Excuse me for a not watching the big Academy Awards whoopdedoo on Sunday night, where “Spotlight” — a movie about remarkable work by investigative journalists at an East Coast metro newspaper not unlike my own — grabbed the Oscar for best picture and for b) the fact that I haven’t even watched “Spotlight” yet, even though I’ve seen a half-dozen or so other new releases since it came out.
By: Will Bunch — As for not watching the Oscars, it was mostly because I was way too busy as Sunday night editor of the Daily News — performing the more quotidian rituals that result in a newspaper every morning, like making sure the Daily News Pet of the Week (Eevee, an adorable Chihuahia mix up for adoption!) gets to the right place. As for not racing out to see “Spotlight,” a film that celebrates my profession at its best….I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll get to it.
OK, maybe it’s because I lived through that bygone era (the movie’s set in 2002) of profitable newspapers and big budgets, with scores of reporters freed up to work for weeks or even months on complicated investigative stories. To be sure, I know a lot of journalists who continue to do amazing work — but it’s all uphill, against the wind. There are precious few teams left like the Boston Globe’s Spotlight unit.
My Twitter account — larded with other journalists — was filled with somewhat self-congratulatory tweets, that the Oscar was some sort of validation of what we do. Perhaps. But to me, seeing the glory 2002-era journalism on the big screen falls under the classification of history, not current events. I find that a little sad — more a validation of what we did.
And here’s the reality that became even more clear as the clean-up crews swept through Hollywood’s gloaming dawn and the warm winter sun came out here on the East Coast: American journalism isn’t so much being celebrated as its under siege — more so than any time in the last 40 years. And the forecast is only looking worse. With Donald Trump’s grim and relentless march toward the White House, the very heart and soul of the 1st Amendment is now at risk.
The punctuation mark came this afternoon at a Trump rally at Virginia’s Radford University, where a longtime contract photographer for Time magazine named Chris Morris was choked and slammed to the ground by a Secret Service agent, although the federal agency offered few details except to acknowledge it was “aware of an incident involving an employee.” Morris and his camera have documented wars from Iraq to Libya to the Balkans, but it was U.S. soil where he landed with a body slam for doing his job.
What happened? It starts with the “press pen” — a sad, anti-democratic invention where journalists are corralled at political rallies like so much cattle, and under orders from the campaigns and their security not to leave and talk to rank-and-file voters. No campaign has been more aggressive in controlling the movement and access of the press than that of Trump.
Today in Virginia, a large Black Lives Matter contingent disrupted the Trump rally. As Morris surged forward to photograph these protesters on the march, he pushed, momentarily, about a foot and a half beyond the boundary of the media holding pen. That’s when he came in contact with the agent — and when ordered back, Morris dropped an F-bomb.
An important, salient fact: The U.S. courts have held that it’s free speech to curse at a law-enforcement officer as long as his duties are not otherwise obstructed. Was it wise? You’d have to ask Morris — the recipient of a body slam that looked more at home at a UFC match than a presidential campaign.
Either way, the agent’s actions were outrageous. The Secret Service gets assigned to presidential campaign events for one reason: To provide security and NOT to restrain the press from its First Amendment-protected duties, such as conducting interviews and taking pictures. The agent who pushed back and potentially injured a working photographer needs to be disciplined, but more importantly, President Obama should order an investigation into why the Secret Service is even performing these duties in the first place. Because what happened today at Radford University made America look more like some two-bit banana republic than a functioning democracy.
This was not an isolated incident. For starters, the disgrace of practically detaining journalists into press corrals has become common practice among candidates of both parties. In October when I was reporting my “The Bern Identity” project, I was at a massive Bernie Sanders rally in Boston and was flabbergasted when a) I was told to return to my seat and to stop interviewing adoring Sanders’ fans on the other side of the press pen tape and b) told I would need to be escorted by a press aide to the men’s room, a walk that was about a quarter mile. Hillary Clinton once corralled reporters behind a moving rope at a parade — and hasn’t held a news conference in months.
When the press doesn’t fight back against these various insults and abuses, the contempt only spreads. Today, for example, Trump’s new high-profile backer — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — held a news conference to announce the appointment of a new New Jersey Supreme Court justice, and not only refused to answer questions on any other topic, but verbally berated reporters who tried, barking at one question: “Permission denied.”
When journalists need to beg permission from politicians to ask certain questions, our democracy is on the rocks. Not surprisingly, reporters who do cover the Trump rallies — even as they’re treated like livestock — have become the target of scorn, both from rabid supporters of the short-fingered vulgarian and from the podium of the would-be president, in the mode of the Two-Minutes Hate from Orwell’s 1984. The independent group Reporters Without Borders, in dropping America’s ranking for press freedom to a mediocre 49th out of 180 nations, said: “Donald Trump has brought his grudge-match with the media to an extremely dangerous level for freedom of the press.”
In the past when I’ve mentioned the press abuse at Trump’s rallies, I get a lot of pushback, especially from folks who share my liberal worldview. Hasn’t the media created the Trump monster with its fawning, around the clock coverage of his Mussolini-like campaign — and thus brought this on itself? I certainly agree with the first part, that media coverage of Trump’s crusade — from the candidate’s incestuous relationship with MSNBC’s influential Joe Scarborough to today’s appalling comment by the head of CBS that he loves the Trump campaign because it brings in dollars — has been an embarrassment. But the mistakes of the press don’t merit beer-hall-putsch style treatment, now bleeding into actual violence.
And it will only get worse if Trump becomes the 45th president. Last week, the GOP frontrunner promised that one of his priorities in the White House would be to weaken libel laws, to make it easier to intimidate journalists from investigative reporting (like the Globe’s “Spotlight” team), by suing them. That’s scary, and he made it worse by telling a rally in Fort Worth that papers that have criticized him, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, will “have problems” if he’s elected.
Richard Nixon, before he resigned amid rising calls for impeachment for abusing the powers of the White House, said similar things — but only behind closed doors (and thankfully on tape.) With Trump and his rallies, I am so often reminded of the only good line from the last George Lucas-directed Star Wars film, that “this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.” With a President Donald J. Trump, the public may not realize all the ways that press freedom have been crushed, and how that’s hurting America, until it’s too late.
But, hey, we’ll still have 2002, and a shiny gold Oscar standing in tribute to what journalism once could do. Even Trump in the White House couldn’t take that away.