When WSN’s Opinion Desk published its series on the Future of Journalism last May, the state of our union was distinctly different. Five months ago, as our pieces came out, the tremors of impeachment were a hushed interlude. But now, the chorus is singing — and boy, is it singing loud.
Things felt more uncertain then. How, exactly, were things more ambiguous last spring than they are now, with the branches of our government in a state of frantic war, practically no outright Constitutional blueprint for moving forward, a national association of impeachment with little more than Robert Redford or Monica Lewinsky, and just about two billion possible scenarios and outcomes regarding what this president can pull out of his hat next? Last spring, our political future felt both stagnant and untenable. Today, the threat looming over us is even clearer than it was before, but at least there’s no more denying that it exists. Despite the fact that this threat to our democracy is roaring with power — and as inexplicably daunting as that may be — the risks are brightly illuminated, and the offenses openly confessed to. And we, in many ways, have journalists to thank for that.
It was the media, which the president has so adamantly labeled as an illicit illusion, that broke the news of a whistleblower filing a complaint regarding the White House’s gambling with the security and survival of Ukraine, a nation which is currently enduring one of the world’s most dire humanitarian catastrophes at the hands of its Russian neighbors. It was The Washington Post that first broke the whistleblower’s story — and it is institutions like The Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, NPR and any other objective news outlet in the United States that are keeping us informed of the developments within our democracy.
Journalists are center stage again after three years of incessant battering as part of the current administration’s tirade against “fake news,” and they are not letting up in their efforts for accountability. Every morning, The New York Times’s podcast, “The Daily,” educates us on our 8 a.m. coffee runs and brisk walks to the office on how to digest the impeachment inquiry as it morphs and broadens. The editorial boards, columnists and opinion writers at every major publication are currently tackling this issue from the inside out, leaving no stone unturned, whether it be in an effort to dig deep into the machinations of Rudy Giuliani, the roles and responsibilities of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or the what-ifs of the impeachment proceedings themselves. I check my NPR app every few hours, and am consistently struck by constant updates on news stories and newfound pieces of unfurling evidence.
This is democracy in action. Imagine how we, as citizens, would navigate these unfamiliar waters with only the word of our government as a source of information — imagine where we would be now if the @realDonaldTrump Twitter page was all we had to lean on.
The gravest error one can make in interpreting the struggle between Trump and the media is in casting the media as a sort of resistance movement. That has never been, and will never be, the role of the journalist. Journalists want to tell the story, not take part in it — if they wanted to be the story themselves, perhaps they’d have become politicians.
But having something as tangible as the whistleblower complaint in our hands — a document which Intelligence Chief Joseph Maguire validated when he called the writer a person “operating in good faith” who was “[following] the law” — means that history has already been written. Fact has been ordained, verified and set into stone. A chapter of our textbooks has been officially inscribed, and it is now every individual’s job, whether in Congress or at home, to decide which side of history they will stand on.
It is journalists who have been tasked with locating the fire amidst all these clouds of sociopolitical smoke, which continue to blur our understanding of our own nation’s internal maneuverings. This claim is not made, however, to avow that journalistic coverage currently exists in an untouchable or flawless realm. It never has, and it never will. And in the quest to discover the origins of the fire, the media can often end up generating a copious amount of unnecessary smoke themselves.
Shortly after the whistleblower complaint was made public, there was a controversy around The New York Times publishing biographical information regarding the whistleblower’s identity, which alluded to the fact that the whistleblower was a male working within the government and for the C.I.A., potentially putting them in harm’s way. Lawyers representing the whistleblower retaliated with the argument that a whistleblower must “have a right to anonymity,” particularly in the face of the president’s increasingly dystopian implications that whistleblowers are spies and traitors.
The Times acknowledged and responded to the criticism. Executive Editor Dean Baquet wrote that the publication made its choice to publish the aforementioned details as something of a retort to those who had questioned the whistleblower’s credibility, as a way “to provide information to readers that allows them to make their own judgments about whether or not [the whistleblower] is credible.” We walk a fine line when we are embedded within a position this tenuous, and the conversation that this situation has sparked about the vital nature of whistleblower protection is a crucial one. The story is made even more perplexing by the idea that a significant contingent of our national audience could be manipulated into believing that the whistleblower’s statement is a hoax by a single presidential tweet. To jeopardize the whistleblower’s safety is a journalistic overstep — but the fact that the whistleblower’s wellbeing might be at risk, or that his reputation might need shielding, is indicative of the dissolution that succeeds the distortion of truth.
As we praise journalists working to uphold the values of democracy, it is simultaneously our utmost imperative to honor and maintain the safety of those willing to come forward as whistleblowers. These brave individuals place the welfare of their nation before their own lives and careers, sacrificing their security for the sake of their country. Without them, our media’s ability to influence and advance would be hindered. It is when courageous Americans and determined journalists engage with one another and refuse to turn a blind eye to the facts that our checks on power can become the most effective.
When we published the introduction to our series last May, we wrote that “the truth matters.” And it is this very truth — and and all of those who strive each day to act as its arbiters — that have weakened the president to a point in which he can no longer dispute it, either. He has, as New Yorker writer Susan Glasser put it, “self-impeached.” He has admitted to his actions. He has tried to justify them, yes, by describing his conversation with the Ukranian president with inane adjectives like “perfect,” but even Trump himself has not made an effort to cast these developments as blatant falsifications. He and his team catapult other strategies on the table — drawing attention to Joe and Hunter Biden’s dealings in Ukraine, or insisting that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is really their bosom-buddy. But we know we are in uncharted terrain when Rudy Giuliani has to physically “shush” a Fox News host on live national television — yes, even Fox News, the president’s vastest and most loyal caravan of groupies, is starting to grow a little weary.
It took a fundamental shock to our foundation to prove to our nation that when facts are placed on the table, no amount of name-calling, animosity and deception can override them. I felt compelled to follow up on our findings from last spring as we steer these rapidly-altering ebbs and flows, because the journalists that are upholding their check on governmental power are manifesting a distinctly American characteristic that, even amidst this cacophony of disillusionment, we can and should all be thankful for.
This is not to say that Donald Trump will be impeached or convicted, or even that his legacy will be tarnished as vociferously as it seems it will right now. He has sustained his armor, through scandal after scandal, and perhaps his skin is thicker than we think. But the crux of the matter is not necessarily the outcome. It is, rather, the fact that regardless of who survives this period of contortion, the journalists that brought the story to the national consciousness at the very inception of this process have been here to guide us, and will continue to serve as our guides through to the end. And so as unsteady as the groundwork we are walking on might be, we can be confident that as long as we are willing to hear it, there is a pillar of American democracy determined to bring us closer to the truth — and that no matter what anyone writes on their Twitter page, the future of the impact of journalism is, indeed, alive and strong.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019 print edition. Email Hanna Khosravi at [email protected]