We owe Gwen a strong stand on free press

11/15/2016

It’s ironic and sad that Gwen Ifill, reporter and woman extraordinaire, passed away shortly after the election of a major potential threat to press freedom.

Gwen Ifill was a journalist in a category of her own — smart, fair, courageous, classy with a smile that filled many rooms and TV sets across our country. Her loss will be mourned for a long time by those who knew her and those who only knew her by reading or watching her reports over the many years.

We were lucky to have her as a chronicler of information. She stood tall for a free press and giving the American people the information they need to make decisions. And she did it with class and style, fairness and dignity.

But as we enter a time when the future of media openness in a new American presidential administration is unknown, Gwen’s example serves as a reminder to battle proudly and with all our strength whatever challenges are coming to the Fourth Estate and the First Amendment.

As a black woman of a certain era, Gwen certainly fought her way, without extending her elbows but pushing forward with talent, charm and a bigger than life personality, to earn a seat on that bus of presidential reporters and climb to the top of her craft. And she did it at a time when female faces were rare on the bus, particularly black female faces. To honor her memory, we must do the same when it comes to protecting the First Amendment.

The president-elect has called journalists disgusting scum. He has used media more than any politician in history to his benefit, both in terms of creating him as a political entity and as a whipping boy to animate his rallies.

He was elected seven days ago and has yet to hold a press conference in a disconcerting break with the practice of past winners. It may be that the enormity of his new job is hitting him so he’s focused on building an administration and policy agenda. Or it could reflect his disdain for the media. Perhaps he is holding his Twitter account in abeyance until he feels he needs to unleash it on the media.
 
Or maybe he will leave it to Steve Bannon, his newly appointed chief strategist and former CEO of Breitbart News (but don’t let the name “news” fool you, it is the populist organ of misogyny and racism and antisemitism) to deal with the media. And whatever flunky/sycophant he may appoint as his press secretary (he does have a fine choice though in Sean Spicer who respects the media and what they do).

Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. And that is the job of the mainstream press — to present the facts so we can develop our own opinion. They don’t always get it right but they always try.

Mainstream is different than the media we’ve seen grow over the last number of years. Online outlets such as Breitbart and others on the right and the left put out the news through their political filter, slanting it to appeal to the audience they serve, be that on the right or left. Fine, there’s a place for that — but know it for what it is, news shaped to meet or create a point of view. Not objective news.

As readers, we must separate those advocacy journalists from the mainstream press. And let me stop here for a second because I know some folks who read this blog feel the New York Times, Washington Post and others have a view too. They do, on the editorial pages, but not the news pages.

I can guarantee you editors at those outlets right now are reviewing not necessarily the slants put on their coverage of this election but on the assumptions that were made — for example that Hillary Clinton would win, and Donald Trump would lose. I think that colored the coverage not so much from a partisan point of view but from a group-think point of view. On the whole, reporters did not do, in my view, a good job of getting to the true feelings of half the voters in this country.

Those voters who supported Trump range from those who truly believe everything he said, to those who just simply wanted a change. Trump was the change especially when the alternative was a woman who had spent 30 years “in power” and ambitiously angling for the presidency. People were obviously willing to overlook the deep questions he never answered in order to avoid another four years of “the same.”

Agree or not, Mrs. Clinton became the embodiment of Washington stagnation. And half the country wanted an end to that stagnation or, better put, wanted a start to a government serving them not someone or something else.

The political cycles I’ve watched over many years show the media does veer back and forth but more on the horse race than on the ideological race. Not to say most reporters aren’t more liberal than conservative. I venture to say they are. But knowing many of those reporters over the years, and having been one at a local level, I know that it doesn’t get in the way of their telling a story. (Now, those who disagree are free to comment, but you won’t change my mind any more than I’m likely to change yours.)

What we all must agree on is this: It is essential that we have a free press in this country. Without it, we have none of the freedoms in the Constitution. And without respect for the Constitution, we have no country.

So, Gwen’s too-soon passing — she was only 61 — should be a reminder to us of what a good reporter is and how important that reporter is to our freedom and knowledge. She was tough on those she interviewed but everyone wanted to be her friend because, well, she just was that smart and classy and normal.

You may not like what gets reported but at least you are aware of it. Do with the information what you will but we have the right to get objective information and make up our own minds.

That’s what the Constitution is all about: A free society that is open and equal to all.