Dear Journalists, The War on What You Do Is Escalating

To fight back, work together

Dan Gillmor
Aug 13, 2018 · 9 min read
Photo by Philip Strong on Unsplash

  • Climate change. There may be no bigger issue, period. By overwhelming scientific consensus, we are rapidly approaching a point of no return in our overall failure to slow the warming processes that are going to have catastrophic — a word that for once is not an exaggeration — consequences for humanity. This isn’t just a story that requires coverage of what’s happening. It requires explanations of what is coming; detailed information on what individuals can do in their own communities; probing coverage of how governments are, and are not, taking this seriously; and so much more. The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan has implored journalists to take this seriously. They should do so, and do it collectively; we can still save our children and grandchildren from disaster, but it’s a job for all of us. (Updated)
  • Government corruption. Leaving aside the combination of political and financial sleaze in TrumpWorld’s dealings with Russian interests, it’s plain from the Trump family’s past, and present, that there has never been a more corrupt head of government. Journalists did a half-baked job of laying it out during the campaign, though there were shining exceptions (e.g. the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, who exposed a variety of misdeeds at the candidate’s allegedly charitable foundation). Now, the Trump family is monetizing the presidency in unprecedented ways, and the Washington press corps is still missing the forest for the occasional trees. Corruption is endemic in this administration. The twisted self-dealings of former EPA head Scott Pruitt were the proverbial tip of the iceberg that includes commerce secretary Wilbur Ross and many others. (Democrats are hardly immune from being corrupt, so don’t make this a totally partisan tale, but this particular administration is unprecedented in its activities.) Story after story about individual bad acts don’t begin to show the breadth and depth of the corruption, and it’s a virtual certainty that there is much, much more to find.
  • Voting rights. The Republican Party, with the help of the courts and massive spending by ideologues, is working relentlessly to lock in legislative majorities in both houses of Congress. The GOP has taken gerrymandering, a historically bipartisan tactic, to new extremes. Deploying an array of new laws, regulations, and propaganda, it’s relentlessly worked to deny the very right to vote to people who tend to support Democrats. Moreover, amid a torrent of evidence that voting systems and technology are grotesquely insecure and untrustworthy — and that foreign powers, including Russia, have penetrated some of these systems — the Republicans have blocked congressional moves to make voting secure and trustworthy. For reasons I can’t fathom, all these attacks on the most fundamental element of democracy have attracted only sporadic interest from major news organizations; the serious journalism has come from places like Talking Points Memo, the Nation, and Mother Jones, which have important but limited audiences. This is a local, state, and national issue that requires the broadest kind of collaboration.
  • Freedom of expression. I’ve argued in the past that journalists have to be outright activists on this topic, and the case for doing so is more obvious than ever. Don’t just leave it to the editorial writers. You have the proverbial horse in this race, so act like it. Freedom of speech and expression — including and maybe especially journalism — are under attack all around the world. They’re jeopardized by the power of giant technology companies that, sooner or later, are likely to come under governments’ thumbs — and which, in the meantime, have terms of service that supersede the First Amendment. The bad actors have poisoned the waters so thoroughly that some people whose communities depend on free speech are talking out loud about suppressing it. Journalists need to work together at every level, and especially in our communities to explain why freedom of expression is the cornerstone of freedom itself.

Dan Gillmor

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