SALT LAKE CITY — Last week, after breakfast with my friend Ingrid, I wrote a column offering a small glimpse of what she went through as a little girl in war-torn Germany.
Tears fell with every mention of her family's pain and the daily bombings she endured, and we discussed Hitler and a bit about the conditions that led to that oppressive regime.
Disparaging media, and ultimately controlling media, was a key tool in the effort by Hitler to exert influence and hold sway over the public. Last week's column was focused on the principles of free speech and a free press. It came out strongly against President Donald Trump's actions in calling the media the enemy of the people — a war of words that escalated this past week between the president and some journalists.
I included the following important paragraph in last week's column:
"This is not a column comparing our current president to Hitler or Nazi Germany. They are not comparable and any attempt to do so is worthy of condemnation. This is a column about recognizing what should be valued, and the danger in so cavalierly casting aside freedoms — including press freedoms — that so many have fought for here and abroad."
The column generated strong reader feedback, with some seeing it as an attack on the president, and others focusing on the failures of the media. Here's a sampling, with the scatological references excluded:
"Doug. You have embarrassed yourself by writing this article. Someone might actually read this and believe it. ... Doug, it’s the greatest country there is and he’s a fabulous president. Thankfully you and your kind will be silenced by the Electoral College again in a couple of years. Your article weakened my country."
I'm not sure who "my kind" is meant to represent, as it wasn't specified. But I can only surmise the writer is discussing those who support President Trump and those who do not. I am actually in the camp of those who support the First Amendment and I believe it is worthy and necessary to raise a voice against anyone who would seek to limit those freedoms. And I believe calling the media the enemy of the people fundamentally weakens free speech and freedom of the press in both subtle and overt ways.
Similarly, I have raised a voice in favor of keeping the courts open and doing the public's business in public when certain voices and forces move to close proceedings. But that should not be perceived as an attack on lawyers or judges as we engage in those principled battles.
Another writer said he is offended when the press is not responsible and fails to objectively present news and information. He writes:
"Mr. Trump is only using a vulnerability that the majority of the Free Press has been creating over the last 15 to 20 years. It would be nice if more of you, as editors, would require from your journalists, legitimate reporting focused on presenting facts instead of presenting their bias."
He has a point. President Trump certainly is capitalizing on press vulnerability as the rise in 24 hour cable news has put media and their viewers in separate camps — more liberal (CNN, MSNBC) and conservative (Fox News). News presenters on each of these networks have unapologetically mixed opinion with news coverage. Viewers are left trying to determine: Who are the journalists? Who are the pundits? Can I believe what I'm hearing or reading?
Media literacy among the public is needed now more than ever. Whereas opinion sections are easily identifiable in print, online and and social media feeds often fail to offer readers enough information about what is news and what is opinion and even obscure the true source of the information. Transparency in media is also needed now more than ever, and in greater proportions. And bias should be acknowledged.
The same writer then took a different turn, offering the following:
"You couldn't quite hold back the dismay you feel about being a better person than Mr. Trump. You won't see it and I don't know enough about editors to know what it would take to help you to see it. Nevertheless it is there and if you would consider the possibility of the presence of a feeling of superiority, I think you would be a more effective editor and mentor."
I sent the writer a note thanking him for his observations, noting that I find expressions of both support and criticism equally valuable. In this case, he said my column reveals, albeit subtly, a feeling of superiority over the president.
Well, I don't feel superior. I'm focused on principles and at the Deseret News we try to make decisions based on principles. But I think he may be speaking of media arrogance. And that is worthy of reflection. Many within media embrace a progressive agenda and characterize it as the correct or right path. Stories are often selected to reveal that path, claiming to look forward, not backward. So there might be objective reporting within a story, but the very nature of selecting a story along that path can reveal a bias.
Some fall into the trap of wanting to be on "the right side of history," which also reveals a bias. What is the right side of history? Such a view can blind anyone, journalists included, from seeing other valuable and legitimate points of view.
I do believe humility on the part of journalists, when found, results in fairness and empathy in news stories. One can be firm, ask difficult questions, and still have respect for those they are covering, even those whom many in the public might not believe are worthy of respect (think criminals or those who bring difficulties on themselves).
I had a phone conversation with a very thoughtful woman who read my column and expressed concern and frustration over the state of media. She said she first noticed it in 2004, pointing to the increased liberal focus by much of the media. She expressed her desire for journalists, including us at the Deseret News, to do better. Then she said the following:
"The office of the president is not being respected right now. A lot of it is our mainstream media. I’m for America and want so much for us to become united."
Whatever one thinks of our president, or the presidency itself, that is a worthy desire.
A united America is a principle worth writing about.