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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

Response to ‘The devil wears a MAGA hat’

Attitudes like those expressed by Jeff Murphy in his Feb. 25 column are the kindling with which democracies burn. I do not mean to suggest, though, that Mr. Murphy seeks the dissolution of American democracy. Moreover, I doubt that Donald Trump is on track to overthrow America’s democratic institutions. Rather, I contend that Mr. Murphy’s willingness to condemn the American news media as the “enemy of the people” constitutes a surrender to a dangerous strain of populism that could very well lead to the downfall of our republic. I urge Mr. Murphy, and those who agree with him, to acknowledge the nuance in the issues he addresses. Accepting the black-and-white framework that paints all who disagree with Donald Trump as corrupt and traitorous paves the way for an authoritarian regime under the American flag. All responsible consumers of news media should be prepared to criticize oversteps by news organizations. In my view, the 24-hour news cycle and the pressure to make news more like entertainment are two key reasons for the missteps by American news media. News organizations — facing new competitive pressures — are attracted more and more to the most sensational stories. The Covington Catholic case is a good example of this. As Mr. Murphy rightly points out, this story adhered well to a narrative that many liberal consumers of news found outrageous — and thus engaging. Better journalistic practices would have prevented that situation from spiraling in the way it did. Of course, I must push back against Mr. Murphy’s implication that only centrist or left-leaning news outlets deserve criticism. Conservative news outlets like Fox News and Daily Wire have, in my view, gone further in pursuing sensational stories for the sake of viewership boosts. For example, Fox News recently published a news article on its main page, highlighting how Rush Limbaugh compared Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to a child. I’d invite Mr. Murphy to explain how such a story constitutes more than a “perversion of the truth and blind allegiance to partisan politics” (per Mr. Murphy’s description of mainstream news). But my larger point concerns not the balance of criticism between news outlets, but rather the character of the criticism itself. Mr. Murphy and I agree that news outlets are often deserving of criticism, but I must reject in the strongest possible terms his condemnation of the news media as the “enemy of the people.” Terrorists might deserve that title; neo-Nazis would also be a contender. But the journalists responsible for critiquing political leaders, shining a light on injustice and informing the public? When The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team revealed the heinous sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests, were they harming the American people? When Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed a conspiracy by the Nixon Administration to corrupt the American electoral process, were they seeking to undermine the American republic? I, for one, sleep more soundly at night knowing that journalists are working to check the conduct and anti-democratic impulses of my elected leaders. If Mr. Murphy sees the press as such a danger to American life, if he and people who think like him believe that our politicians should operate free of criticism and accountability, then they might as well support the repeal of the First Amendment or the Constitution itself. A republic where leaders govern with impunity would be no republic at all — it would be a dictatorship. I doubt that Mr. Murphy supports the establishment of an American dictatorship under Mr. Trump, but he must recognize that bluntly attacking the free press and labeling it the “enemy of the people” pushes us in that direction. The preeminent project of our democracy should not be — as Mr. Murphy seems to believe — scoring cheap shots against the other side. Rather, we must strive to maintain and refresh our democratic institutions so that our government “of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  

Tim Jacklich


Feb. 25

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.