Last Saturday was a devastating day for legitimate journalism, and thus for democracy.
In Afghanistan, nine journalists were killed in a terrorist bombing that the Taliban took credit for and that targeted them. That’s the most journalists to be killed in a single incident since 2001.
In the U.S., journalism, and with it, democracy, took another blow to the chin, as well. No, it wasn’t what happened at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C., but what President Trump said about journalists at his rally in Washington, Michigan.
Trump’s attack on the press as “fake news liberals who hate me” was taken in stride by the media and politicians on both sides of the political divide Saturday because it was nowhere near the worst that he’s had to say about them, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a very big problem.
The nation has become so immune to these egregious insults and attacks by the president that they barely get a rise out of anyone by now, so we’re getting that much closer to losing our democracy to tyranny. When the president of the United States talks like Trump does, the nation is in grave peril, heading down the same road as the democracies in Europe following the first and second world wars, when fascist, Nazi and communist authoritarian tyrannies usurped them the same way that democracies back in ancient Greece and Rome suffered such fates.
So, let’s establish this: there was absolutely no moral equivalency between Trump, what he said Saturday and on countless other occasions, and what the comedian Michelle Wolf said at the White House Correspondents’ dinner that same night.
One is the president of the United States. The other is a highly intelligent and brave woman. One is a chronic liar chipping away at the nation’s moral sensibilities taking methodical steps with the help of an elected legion of sycophants in his own party to subvert our democracy. The other was tasked with standing up all by herself in front of 3,000 highly judgmental Washington establishment types, armed with nothing but the weapon of humor.
She didn’t hold back, making the media and the Washington establishment, those right in front of her, as uncomfortable as the oh-so-delicate Sarah Sanders, the president’s professional liar-to-the-press.
In typical fashion, Wolf’s outraged critics, ranging from aggressive political enemies to frightened, mewling cowards angered by whomever they perceive to threaten their comfort, jumped all over her.
They used the age-old tactic of distorting her words to twist them into a vicious personal attack, in this case of Sanders’ appearance, which they were not. She did not say that Sanders’ “burns fat and then uses the ash to create a perfect smokey eye.” The word was “facts,” not “fat,” an attack on her lying ways as an official representative of the president, not her appearance. And so forth.
The genuinely sad retreat by WHCA president Margaret Talev in a statement issued later the same night, bemoaning Wolf’s monologue for being “unfortunately…not in the spirit of…our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people.”
The wide array of reactions to her speech, ranging from appeasing to resisting Trump, corresponded to what transpired in the periods leading up to tyrannical usurpations of democracies since World War I. In his insightful short book, “On Tyranny, Twelve Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” Timothy Snyder cites parallels between what is happening in the U.S. under Trump and what happened in Germany, Italy, Russia and Eastern Europe in the last 100 years.
In resistance, “actual journalism is edgy and difficult,” he writes. “Researching and writing is hard work that requires time and money: traveling, interviewing, maintaining relationships with sources, researching written records, verifying everything, writing and revising drafts, all on a tight and unforgiving schedule…Give credit to those who do all of that for a living…The work of people who adhere to journalistic ethics is of a different quality than the work of those who do not.”
Mindful of this, mourning the assaults of last Saturday, let’s redouble our fight for democracy.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.