A Call to the Media: Let’s Go Beyond “Preserving Democracy”

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout / Shutterstock)(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout / Shutterstock)

This story is the sixth in Truthout’s “Visions of 2018” series, in which activist leaders answer the question: “What would you like to see created, built, imagined or begun this year?” Each piece will focus on a bold idea for transformation, to give us fuel as the year moves forward.

In 2004, I attended a daylong “training” session for journalists, led by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The goal, we were told, was to learn how to respond to crises — cases in which the government and media must “work together.”

The keynote speaker at this training day — attended mostly by reporters from Chicago’s large newspapers, television channels and radio stations — was then-Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. At a time when “crisis” still conjured “9/11” in many journalists’ ears, Ridge assured us that we had our own role to play in these instances of shared disaster. He congratulated us on our place in maintaining American democracy, telling us we were the “constant reminders of the freedom of expression we all enjoy.” Then, Ridge seamlessly transitioned into sharing a “detailed playbook” for the media that would help us meet crises with the correct responses, urging us to present a “consistent message to the public” — a message consistent with the Bush administration’s press office.

As a young journalist writing for In These Times magazine, I looked around the room expecting snickers and headshakes, but reporters were nodding and taking notes. Someone even flashed a bold thumbs-up. Later in the day, when we engaged in terrorism-crisis-response role-plays that included allowing a reporter’s wife to die in the street while the president’s daughter was rushed to safety, a sober discussion ensued of how, while unfortunate, these steps were necessary for the public good.

Every large journalism institution was now a “champion of freedom,” especially if it was disliked by Donald Trump.

So, I wrote a snarky piece covering the training and told myself this charade couldn’t last long. It took a while to shake my disbelief. However, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Publications like the Chicago Tribune have a long history of propping up — and often fueling — violent government actions and institutions, particularly the police and the military. (See this zine series by Project NIA and the Chicago PIC Teaching Collective for some historical background on police violence in Chicago: Several of them point to the ways in which the Tribune, in particular, perpetuated it.) Large media outlets have long served as vessels for the forces of state-sanctioned violence, imperialism and white supremacy, and it was no different in 2004, as the mainstream press stoked Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last year, when the Trump administration crashed into office, much of its media manipulation strategy looked familiar to me, although it was less slick in some of its methods. Just as “freedom of expression” had meant the freedom to express DHS press releases more than 13 years ago, “freedom of speech,” in 2017, meant expanding the influence of churches in politics and eroding rights to contraception (as in Trump’s executive order removing the mandate for employers to cover birth control), not to mention bolstering and legitimizing Nazis. However, unlike the Bush administration, which worked to covertly redirect the media to serve its agenda, the Trump administration positioned itself as an adversary, becoming openly outraged at the press. On Twitter and in public comments, Trump exploded at The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN and other widely known mainstream news outlets.

As a result, the overall perception of the mainstream media’s relationship to the White House shifted. Suddenly, journalists of nearly all stripes were seen as rebels and heroes, standing up against authoritarianism. Many people — especially liberals and progressives, some of the same folks who had condemned “the media” writ large for handing Trump the election, and for rubber-stamping Bush’s wars more than a decade before — rallied to mainstream outlets’ defense. Celebrities, reporters and activists united around the hashtag #PressOn, encouraging people to subscribe to newspapers and tweet their receipts.

At stake, many said, was democracy itself. In fact, The Washington Post responded to Trump’s attacks by adopting the dramatic slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” (Unfortunately, the publication did not get rid of its paywall, so for most of us, each of its articles fades into darkness a few seconds after we open the page.)

For so many people in the US, democracy has never been believable — it is not in danger of dying, because it has never lived.

Every large journalism institution — including those with legacies of condoning chattel slavery, Indigenous genocide, the prison industrial complex and the deportation of millions — was now a champion of freedom, especially if it was disliked by Donald Trump. Being attacked by Trump became a media badge of honor: proof that one was on the side of keeping democracy alive. This is apparently true even when, as in the case of The Washington Post, one is owned by Jeff Bezos, the richest person in history, who has made efforts to cozy up to Trump and, through Amazon, pours massive amounts into lobbying.

As we consider the idea that we must put our faith in the big establishment media outlets that Trump is attacking in order to preserve “democracy,” lest it die in darkness, we must ask ourselves: Whose democracy? For so many people in the US, democracy has never been believable — it is not in danger of dying, because it has never lived.

Is democracy alive for the more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in the US, or the millions more under other forms of “correctional” control? Is it thriving for victims of police violence? For those banished by deportation, which has increased dramatically since 9/11 (such that the Obama administration deported far more people than Bush)? For those whose families are being torn apart by the child “welfare” system? For those denied their survival because health care is not recognized as a basic human right? For the half of the country that lives in or near poverty? For the Black, Indigenous, Latinx, disabled and/or trans people who are most likely to be impacted by these forms of violence? For elderly people, struggling against the reality that their most basic supports are under attack? Even if democracy could be said to be “alive” for all of these groups (which together comprise the majority of the country), how much good is it doing?

Moreover, sometimes, our “democratic” institution of media actually helps maintain the inequities that make democracy impossible. It can also work to squelch the potential of democracy to truly serve the goals of freedom and justice. Here’s an example: Traditional journalism tends toward upholding the narrative of the police, as a quick scan of mainstream reporting on vigilante and police violence against Black communities will show. Headlines like “Trayvon Martin Was Suspended Three Times From School,” “Deputy Killed Marine Out of Fear for Children’s Safety, Officers Say,” and Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise (in which The New York Times called Brown “no angel”) are but the tip of the iceberg. Moreover, the most widely applauded journalism often involves not only upholding the police, but also reporting in ways that mimic policing and surveillance. Exposing truth is frequently translated as “exposing who should go to jail,” even among progressive journalists. I’m not saying journalists should stop uncovering the wrongdoing of specific individuals, particularly when those individuals are powerful people intimately involved in upholding the bad status quo, like CEOs, politicians, police and bankers. But when we stop there, and don’t put that individual wrongdoing in the context of the social structures that made it possible, we’re doing a disservice to humanity, and participating in those structures ourselves.

The idea that preservation must be our mission, and that guarding existing institutions is the best we can do in terms of maintaining a “free press,” is a death knell for freedom.

In the weeks and months ahead, I would encourage us to question our tendency to want to uplift the institutions that foster and preserve the status quo, to say things like “these are the institutions that preserve our democracy.” The idea that preservation must be our mission, and that guarding existing institutions is the best we can do in terms of maintaining a “free press,” is a death knell for freedom, in any real sense of that word.

Back when I attended that media training in 2004, and for years after, I was very fond of the notion of journalism as the Fourth Estate. I liked the idea of this role of the press as a vital check and balance, in the countless cases when our other three estates (legislative, executive and judicial) fail us. But my vision as an editor and journalist has changed over the past decade or so. I’m not satisfied with the goal of only “keeping things in check,” or refusing to let horrifying new things become normalized. Instead, I want to also participate in more vibrant pursuits for media communities — reaching for goals that are more expansive, more imaginative, more exciting.

Why do we have to be an “estate” at all? After all, an estate is a building where extremely rich people live. An estate stands in one place, isolated and contained, separate from the world we’re supposed to be reporting on. I don’t think the media we want to grow should look like that.

Perhaps “media” should be a verb instead of a noun — in flux, moving, responsive instead of isolated.

No matter who our president is, whether that person succeeds in deploying establishment media to repeat White House messages or yells at establishment media for veering from the official script, maybe our ultimate goal needs to go beyond checking and balancing a particular bad guy. Maybe we can be a force that checks — and tips the balance against — the bad status quo itself. Wouldn’t real truth-telling consistently interrupt the lies that uphold capitalism, white supremacy, colonialism, heteropatriarchy and patriarchy? Instead of preserving and sanctifying the old dusty normal, is it possible that journalism could flourish as a force for upending, dismantling and creating?

What if we thought of journalism, of media, as something diffuse, flexible and alive? An energy, instead of a building where rich people live? Perhaps “media” should be a verb instead of a noun — in flux, moving, responsive instead of isolated. At its roots and at its heart, “media” just means a mode of connection, an intermediary, a channel between people.

People in prisons are media-ing when they send kites between cells. People in underground DIY communities are media-ing when they make zines and stickers. Sex workers are media-ing when they share information among their networks about dangerous clients. Activists are media-ing when they compile and distribute toolkits and curricula to build and grow movements. You are media-ing when you share an article with friends, and comment with your own thoughts.

That doesn’t mean that all media and media-ing are good, or serve the world well. White nationalist groups have their own flourishing media, after all. So do the police, the military industries, the multinational corporations.

Like humanity, media is not inherently good or bad. Media is propaganda, is art, is lifesaving communication, is misinformation. That’s why instead of simply applauding it or condemning it, each of us need to think about what we will make of it — or how we can and are making it — ourselves.

When I say “making it,” I don’t just mean putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, or eye to camera. Those who read, watch and listen are an integral and active part of a just media, and should be recognized as such. Good journalism is just as much about listening as it is about talking or telling. Media-ing is a two-way street.

So, who should we be listening to? I don’t think we simply need to listen better to The Washington Post, or NPR, or CNN, or whoever else Donald Trump is attacking on a particular day. Of course, I think you should all be reading Truthout every day … but when I think about the necessity of listening more, I’m not even primarily advocating for that. Maybe we can each start by listening more to each other. Maybe to build a more just media world, starting at the roots, we need to listen more in our one-on-one conversations, in the streets, in the grocery store, in our relationships, in our own minds as we’re drifting off to sleep. In addition to broadening our perspective and deepening our understandings, that kind of practice will also serve us in discerning the truth in the media we absorb on a daily basis, and telling the truth in the media we create ourselves.

It makes sense that in the face of authoritarianism, many people are clinging even more aggressively to old and powerful mainstream media institutions. But with courage, each of us can venture forth and navigate our own media paths, refusing to let “freedom” be dictated by the Department of Homeland Security or The Washington Post. We can make realities visible that might otherwise go unseen, and build platforms for new imaginings. We can do media in a way that reflects its roots in connection, in talking to each other, in listening to each other. We can recognize that no “estate” will free us — we will only free each other.