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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Not the Enemy of the People
distributed 8/17/18 - ©2018

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Gladys Gifford of Buffalo, New York. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

Yesterday, over 350 newspapers in the United States published editorials decrying President Donald Trump's description of the media as the "enemy of the people."

Also yesterday, the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution declaring that "the press is not the enemy of the people."

I think of the pervasive biblical standard for justice, that "A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained." (Deuteronomy 19:15) Well, we don't have just two or three witnesses to accuse the President of inflammatory and anti-democratic behavior. We have hundreds of editorial boards and one house of the US Congress, all speaking out on the same day.

Perhaps we need to look at the other side of the equation. How many witnesses, of what reputation, are willing to testify in support of the President's claims that the press makes up their stories, and is an enemy of the people? The White House press secretary waffles when asked that question. The President's daughter says it ain't so.

Yesterday's coordinated set of editorials speaks to a very real threat to civility and democracy in the US, with ripples spreading around the world. This is a concern that is tied to one of the core principles of eco-justice ethics. It is time -- or past time -- to speak out in support of the free press as an essential part of a democratic society.

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It was the Boston Globe that called on other newspapers to speak, each in their own words and from their own perspective, in defense of the free press. Hundreds of papers from across the country, large and small, liberal and conservative -- and, yes, the journalistic stance of most papers can be categorized in those political terms -- responded to the invitation.

I've read through about a dozen of those editorials, and it is a diverse set of statements. Some are explicit in pointing to Mr. Trump: "it's time to take a stand by demanding that the president stop his dangerous and indeed possibly violence-provoking rhetoric." Others speak more generally about the essential role of the responsible press in "bringing you all the facts." Most speak from a national perspective, but some addressed more local aspects: "Journalists aren't just being iced out by the White House. There are enough efforts hindering reporters here in Colorado for all of us to start taking notice."

The editorial testimony was not only in words. The Missoulian has a collection of pointed editorial cartoons that add an artistic expression to the effort.

In the face of so many column inches, I'll draw primarily on one source -- the editorial published by the Boston Globe which stands as a clear centerpiece to the campaign. The Globe's statement draws heavily on an Ipsos poll released this month asking about how Americans viewed the news media. The numbers show that Mr. Trump's 18 months of disparagement and attacks have created a hostile climate for the Fourth Estate. It isn't just that the President is nasty and obnoxious in talking about the media. He's fueling a public sentiment that undermines core principles of our democracy.

29% of those surveyed said that the news media is the enemy of the people. The numbers go to 48% among Republicans. Far more frightening is the statement, with 26% agreeing (and 43% of Republicans) that "The president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior." Doing so would be unconstitutional, of course, but the sentiment is astonishing.

The Globe recognizes that the tension between governments and media is not new, and it is not confined to this country. "Replacing a free media with a state-run media has always been a first order of business for any corrupt regime taking over a country." Their editorial points to Trump's rejection, not only of a free press, but of objective reality. They quote Mr. Trump speaking to a rally last month in Kansas: "Just remember, what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening." They follow that quotation with this comment:

George Orwell put it more gracefully in his novel "1984." "The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command."

The Globe's editorial ends this way: "The greatness of America is dependent on the role of a free press to speak the truth to the powerful. To label the press 'the enemy of the people' is as un-American as it is dangerous to the civic compact we have shared for more than two centuries."

We could, of course, think that it is self-serving for the media to stand together in support of the free press. To that point, the editor of the New Yorker speaks truthfully. "This is not a matter of the press seeking to protect itself as an interest group. The interest group in question is the United States."

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There is a consensus among the theological ethicists about four broad eco-justice norms. Four words capture the essentials of this moral perspective: solidarity, sustainability, sufficiency and participation. The one that doesn't start with "s" is sometimes listed as democracy. In either form, it insists that, in a properly functioning society, all stakeholders will have a voice in major decisions. Essential to that participation is that members of the community be reasonably informed -- that we know what is going on, what the stakes are, and what the implications of our decisions might be.

A free press is essential in maintaining that kind of informed citizenry. Journalists and commentators who explore the world from a rich variety of perspectives provide a range of facts and information to supplement or challenge any one voice. The diversity of a genuinely free press is an essential counterbalance to the empowered messages that can come from either government officials or big business.

A free press is not the enemy of the people. With all of their flaws, the institutions of journalism and the media are absolutely necessary if a society is to embody democracy and participation.

The Boston Globe and the hundreds of other publications have offered valuable witness this week in the concerted editorial defense of a free press. The US Senate's unanimous resolution shows that support for the media is not a partisan cause.

In our families, in our communities, and in our churches, let us reject any and all attempts to silence, marginalize or threaten the journalism which informs and protects us.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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