For the first fifteen years of my professional career, I was a journalist for a variety of publications, most notably three different stints with The Associated Press in Albany, Seattle and New York. Journalism is a tough, unforgiving career — low pay, long hours, soul-crushing deadlines and heaping helpings of disrespect from nearly every quarter. I admit, it totally burned me out, which is why I left.
Yet it’s an absolutely critical part of American society. The problem is, at a time when it’s more important than ever, the Achilles heel of American journalism has been exposed.
Get both sides. That’s been the mantra of journalists for more than a century now, when the notion of an impartial Fourth Estate began to take shape. This was, in large part, due to the growth and importance of The Associated Press. Back in the 19th century, newspapers were unabashed in their political views in reporting. But when five New York papers created a cooperative service to report on far-flung areas, there was a need for the AP to be impartial, so that a conservative paper and a liberal paper could use the same dispatch.
This grew into a general belief that news should be impartial, and that editorializing should be the purview of the editorial pages only. I genuinely believe this to be a Good Thing, and it transformed journalism into an active challenger of the status quo, no matter who was in power and who was on the outside.
Over time, though, the get both sides mantra has become bastardized. It’s allowed folks on the very margins of reasonable discourse — anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, all manner of conspiracy theorists — a seat at the table. And with the advent of social media, these fringe voices can find each other, organize and boost their signal, giving journalists a sense that the beliefs in question are more widespread than perhaps they realized.
And so here we are today, when we see journalists writing normalizing articles on the so-called Alt-Right and CNN has a ticker that says “Alt-Right Founder Asks If Jews Are People,” as if this can even be debated. (Meanwhile, you have The Atlantic, saving face for the rest of the Fourth Estate, covering an Alt-Right event where participants are giving the Nazi salute and shouting “Heil Victory! Heil Trump!” and calling it like it is.)
So where does get both sides end and the media begins to take a stand for the nation?
Look to the Constitution, wherein free speech is enshrined. The First Amendment reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Let’s be clear: The First Amendment enshrines these rights only inasmuch as it prohibits Congress from making laws that abridge or prohibit these things. Over the course of the next two-plus centuries, the three branches of government have extrapolated from there, generally agreeing that free expression, freedom of religion, freedom to assemble, etc., are protected and are the rights of all citizens.
That extrapolation — based on numerous laws and Supreme Court decisions — is what is now imperiled in the era of Trump. And it is that line in the sand that American journalism must draw.
What does this mean? When a rebranded Neo-Nazi, white supremacy movement attempts to normalize and get a foothold in the national conversation by holding a convention and wearing suits, you still call ’em what they are — Neo-Nazi white supremacists. When they question anybody’s rights and actual personhood, you call it for what it is — a call for the suppression of an individual’s Constitutional rights. When the president-elect’s surrogates float the idea for a Muslim registry, you call it for what it is — an unconstitutional act against freedom of religion.
These are bare minimums. One can argue multiple sides about immigration policy because the Constitution does not enshrine the right for anybody to come in and become a citizen, or stay without becoming a citizen. One can argue multiple sides about tax policy, criminal law enforcement, all those kind of things. You can even argue against vaccinations or climate change, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, because the Constitution doesn’t opine on those topics.
But let’s be clear on a few things that I believe are absolutes under the Constitution:
- Protesters have a right to peaceably assemble and protest the government.
- Individuals have a right to peaceably speak their opinions in public spaces.
- Individuals have a right to wear whatever religious attire they deem appropriate, whether it’s a yarmulke or a hijab or anything else.
- Every citizen of the United States is entitled to vote and be given all reasonable opportunities to do so, without undue government influence toward one group or another.
- Every person in this country — citizen or traveler — is protected by the laws of this nation. Nobody should be harassed or harmed. Nobody.
This is a double-edged sword, of course, because the Neo-Nazi white supremacists have as much a right to speech in the public sphere as anyone else — the Supreme Court definition of disallowed hate speech is limited only to “imminent lawless action.” So you can basically stand up and claim that another person should be disenfranchised and kicked out of the country, so long as you don’t say, “Now let’s everyone go to their house, set it on fire and forcibly put them on the next plane to Canada.”
But the press doesn’t have to sit there and report on that as normal. Folks calling for Muslim registries, kicking out U.S. citizens because of their religion or skin color, suppression of free speech or protest, demanding that Muslims no longer wear the hijab — those people are advocating the violation of a citizen’s rights under the Constitution.
Journalists — your very jobs are protected by that self-same Constitution. When you let stuff like this slide, you’re creating an environment in which the very tenets of free speech and freedom of the press can be questioned. And you are failing to do your part as Americans.
Yes, I burned out as a reporter, but I’m quite happy to have given my 15 years for the First Amendment. I firmly believe that journalism has been an immeasurable boon to the function of civil society in the United States. That civil society can reasonably be considered under threat when people are calling for the violation of individual liberties. So whether it’s a government policy or a fringe group with an outsized social media megaphone, the duty — yes, duty — of the press is the same.
Tell the truth of these policies and positions — that they violate Americans’ Constitutional rights. That is your line in the sand. That’s where get both sides should no longer apply.