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We Must Protect the Press to Police Politicians, Society

It recently struck me that the reason so many people love to hate journalists might be tied to the fact that they could be likened to individuals working in law enforcement.

Just in case you have not made the connection: One of the major tasks of the press is to police behavior of public officials and citizens in ways that promote fairness, equality and safety. Often, individuals end up in the news when they fall short of those standards. And, let’s face it: No one likes to have their dirty laundry aired in public.

But there is a certain irony connected to this analogy. The people who seem most likely to hate journalists for the work they do are the same ones most likely to support police officers, even when there is evidence that some of them are the bad actors whose behavior needs to be policed.

As one who has worked professionally as a journalist and now works to train students to become journalists, I have long marveled at how certain groups of people almost seem automatically inclined to distrust journalists. This pattern has been especially pronounced among White conservatives, and has only escalated since Donald Trump was elected president.

His incessant attacks on the news media should serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of a non-policed society, particularly as it pertains to politicians. Despite claims to the contrary, Trump is a politician, and there is ample evidence that he is not to be trusted without adequate policing.

His administration has become known for bashing the so-called “liberal media” while persistently promulgating “alternative facts,” which in street language are lies.

That is why the press must be encouraged to do what it has traditionally done, even if there is a legitimate argument to be made about the need to do it better. Sadly, that is not the narrative being scripted by many leading voices who would identify themselves as conservatives. But I know from firsthand experience that this is not a new pattern, even if Trump and his followers have made it more pronounced.

As a journalist traveling with George W. Bush when he ran for governor in the mid-1990s, I often found myself in spaces occupied by mostly White political conservatives. Politics aside, I remember feeling like I was in enemy territory. The body language and demeanor of individuals I interviewed often screamed distrust of the press. I got the sense that they had a perspective that they deemed to be the “right” perspective and thus should not be questioned.

Funny thing is, journalists are trained to question everything, so much so that a common refrain in journalism education has been “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”

This perception of distrust of the press raised its head again when I returned as a journalist to my Mississippi hometown during that same era of my career. I went there while working for the Houston Chronicle to report on a story about the potential racial implications a federally sanctioned private-school voucher program could have on public education.

In Mississippi and other southern states, many private schools were started in protest to court-mandated integration. They were dubbed “segregation academies” by some. My story explored whether people who didn’t want to go to school with Black people could use the public vouchers to avoid integration.

When I contacted the private academy in my hometown, school officials refused to talk to me. Even White teachers in the public schools denied that race was a factor in the school’s founding or an explanation for why they sent their own children to the all-White private academy while they taught in the largely Black public schools. The town’s newspaper bashed me and my article once it was published, claiming it was reported out of context.

I knew I was airing dirty laundry that needed to be aired, so I didn’t much worry about the criticisms.

I had seen this same kind of suspicion some years before then. While attending a conservative Bible school in Tulsa, I worked as a reporter for one of the daily newspapers there. When I and another student, who worked for the competing paper, told an instructor what we did, he stared at us as if we had committed a crime. Interestingly, that same school became the focal point of debates about race after the son of the founder preached from the pulpit that he had taught his children never to date a Black person.

Years later while attending divinity school in Fort Worth, I discovered that not only White conservatives hold these views about the press. I applied for a position as a communication assistant to a Black pastor who is part of the Southern Baptist Convention. I shared writing samples with him. He began questioning why I included in my work the opinions or views from individuals that did not jibe with his own. Needless to say: I did not get that job.

I discovered and research has since proved that different perspectives often are not welcomed in conservative circles, particularly when those perspectives call into question conservative ideas or values. I found this particularly true when I wrote a regular religion column for a major daily newspaper in Texas. Conservatives opposed my ideas, and they attacked me.

I tried to chalk it up to the adage: the hit dog is the one who howls the loudest. So, I never took it personally, but I did take it as a reminder of why the profession of journalism matters so much.

To be fair, it is not just conservatives who bash the press for unflattering coverage, but they seem to be the ones leading the charge to dismantle the press for its stated commitment to truth-telling, even when it is not popular or appreciated.

Here are the facts: Journalists are watchdogs assigned to police behavior, particularly that which has public implications. They square contradictions by raising questions that need to be raised. And they speak truth to power, often afflicting the comfortable while comforting the afflicted, as the late American humorist Finley Peter Dunne put it.

These practices help explain why we must protect the press, even as we challenge and demand that journalists work overtime to make sure they get the story and their facts right.

The alternative is to trust public figures to do what is right when no one is watching.

History speaks clearly of the dangers of doing that, just as it also speaks to the value that the press has added in promoting a fair and democratic society that is more safe and sane for all.

Dr. Robbie R. Morganfield is the Cleo Fields Endowed Professor in Mass Communication and Department Head at Grambling State University. His research and creative work revolve around race, religion and media.

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