We are the voice of the people

Politicians criticizing the news media for coverage is not new.
Thomas Jefferson, who once famously said he would pick newspapers over government, had his issues with news stories that were critical of him.
While Abraham Lincoln said a free press was essential to a free government, he had no objections to jailing journalists who criticized the Civil War or supported the South’s bid to break away from the Union.
And who could forget Richard Nixon’s famous “enemies list,” which being listed on practically became a badge of honor during the Watergate Era.
And we’ve all seen it at the small end of the scale, with state, county and municipal officials complaining that they can’t get a fair shake in the press.
But what we are seeing today is completely different. Since the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump has whipped his followers into an anti-press frenzy, weaponizing the phrase “Fake News” (the ultimate in oxymorons).
It’s an epithet he’s admitted is designed to erode press credibility as journalists report on his administration’s actions.
Now, he’s added a more dangerous phrase to his rhetoric — Enemy of the People. And footage from Trump’s rallies show that his supporters are taking the cue, and directing verbal abuse — and threats of violence — at the press corps following Trump. Remember the infamous rope-tree-journalist T-shirts?
And we can see the anger filtering down to the local level.
But we are not the enemy of the people. We serve as their eyes and ears, as well as their voice in holding leaders and institutions accountable for their actions.
In our own region, we saw Washington’s newspapers call out the state Legislature for trying to rush through a bill nullifying a court ruling that they were subject to the state’s Public Records Act. The intense media scrutiny spurred people to call their lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee and stop this bad legislation in its tracks.
In Oregon, the Oregonian exposed how police officers with bad records were allowed to keep their peace-officer certifications.
And at my own shop, one of my colleagues showed how missteps by local law enforcement allowed a felon with warrants to be released from custody, only to kill a missionary student later.
We’re the ones who inform the public about how their tax dollars are being spent, tell them about the wildfires that could possibly threaten their homes and how officials are trying to protect them.
Are journalists perfect? Of course not. But we do our best, and when we fall short we quickly admit it and strive to do better.
As James Madison put it, “To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression; who reflect that to the same beneficent source the United States owe much of the lights which conducted them to the ranks of a free and independent nation, and which have improved their political system into a shape so auspicious to their happiness.”

Donald W. Meyers, a multimedia journalist with the Yakima Herald-Republic, is the Region 10 director for the Society of Professional Journalists.


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