their mission of enlightening the populace. Painting all members of the media with a broad brush unnecessarily exacerbates the destructive toxicity that is rapidly eroding our democracy, and even our humanity.
The implications of the destructive pattern of sowing distrust in our institutions — government, media and others — goes well beyond merely being unpleasant to each other or the promotion of the vitriol between our main political parties. During times of crisis, such as we are presently experiencing, the consequences can be dire.
Irresponsible speech doggedly competes with responsible speech on a daily basis — even at the highest level. Indeed, the surreal reality of the present moment is that we must constantly ask ourselves whether President Trump’s proclamations about coronavirus (and many other issues) are true. A democracy cannot long thrive when its leader seems not to care about, or not even to know, the importance of telling the truth. The constant chipping away at our faith in our foundational institutions cannot be the price that Americans pay for living in a free society.
This is a titanic war between truth and chaos — for that is the stark choice. The opposite of truth is not merely untruth; the complicit acceptance of intentional dishonesty will inevitably lead to societal destruction. When truth is dethroned, anarchy reigns.
Last week I promised to offer potential solutions to this reality. To that end, the following is my “first principle”: The truth is not malleable. It isn’t compromising. It isn’t subject to a referendum or opinion. This principle is the foundation upon which all others must stand. It must be adhered to with all the zeal of religious fanaticism.
Second, we must teach our children to think critically. When it comes to the media and politics, we must insist that they investigate many sources — and that they do so with healthy skepticism. They must consistently apply the laws of logic to combat confirmation bias. As difficult as it is, we must inculcate in them the reality that facts must stand, even when we don’t like them. This will help to ensure that they understand the difference between “fake news” and false claims thereof. Our abject failure to teach our children to think critically, to develop fact-based opinions, and to abandon mindsets and dogma when they are shown to be false, could genuinely lead to our downfall as a nation — or even as a species.
Third, we must teach our children to be moral actors. I can’t express it better than Dr. King, “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living. If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts.”
Fourth, we must stop reducing everything to a political blood sport. Presently, we are obsessed with facile binaries: Republican vs. Democrat, Liberal vs. Conservative, etc. Sadly, rituals that are intended to bind us together (e.g., pledging allegiance to the flag) have always taken place in the context of an America that rarely has lived up to its best ideals. The aspiration of e pluribus unum rings hollow when our fealty to our political parties — which are genuinely tied to our race — supplants our loyalty to each other as people. Whether we spend eternity in heaven or in hell, our political affiliation will not matter.
Finally, we must recognize and embrace our common humanity. For people of faith, this means that we must take our religious tenets seriously — especially with regard to loving our neighbor. This will be virtually impossible to achieve if we continue to practice voluntary apartheid in our houses of worship, our neighborhoods and our schools. Whatever name we call upon, God made all of our tongues. (Frequently, people who lack religious zeal often, though not always, lead here.)
There is a famous exchange in Bertolt Brecht’s play, “Life of Galileo.” Galileo’s assistant, Andrea, says, “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” Galileo responds, “No, Andrea. Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” Superman (or Superwoman) is not coming to save us. To the extent that each of us is willing to fight for “Truth, justice, and (an improved version of) the American way,” we won’t need a hero to save us.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at email@example.com.