Jean's View: Making Newspapers Matter

By Jean Godden

I have been branded an enemy of the American people. In other words, I am a journalist, someone who worked reporting the news most of my working life. As a Seattle councilmember, I briefly changed roles and made the news, but I never stopped asking questions, seeking answers, taking notes and believing that news, truth-telling and newspapers matter.

It was President Trump who in February attacked the news media as "the enemy of the American people." While "the enemy" seemed just another example of Trump's hateful excesses, it, nevertheless, was an especially chilling statement.

Trump may not have known the history of "enemy of the people," a phrase used during the French Revolution's Reign of Terror to mark opponents for execution. It was also used by Joseph Stalin to kill and imprison millions and by the Third Reich's Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels who referred to Jews as "sworn enemies of the German people," prologue to the mass murders of the Holocaust.

Trump's statement was chilling and ugly, yes. But his "enemies" phrase also was oddly paradoxical, like chewing off the hand while it's feeding you. Trump surely must know that he ultimately owes his present position to the "enemy" media outlets for making the Trump name a household word, for covering his election rallies and paying attention to his deranged tweets. Without media coverage, Trump would have been as obscure as the manufacturer of doggy waste bags and a whole lot less utilitarian.

On the other hand, we do have Trump to thank for one unwitting favor: He has done almost as much for newspapers as they have done for him. By his appalling treatment of news sources, he has given us a greater appreciation of them. As one defender, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. recently declared, "[Readers] see newspapers as the last line of defense between 2017 and 1984 [Orwell's dark world of Doublespeak and Big Brother.]"

In this past year, our remaining newspapers, those that have survived adverse attacks of technology and the internet, are coming back. Subscription bases are rising and there are small but hopeful signs that advertisers are recognizing opportunities in the revival. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are seeing circulation gains. The Washington Post is hiring again.

That is not to say we're returning to the Front Page era of journalism. What people are seeking is information, looking for fully-told stories rather than headlines. They are searching for credibility. Truth telling once again is being valued. This hunger for facts belies the Trumpian dismissal of journalistic reports as "fake news" when he, unlike Orwell's Big Brother, cannot control truth.

Once we believed that our newspapers, news magazines and newscasts (think NPR and Public Broadcasting) were the watchdogs of power. And the good ones still are. If we can nurture our truth tellers, we will have the facts; we will possess the tools needed to preserve our democracy.

This means supporting a free, independent press at whatever level, not just national papers like the New York Times and Washington Post, but papers at all levels from regional papers like the Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times, to community and small town presses. These smaller presses are the lifeblood and seed corn of the journalism profession, where beginners get their start, where those with a real passion for community journalism thrive (think Westside Weekly, Skagit Valley Herald, Seattle Weekly and Real Change).

Those who care about truth, honesty and liberty can do no better than to read, subscribe and support news and news writers. This is the heart of the resistance and our hope for the future.

As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said during one of this nation's bleakest moments, "Freedom of conscience, of education, of speech and of assembly are the very fundamentals of democracy, and all of them would be nullified should freedom of the press ever be successfully challenged."

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