"Of Cabbages and Kings..."

November 6, 2020
Adler Journalism Building, University of Iowa
Adler Journalism Building, University of Iowa

It came as no surprise.

Approaching one o’clock Eastern, hours after polls had closed on the 2020 election -and moments after Joe Biden addressed the media to express optimism but urge patience and the importance that all votes be counted, Donald Trump took to Twitter.

“We are up BIG but they are trying to STEAL the Election,” he tweeted. Neither was true. “We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed!”

There were no credible reports of this happening. It had been well documented that the COVID-19 pandemic elicited millions of mail-in ballots, and in some states it was already established that these would take days to count. Trump was trailing in electoral votes in states that had at that point been called, and any perceived advantage in the battlegrounds where he might erase this deficit was based on the skewed optics of an incomplete and ongoing tally. Twitter, appropriately, flagged Trump’s post with a warning that it contained disputed and potentially misleading information.

About an hour later the President stood amid a backdrop of American flags in the East Room of the White House, and lied. For months he had been working to construct a narrative around unfounded suspicion of election fraud, and this was the moment to play his anticipated ace in the hole. Feigning confusion from his lectern he spoke of planned celebration as if on the precipice of victory, at one point claiming it, and made a number of egregiously false claims. He said his campaign was winning, or had won, in several of the states that remained very much undecided. He said there were efforts to disenfranchise those who had voted for him, which simply was not true. He asserted that fraud had been committed, called for ballot counting to stop, and accused that illegitimate votes might be added after the polls had closed. He expressed desire to involve the Supreme Court, the implication of which might strip this election from the will of the people and award final say to a judiciary that includes three justices he’d appointed himself.

During the live broadcast, NBC news interrupted the President’s speech to point out that his statements were not true. Other networks issued similar clarifications after he left the podium. With that, in the pre-dawn hours of November 4th lines were drawn in the latest, and perhaps most crucial, battle yet between this President and the press. Trump, who according to The Washington Post has made over twenty two thousand false or misleading claims thus far in his presidency (as of the time this is being written), has leaned heavily on lies and manipulation. He’s been quick to dismiss important issues, from climate change to the global pandemic to national security, as “fake news” simply because it does not align with his agenda. He has sought to undermine public confidence in the media to the extent that it cannot be seen as anything less than a chief strategy. Credible journalists, especially those from organizations that may challenge the President, have been excluded from press briefings. Reporters are often denigrated and insulted by Trump himself, and have been targeted with verbal and physical abuse from many of his supporters.

The Press, in this case it was the network media on the front lines and positioned to offer an immediate response, has learned to push back. First of all they were (rightfully) not going to let Trump use their broadcasts as a mouthpiece to spread unsubstantiated conspiracy theory or propaganda. On the bigger issue of the “battle” however, it’s not really a fight against Trump, per se, but a battle for the truth. It’s a battle to fulfill the imperative duty of The Fourth Estate- to serve as watchdogs for democracy and disseminate factual information to the public. That is its function and it has every bit the importance and clout, when working properly, as the presidency. It’s the role of holding elected officials accountable in order to curtail abuse of power- an often unheralded, yet critically necessary element in our system of checks and balances. And with a Congress currently hogtied by spineless Senators who have demonstrated no will to hold Trump liable, and unsettling uncertainty as to where the Supreme Court’s loyalty will fall- at this moment the press may be our greatest hope in defending the sanctity of our election process.

The thing is the press, like our branches of government, gets its power from the people. It relies heavily on maintaining a relationship of public trust, and on citizenry confident in its purpose and importance. Trump understands this, which is why he has tried to discredit the media at every turn. Journalists of course know it too, and the genuine majority is committed to preserving this social contract through hard work and professionalism. The problem is though we live in a culture where many people only want to accept things that are of benefit to them, or support what they want to believe. It’s as if the press is up against an altered reality, convoluted by the President’s chest thumping and lies, and that’s something that a profession both principled in and reliant on objectivity is struggling to overcome.

For the past four years now I’ve cringed a little bit harder each and every time I hear somebody decry credibly reported and relevant information as “fake news.” It’s a refrain that has spread, like a virus, from the Oval Office throughout a populace unsuspecting of its true consequence. Unlike those who dismiss any report to their disliking, and seethe with contempt for the “liberal media” (again, being a label cast upon any outlet which is not aligned with their personal beliefs) I actually have been through journalism school. I know the merit that lies at the core of the profession, I know the commitment to ethics behind the scenes; and, unfortunately, I was not there the day that George Soros came to collect our deposit slips- which is also to say that I know conspiratorial claims levied toward the wider profession are utter bullshit. And importantly, I realize the danger that such baseless accusations present, chipping feverishly away at the few remaining bastions of our democracy.

My education in journalism came from the University of Iowa, a Big Ten institution in a liberal Midwestern town, but as an accredited program I have every belief that it was an experience commonly shared by anyone who enters the profession. What struck me most about the coursework and what sticks with me today is how- long before lessons in reporting, writing technique or media law are so much as entertained- students have the core values of professional ethics and journalistic integrity drilled into them, and must complete curriculum which provides a thorough background on the essential role a free press has played in the founding, evolution and upholding of American democracy. The first part of this of course revolves entirely around objectivity- reporting fair and thorough accounts devoid of external influence. Regardless of ideology, politics or other personal view. It’s a loyalty to the story, and to the truth, and a commitment that sets the foundation for a bond of trust with the audience. It is instilled in each individual student that they don’t only represent themselves or their agency, but in a vocation where trust is critical, they reflect the entire profession. Students come of age beneath the weight of this obligation. It is not something that is taken lightly.

The historical instruction is also meant to assure that those entering the profession understand the significance of the torch they will carry. Every chapter of American history contains the fingerprints of a free press, with abundant and essential examples of how journalism has played a key role in spurring the movements that made us what we are today. Frederick Douglas’ eloquent prose, reflecting on the abuses he’d endured in slavery, spoke directly to the moral conscience of readers while disproving any absurd notion of racial intellectual inferiority. Elijah Lovejoy was murdered while trying to defend his fourth printing press, after pro-slavery mobs had destroyed the first three. Both impassioned people with the determination that the intrinsic freedoms of life, liberty, and expression are what this nation should stand for, and what must be afforded to all.

The political cartoons of Thomas Nast and editorials in the New York Times exposed rampant municipal corruption, in true David vs. Goliath fashion, to bring down Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. Muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens went on to unveil corruption at city, state and federal levels nation wide, while Ida Tarbell helped to reveal illegal practices by the Rockefellers and break up the Standard Oil monopoly. Upton Sinclair showed the perils to both labor and food safety in America’s meatpacking industry. Coverage of war efforts on the home front emboldened the “Rosie the Riveter” persona and secured women’s rightful place in the workforce.

Ida B. Wells documented lynching and led the push for civil rights … Edward R. Murrow challenged the propaganda and manipulation of McCarthyism. Woodward and Bernstein’s exposure of the Watergate scandal took down Nixon… The list goes on and on. And it’s a safe bet that the same dismissive rhetoric that some so willingly cast upon journalists today was absorbed by these predecessors as well. Very few of those making baseless assumptions and accusations toward the press likely have any idea what side of history they stand on, or the danger they unassumingly usher in helping to perpetuate anti-media rhetoric. They have no understanding of the threat this carries to the very ideals represented by that flag they claim allegiance to. (I mean the American one… not the MAGA rags currently being sold for ½ price at roadside flea market stands.) Each time I hear another utterance of the term “fake news” I’m reminded of the Lewis Carroll poem The Walrus and the Carpenter and think of all those little oysters being willingly led to their demise.

It has now been three days since the election. Out of abundance of caution, as of the moment I write this, the outcome has not yet been officially called. Votes are still being counted, including absentee ballots from our military personnel overseas, and Biden has taken a likely insurmountable lead in several key states needed to win the Electoral College. This includes Georgia, with the special sentiment of its 5th Congressional District, formerly represented by civil rights icon John Lewis said to have been the count that overcame Trump’s advantage. Biden’s popular vote lead has grown to over 4 million. Recounts are likely where margins are justifiably close, as they should be, and poll watchers for both parties have been and will be in place to insure transparency. At this point there is no reason not to believe Joe Biden will win the election, and should become 46th President of the United States.

Trump and his team continue to be indignant. They continue to allege fraud without being able to present any backing evidence of wrongdoing. They continue to lie- networks once again had to cut away from a Presidential press conference yesterday because of the unsubstantiated claims being spewed- and they are threatening widespread litigation as a means of recourse. Much like that election night tweet, sadly, none of this comes as a surprise. It’s very likely that Trump will attempt to drag this out as long as he possibly can. The more lawsuits, and the more claims of fraud regardless of merit, the angrier and more suspicious his supporters will become. He also knows there are nearly seventy million voters out there who are not happy with these results. Seventy million people that aren’t being told what they want to hear- though he is willing, truth be damned. It’s not at all inconceivable that Trump is vying for leverage in rousing his base, with plans to make a plea for faithless electors. Without an actual case to take before the Supreme Court, it may be his most viable option to hold power by way of an undemocratic takeover. The more chaos the better for our sitting President, and with this administration, that’s a pretty scary thought.

So this is where we come back full circle, to recognizing a line of defense in the press. Its obligation is still to the truth, and regardless of if that aligns with how you voted or what you want to hear, that is what will be presented. Is there bias in the media? Yes, unfortunately there is. It’s frustrating and it happens on both sides. But that’s something that can easily be navigated through fact checking, cross-referencing, and taking personal accountability, and objectivity, to the information we consume. The slant is also a far cry from fabrication. Reports right now are widespread across credible networks and outlets, including some leaning left and others leaning right, to verify that there is no evidence of foul play. No reason to suspect fraud. This is simply the process of counting votes, which have come in record numbers, and time is being taken to get it right.

The power of the press is in the faith of the people, and this is our moment to collectively determine the value of this institution. We can either trust the reports, and the process, remain vigilant and resolve together to abide by the outcome of a fair election… or abandon that two hundred and fifty year legacy to believe the desperate accusations of a known conman. Trump hasn’t quite turned his full election fraud ire on the media just yet, but like the other examples, you know that it’s coming.

Will you believe it?

What side of history will you be on?

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