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Press Time


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For a long time citizen journalists annoyed me. I blamed them for destroying the news profession. If people gave away work for free, why would anyone pay a journalist to collect and report news? And without professional journalists we couldn't have a reliable and credible stream of information to depend on.

But now I think it is time to mobilize an army of citizen journalists across the nation.

Last week on Twitter, President Donald Trump called the news media the enemy of the people.

The news media covering him had the gumption to call out his mistakes during a press conference when he said he had won more electoral college votes than any presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan. A reporter told him Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush had all won more. These were facts. He turned around and called the media fake news.

The role of the news media is to speak truth to power and now that Trump has power, he doesn't like to hear truth spoken.

This is a big change in D.C. For too long the relationship between the press and the White House and Congress has been too cozy. To get to a national desk on a major metro newspaper or to be a TV news reporter covering Washington was the height of a journalistic career. It came after years of hard work — breaking story after story after story. There was often nowhere higher to go. So after breaking story after story in Washington, there was a tendency to slow down. You went to one too many cocktail parties and got cozy with your sources. I'm not saying this happened to all Washington journalists, but over the Bush and Obama administrations, some reporters in the White House Press Corps were half asleep.

Trump woke everyone up.

I'd be excited by that if I weren't so nervous. The first step toward dictatorship is to undermine the press. The phrase "enemy of the people" is one that both Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong used before executing opponents. I would have thought that analogy ridiculous. But our president has said he admires Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man who has decimated his country's press.

We have our own history of suppression. In the 1990s there was rendition — secretly kidnapping people the government thought dangerous and imprisoning them outside the country without anyone knowing. In the 1960s, our federal police infiltrated protest groups and wiretapped Martin Luther King Jr.. In the 1950s, our U.S. Senate sent dozens of people critical of the government into professional exile through the McCarthy hearings. In the 1940s, the government rounded up U.S.-born Japanese Americans during World War II. Longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover began his career in the 1920s working to deport all foreign-born dissidents.

Our government now looks ready to round up mass numbers of people for deportation based on ethnicity and religion. For many of these people, their only crime was to enter the country illegally, even though we make it difficult, if not impossible, for whole groups of people to legally enter and stay.

It doesn't take rendition or deportation to silence journalists. Most journalists work for less pay than they would get in other professions. They don't have much money saved up. They have families to support and bills to pay. They can't afford to lose their jobs. Big companies own most news organizations, with bankers and investors on their boards that have strong ties to government leaders. Subtle messages sent from directors to publishers to editors to reporters change how stories get covered, or if they do at all.

When journalists go silent, laws that affect our lives get passed without public discussion.

I can't believe I am thinking these things on the one-month anniversary of Trump taking power, but our president declared war on the news media before his 30th day in office.

On the other hand, there is sometimes nothing that energizes a reporter more than attempted censorship. A united press is a powerful force for change.

But I worry. The Nazis took power in Germany without majority support. Instead, it was the reluctance of regular folks to oppose them that gave them power. The Nazis rose because too few people fought their attempts to silence the opposition. By the time people really understood what was happening, the Nazi Party had eliminated all opposition.

That's why we need to martial a militia of citizen journalists. I deputize each and every reader to the cause of free speech and free press and the right of the people to petition our government for a redress of grievances. Our founding fathers wrote that as their first and most important addition to the U.S. Constitution. It's the First Amendment. As the Second Amendment is the right to bear arms, the First Amendment is our right to bear witness.

The president can't say the press is the enemy of the people when the press is the people.

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University.


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