“Enemy of the people”

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

I was told as a young writer that as a reporter my job was to be the reader’s advocate.

I was not to be the advocate of the people in the government I was writing about; nor those who ran institutions or companies.

I was to be the people’s advocate.

It’s a tall order, investigating and then writing about people who are the heads of institutions like schools; representative folks like mayor, senator, President, sheriff; owners or CEOs of companies from the local bank to the global corporation. These are the people who can impress and can intimidate because of position and money. It’s up to reporters to just get in there and ask them the whys. Why they don’t pay a living wage; why they aren’t selling houses to people of color; why women get paid less than men; why we have more prisoners than any other country; why politicians get so many vacations and CEOs so many bonuses.

People who have power can hide, lie, disgrace others, get them fired, put them away. The reporter’s job is to find out if these things are happening. If the powerful are of good character, there’s nothing to investigate.

When I was young, the idea of being paid to write news, opinion or stories was the best job in the world that I could imagine, better than doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief and definitely better than priest or politician, however important these callings are. My heroes have always been writers, and therefore to wind up as a writer has always humbled me.

So, when the new Republican administration calls me and my colleagues “the enemy of the people,” I am astonished.

I am the advocate of the people. My job is to report or give my opinion on what the new Republican administration and other politicians are doing because they affect people’s lives. Most people don’t have time to investigate what affects their lives, or often even know their lives are being affected until they lose their house or their job or their health; they’re working and rely on the fifth estate – the press, the media — to inform them.

This is the job of the writer, the reporter, the opinionist, the editor – to inform.

That media has been taking hits for the last 30 years has appeared to me to be a concerted effort to undermine the importance of investigating people in power. It’s the people in power who’ve been dissing – disrespecting — the press, and leading others to do the same. This alone is enough to make one wonder. People who don’t like being questioned often diffuse the situation, lead it elsewhere by criticizing the questioner and his integrity, his brains, his ethics. The press doesn’t have a bad reputation because they don’t have honesty, intelligence or morals; they have a bad rep because too many people at the top have said so.

I will not accept that I and other reporters, writers and columnists – from whatever corner of the political spectrum — are “the enemy of the people.” That’s a manipulative and threatening phrase out of dictatorships, out of communist takeovers, out of strongman regimes. It is not a phrase that defines the American press. It’s a phrase that puts fear in people about the press, and fear in people like me who are the press. The phrase diminishes and it muzzles.

How would the head of the new Republican administration like it if we used it on him?

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