The media exists to hold those in powerful positions accountable. It’s tougher to do in this age, but some are still doing so.
In 1984, at the height of Ronald Reagan’s militarism, the editor of a Texas suburban newspaper — where I had worked as a reporter for two years right out of college — told me the paper could not print a feature article I wrote on a local woman who began a nuclear weapons freeze organization because it would “upset” advertisers. After all, many of those advertisers worked for the U.S. military/industrial complex.
This is a situation that sadly is more common in today’s media environment than it was in 1984. I had a choice back then: I could meekly resign myself to this ethical roadblock and go back to work, or I could quit my job in protest and find another way to get the story to the public. I was 24, probably even more liberal and idealistic than I am now, and the proverbial “angry young man” who wasn’t going to compromise my idealism and integrity or let anyone stop me from my mission to expose our society’s evil bastards. I was single and didn’t have to worry about feeding a family, as I do now. So, of course, I chose the latter option. I took the story to a competition paper — which published it — and submitted my letter of resignation to my boss. I didn’t regret it then, and I don’t regret it now. In fact, I’m prouder of my stand now.
I didn’t just quit my job in protest — I joined an intensive, Survivor-like protest march against the worldwide nuclear arms race across this country and Europe to Russia. The stand I took on my former job helped me march some 5,000 miles for the next 18 months. But not even walking all those miles lessened the anger in me or my resolve to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Once that was over, I returned to journalism in Texas, starting with weekly suburban newspapers and eventually working as a reporter for a bureau of one of the largest newspapers in the Southwest. Though I had to confront numerous other times in which stories I suggested or did were shot down for various excuses, I did not resign in protest again. I tried to work within the limited corporate framework, taking consolation in small victories, such as being able to cover certain peace demonstrations and progressive causes. I was one of the few to give a voice to local progressive community activists who were shunned by many media outlets. With one of those activists, I wrote a book on the history of a certain Texas city that was viewed as opening the door to greater understanding of the plight of minorities and the disenfranchised.
But that still wasn’t enough for me. The large newspaper where I started working in the mid-1990s had this hypocritical policy that reporters and editors could not express any political viewpoint beyond voting, supposedly because doing so would compromise our so-called “objectivity,” one of many journalism myths with which I had problems. Although many large U.S. papers, including the Washington Post and New York Times, have this suppressive policy, that doesn’t make it right. Europe is more progressive in this area — the leading papers defend the political rights of journalists.
In my case, I thought I could adequately separate my professional and personal life, while retaining my Constitutional rights. I mean, what my employer was saying was that we don’t trust you to be fair and professional in your stories if you care enough about our country to get politically involved. In effect, we are denied our Constitutional rights if we want to keep our jobs. We can’t sign petitions, participate in demonstrations, work on political campaigns or give money to candidates.
Yet, the senior managers could do all that and more — most gave boatloads of cash to conservative politicians. This hypocrisy not only burned me up on the face of it — our upper bosses could flaunt a policy they placed on us — but here we were, an institution that was supposed to support the First Amendment, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to issue hypocritical policies, freedom to find ways to get around them, and we were not exactly practicing what we preached.
Not wanting to openly protest this policy by quitting again because I had a family by this time and I thought I needed the job, the rebel part of me had to find ways to break that policy without getting caught. It became an on-the-edge type of engagement to me, one that gave me a somewhat exciting double life to lead. I attended demonstrations on the guise of covering them for the paper, and usually I would use material and quotes in later stories. I used a pseudonym — my late dog’s name, Jackson — to sign petitions. I helped the campaigns of progressive candidates in ways that I hoped would not be detected. This went on for all of the ten years I worked for that media company.
There were a few times when I thought I would be fired, such as when the book, which we originally self-published before I began working for this larger media company, was reprinted by a local publisher while I worked for that firm. But my immediate supervisor was a cool guy — for a moderate Republican — who also knew the activist, and he probably helped save my job. After Bush Inc. stole the 2000 presidential election, I became much more active. I added the Thoreau last name to my pseudonym to honor one of my favorite writers and Americans. I began arguing with conservatives on message boards, chat rooms and anyplace I could. I started contributing to progressive electronic journals and Web sites using this pseudonym.
However, there wasn’t much my immediate supervisor could do to keep me from being laid off from my job a year after Bush’s coup, after a decade with that newspaper company. They gave the excuse that all companies give — tough economic times — even though that company was doing fine on its bottom line. Indeed, many big firms making huge layoffs these days are still making good money. The greedy bastards at the top just want more — and the GOP help give it to them with their corporate-friendly policies and tax cuts that mostly benefit these wealthy, greedy bastards.
Changes under Obama, Trump
Eventually, I found another newspaper job closer to D.C. When Barack Obama took over the White House, I didn’t do as much for the progressive movement, focusing more on my kids. Then Trump hit, and all bets were off. It was back to work under this slimmer, more pointed pen name.
These days, the Trump Administration has launched an all-out attack against the media the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Nixon Administration. Some like The Washington Post have gone into battle mode to the point they carry a pointed motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Some may mock it, but few other media outlets are as aggressive against the Trump Administration as the Post. Despite getting much favorable press early in his 2016 campaign, Trump regularly attacks the Post and its owner, Amazon titan Jeff Bezos, as fake news and worse. In October, he took the unusual step of calling on federal agencies to cancel regular subscriptions to the Post and The New York Times.
Some continue to criticize the media for not doing enough or being a lapdog. They get it from all sides. It’s important for readers, especially those who criticize the mainstream media with a wide brush, to know something about my story. You never know how many other reporters are doing something like I did, leading a sort of double life because they believe in that basic journalism tenet to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Unless they are a journalist like Bob Woodward or Seymour Hersh, they can’t really openly carry out that principle these days.
While Trump does receive much criticism, the actual nuts-and-bolts stories that help communities thrive are hurting. Faced with declining ad revenue in the Internet Age, many local papers and broadcasters have to drastically cut staffs. Important meetings are not covered. Tips and comprehensive investigations are not pursued.
A report by PEN America gives a grim picture: “At a time when political polarization is increasing and fraudulent news is spreading, a shared fact-based discourse on the issues that most directly affect us is more essential and more elusive than ever.”
Many reporters today are pressed for time, having to not only cover more ground, but also tweet and post on social media, make videos, and respond to social media questions and comments. There seem to be plenty of lifestyle stories on the latest high-tech gadget or how to open an IRA — news you can supposedly use. A few reporters are allowed to chase government and even corporate secrets to make it look like the media still wants to do its job, but their numbers are dwindling and their reports are watered down beside the puff pieces.
Blogs and content seem to proliferate, but can you really trust the information? Is it done by writers paid by corporations to push their messages?
In the wilderness, some journalists find other ways to live out the afflicted principle, as I did and am doing. And you will never hear about most of those ways. Henry Norr, a former technology columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, was fired in 2003 for participating in a demonstration against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. That came despite that newspaper not having a policy that reporters or columnists could not participate in demonstrations at that time. The paper has since implemented such a policy, even though corporate bigwigs are free to engage in whatever political activity they want. Norr also covered areas largely unrelated to politics and war. Norr eventually received a settlement and writes for some Web-based publications.
Remember when MSNBC canceled the show of host Phil Donahue in 2003 for being a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.” according to a company memo. The NBC producers reportedly ordered Donahue to have two conservative guests for every liberal one since Donahue was “counted as two liberals.”
Meanwhile, do the right-wing talk shows at Fox News do that? No. Far-right “journalists” like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh — who admittedly aren’t really journalists — can go as far as to organize, not just attend and participate in, Trump rallies.
More recently, Lewis Wallace was fired in 2017 from Marketplace after publishing a post on his personal blog about being a transgender journalist. He continues to write through other avenues such as Medium.
While today’s society seems like it is becoming increasingly less free on the surface, perhaps there is more happening underneath that will one day unearth itself. We can only hope.