Democracy requires a Free Press

Every tyrant in history hates the open reporting of ongoing events and, if they’re smart, is diligent in rooting it out. What the public doesn’t know can’t hurt a dictator. Secrecy is often necessary to implement policies people would hate if they knew about them. Public disclosure of unpopular government measures, by journalists providing details without favorable spin, can provoke popular outrage, make things dicey for despots. As Trump admitted to Lesley Stahl on CBS in a sit-down after he was elected in 2016, the reason he constantly attacks the media is to sow doubt about its credibility and motives. I am not a member of the media, but by typing the previous sentence I am a TDS-sufferer [1] citing “fake news”. Play him the tape if you want, Trump will still insist he never said that, he’s being quoted out context, everyone hates him, since he was a baby, constant attacks, it’s all bullshit. Fake news!

The Washington Post published the full transcript of Trump’s perfectly appropriate address to the diehard pro-Trump crowd he called for January 6, 2021. In it he continues to insist, contrary to the evidence, that he won the recent election “in a landslide.” Then he does what angry people often do, he dismisses the thing that infuriated him by calling it bullshit. Parse this section for what he is actually referring to (the “bullshit” of course, is the continued counting of votes after 10 pm election night, but “bullshit” serves his purposes much better and is an unchallengeable emotional assertion):

That election, our election was over at 10 in the evening. We’re leading Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia. By hundreds of thousands of votes, and then late in the evening or early in the morning, boom. These explosions of bullshit, and all of the sudden — (APPLAUSE) — all of a sudden, it started to happen.

CROWD: Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.


Now listen to this report, January 6: Inside the Capitol Siege, by journalists who were on the ground, at the speech. They report a festive, tailgate party before a football game atmosphere at the start of Trump’s Stop the Steal rally. Everyone is relaxed, enthusiastic and having fun, then things take a turn toward the deadly serious. The entire episode, reported on National Public Radio, is worth hearing, for context of how the riot started. Compare the experience of reading the lines above to the feeling of hearing the same lines, live, as they happened.

This kind of reporting is exactly why the angry crowd Trump sent down to the Capitol started things off by smashing up the cameras and recording equipment of journalists actively documenting events. No evidence, no crime.

Imagine how much better things would be, in terms of angry mass protests against deadly racism sanctioned by American government authorities, if the cops had simply taken away the high school girl’s phone after she filmed the entire 8:46 of George Floyd’s slow murder. As well as the phones of anyone filming the confiscation of her phone, of course. It may have not been legal, strictly speaking, but if we lived in a police state, a state of absolute “law and order”, nobody would be the wiser. Even here, lawsuits would have to be brought against the police to get the phones back, which would take time, and any settlement paid on behalf of the police would be kept secret. At least George Floyd’s gruesome death video would not have gone viral immediately.

Journalists not only write the first draft of history, they are participants in history. So is any citizen who does a little research (never easier to do than in 2021), compares sources, weighs veracity, reports honestly on what she finds. Citizen journalists, not a bad thing for the bulk of any democracy to be.

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