Trump’s Remarks About Journalists Are Unacceptable, But Unsurprising

So much of what is happening in America lately is, to put it simply, unfathomable. Many actions may seem appropriate for an earlier time period, but are strikingly out of place in the “modern democracy” of the United States (quotation marks seem necessary). I could reference about any number of topics, from the growing evidence that Trump tried to stop FBI investigations into ties to Russia to his expansion of a policy he revoked early in his presidency to give U.S. aid to abortion providers across the world. I want to focus, though, on something close to my heart: the treatment of journalists under Trump’s administration.

In the aftermath of the explosive New York Times report that Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey to stop investigating his also-former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, another appalling tidbit was lost in the chaos. Trump suggested that Comey “Consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information,” writes Michael Schmidt.

This remark is startling at best and deeply troubling at worst. It is reminiscent of authoritarian governments and starkly un-American values. It is also, sadly, not a surprise coming from Trump, who has displayed malice towards journalists at every step of his path to the presidency.

Now, in the Oval Office, he still can’t see that journalists are an essential part of a democracy. I mean, it’s probably hard for him to see this, considering the impact of journalism on his reputation. Just this week, outstanding reporting from journalists at the Washington Post and The New York Times brought quick and serious implications; from calculated throwing around of the word “impeachment” — from both political sides — to the worst day in the stock market since Sept. 2016.

Interestingly, as Politico reporter Josh Dawsey noted on Twitter, Schmidt, the journalist who wrote about Trump asking Comey to stop investigating Flynn, was the same journalist who first broke the story about Hillary Clinton’s private email server. So was Schmidt “out to get” Trump? Or did he simply use the same journalistic rigour he applied to a story about Clinton to write a story about Trump?

As a journalism student, I am inspired by the persistence of journalists who cover Trump. They are up against serious odds — barred from press briefings, not invited to meetings with foreign officials, for example — and often have to decipher fact from fiction when White House officials blatantly lie (this is not to say that there haven’t been problems with media coverage of Trump, because there have). Journalists keep going, though, because what they do is important. The public has a right to know what is happening in their government, and journalists fulfill this critical role of gathering and communicating information.

Trump’s treatment of journalists both on the campaign trail and as President is unacceptable. But it is also unlikely to change. As the newly-appointed special prosecutor begins his investigations, I can only see journalists rightly continuing to cover Trump. But, sadly, I can only see Trump continuing to berate and belittle journalists in return.


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The Circle In Real Life: Mandatory Voting?

Technology’s place in society, questions of privacy versus security and issues of government transparency were all explored in The Circle, a new movie directed by James Ponsoldt and based on a novel by Dave Eggers. I wouldn’t go as far as to agree with Vox’s appraisal that the movie is “bafflingly bad,” but it certainly contains confusing elements and has a startlingly abrupt ending. However, the movie does feature several topical ideas that have relevance to our society and everyday lives.

Among those ideas was one that, as someone who has studied politics, I found intriguing: mandatory voting. In the movie, staff at the Circle, a Google-esque tech company, have the idea to link voting with citizens’ social media accounts. Essentially, in order to vote, you need this account; or, to put it another way, if you have this social media account, you must vote. In the meeting where the idea is pitched, someone draws a comparison to a totalitarian regime.

But, as another character says, we have hundreds of laws that govern people’s actions, and that’s not considered totalitarian. Laws surrounding driving, for example, are more or less accepted as being beneficial for the safety of members of society. Following speed limits, or general rules of the road, are not seen as optional, or as personal decisions. So then is voting a personal decision?

On one hand, of course it is. Article 12 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” Who people vote for is a personal decision; I’d argue that the decision to vote (or not vote) is also a personal decision. If people do not want to exercise their right to vote, then it’s their will to do this, so long as they live in a country that does not enforce mandatory voting.

In theory, mandatory voting is good because it encourages (or, rather, forces) citizens to get involved in the democratic process. Low voter turnout is a problem even in countries that pride themselves on their democracies (America had a turnout of approximately 56.9 per cent in the 2016 federal election). Mandatory voting would change this; but it wouldn’t automatically mean that citizens were well-educated about the choices on the ballot.

To professor and author Jason Brennan, this is a critical issue. He writes that “Bad choices at the polls can destroy economic opportunities, produce crises that lower everyone’s standard of living, lead to unjust and unnecessary wars (and thus to millions of deaths), lead to sexist, racist, and homophobic legislation, help reinforce poverty, produce overly punitive criminal legislation, and worse.” In other words, voting matters. It has huge societal implications, ones which reach beyond the voter and impact the millions of people in the country where the election is taking place. 

Brennan argues “That citizens have no standing moral obligation to vote” since it is only one way to contribute to a civic society. If citizens are not going to vote ethically, and with the greater good in mind, then “They should stay home on election day rather than pollute the polls with their bad votes.” This, to me, is a compelling argument against mandatory voting. If people are not educated about the candidates, they will make uneducated decisions. This can negatively impact a country and, really, the entire world.

So then I return to my earlier question. Should we be able to decide whether or not we vote, or should this be a decision that the government makes for us through something like mandatory voting? I think it’s incredibly important to hear all voices in a democratic society; and yet, I’m not sure if forcing people to vote is the right way to do this. There are other ways to encourage people to vote, such as having a wide range of candidates who can speak to the issues affecting people, having more civic education so that voters are not ill-informed and making the voting process easier.



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Is Liberty Dead?

“Is Truth Dead?” Time magazine asked on a recent cover, a clever nod to their 1966 “Is God Dead?” cover. I can’t imagine the words “Is Truth Dead?” boldly gracing a cover in any other year but this one. The events of Nov. 8, 2016, changed the course of the world dramatically, as did the months of campaigning that led up to that fateful night. Donald Trump’s victory made “Truth” into a buzzword—because suddenly, we were forced to consider the reality that there are often several shades of the truth.

Truth wasn’t the only concept distorted by Trump’s win and subsequent actions as president. Freedom, often symbolized by an-American bald eagle, has taken on a new meaning. Are American citizens truly free if the colour of their skin or the religion they practice makes them the target of a discriminatory travel ban? Equality is another word that has changed drastically; because while America’s founding fathers held the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, many of the words, actions, and policies of Trump’s administration are at direct odds with the very notion of equality.

There’s another word that I think has been missing in many discussions of Trump’s government: liberty, as in the inalienable right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and also as in the statute of Liberty  (which, I may add, has seen a significant increase in visitors since Trump took office).

Maybe it’s just me, but “Liberty” hasn’t been as widely-discussed as some of the aforementioned words. Liberty is very similar to freedom, but the definition of the word liberty on its own struck me as having particular relevance to Trump’s administration. Liberty is, according to the trusty dictionary.com, “Freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control.” Another definition: “Freedom from external or foreign rule; independence.” And another: “Freedom from control [or] interference.”

My mind jumped to Russia as I read those definitions. The investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia took a dramatic turn this week when former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn offered to testify about Russia in exchange for immunity. America is, of course, relatively autonomous; but the overwhelming evidence of links between Putin and Trump’s government makes me question just how free from foreign rule America really is, especially considering the Russian interference into the election. There is also evidence that some of Trump’s actions have been influenced by his businesses. For example, the first version of his travel ban excluded countries where he has business interests.

George Orwell said, “If liberty means anything, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” So here is something that you may not want to hear: many of America’s traditional values are shifting, perhaps not for the better. If you value things like truth, freedom, equality, and liberty, then you need to speak up and fight for them to remain an essential and unwavering aspect of democracy. Because at the rate things are going, Time is going to have a field day with all of the “Is [insert important concept here] dead?” covers.


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Alternative Facts: Trump Versus the Truth

“All you have to do is write one true sentence,” Ernest Hemingway said. “Write the truest sentence you know.”

Once upon a time, this may have been easy. On the other hand, maybe it was never easy to write true words and to form true sentences. To write objectively about the truth becomes considerably easier when you know what the truth is. There are, naturally, some barriers to knowing the truth. Our own biases can prevent us from believing the truth, even if it’s right in front of us. And, of course, being presented with a truth in the first place requires someone else (or something else) to recognize that truth.

If you’ve been following politics at all over the last month or so, you’ll probably know where I’m headed with this. Two words, spoken almost a month ago and now so widely known that they have their own Wikipedia page, have had a tremendous impact on discussions of truth, lies, and everything in between. Because, apparently, there is something in between truth and lies: “Alternative facts.” These were the words Kellyanne Conway spoke in defence of Donald Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer two days after Trump’s Inauguration.

As writers, journalists, humans, how are we supposed to write the truest sentences we know, when it’s not even clear what is a fact and what is an alternative fact? Sometimes, it’s obvious what is true and what isn’t. But more and more these days, the lines are blurring. Let’s say that Trump says something that is false (can you imagine?). Many of his supporters may believe him. Many others may not. Some people believe that Trump is telling the truth, even if there is evidence which suggests otherwise.

In this scenario, which has been playing out on a daily basis, the truth sometimes gets lost. What facts can back up is no longer seen as the truth; rather, what plays to people’s ideological biases is what is seen as the truth. Trump’s Muslim-majority travel ban, though struck down by the courts, is a perfect example of this. Although people from the countries he targeted have killed zero people in America, fear-mongering, Islamophobia, and xenophobia have caused many Americans (some surveys say the majority of Americans) to support his ban.

If a group of people believe a false statement, it doesn’t automatically become true. If everyone in the world suddenly decided that the sky was green, the sky would still be blue, in a literal sense. But if everyone believed the sky was green, then the truth that it is actually blue wouldn’t matter because everyone had constructed their own reality to live in. Again, this is playing out on a frightening scale in America.

Fake facts are nothing new, relatively speaking. Google “Lies about vaccines” and you see multiple perspectives on mistruths; either that the vaccine industry, and the mainstream media, are lying about the benefits of vaccines, or that people who are anti-vaccine are lying. The facts each “side” of the policy debate use ultimately shape their movement’s views. This raises a question: Can there only be one set of correct, objective facts? Most mathematically-minded people would say yes. But this would mean that millions of people, in America and around the world, live their lives based on complete lies — and some of these people might not even care.

The truth about alternative facts is this: They’re not harmless statements that warrant laughter and a trending hashtag. Alternative facts are real symptoms of Trump’s war on the media, on democracy, on human rights. And they are real signs that his administration is not going to succumb to reason or facts, but rather continue to pick and choose information to suit their misguided needs.

This is what I believe. That, to me, these are true sentences. But what is frightening about all of this is that it seems like some of what Trump is saying is what Hemingway would call “the truest sentence he (Trump) knows.” He truly believes the things he says, and even if he doesn’t believe all of it, a quick glance at social media shows that a lot of his supporters believe him.

So, enough of alternative facts. Here’s a real one: as this week’s Time cover predicts, there is a storm coming — for America, and for Trump. Read the weather forecasts carefully. Truth no longer carries the weight Hemingway believed it did, or hoped it would. How can it, when so many people accept “alternative facts” as the truth?


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Being a Journalism Student in the Age of Trump

It was the day of my journalism orientation, and I was sitting with new friends in an unfamiliar building. Professors spoke, imparting words of wisdom to their new pupils. One professor said something that I immediately jotted down in a notebook, and have thought of often since that day: “Afflict the comfortable.”

Those three words opened my eyes to a purpose of journalism that I hadn’t previously considered: that journalists are watchdogs, reporting on those in power (those who are “comfortable”) in a truthful and accurate manner. This role of journalists has always been a pillar of democracy; and it has become even more crucial in recent years, months, and even days, as Donald Trump campaigned, won the Electoral College, and was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America.

Here are just two recent events that come to mind when I think of journalists and Trump: his refusal to take a question from CNN at his press conference, referring to the network as “fake news”, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s comments wherein he told reporters what to write and used journalists as “hate objects.”

Trump said that he has a “running war with the media.” I think he has a running war with the truth, and the fact that some journalists and news organizations are calling him out on his lies makes it easy for him to confuse the media and the truth. This has paved the way for his comments about fake news. If Trump disagrees with a story, then it is fake news (and fake news, according to Trump, is a “TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT” — never mind that many people who create fake news do it for the money, not for the sake of targeting anyone).

Journalism is not perfect; but as a journalism student, I’ve learned that good journalists are committed to learning how to improve and accurately cover what is happening. I am inspired by the journalists who are committed to having honest conversations about the profession, about what is working and what isn’t.

On every level, the discussions I have heard about Buzzfeed’s decision to publish the dossier about Trump — from conversations in my journalism classes to conversations I watched unfold between established journalists on Twitter — are fascinating. These discussions point to the willingness of journalists to learn and improve their abilities, while remaining committed to the principle of accuracy.

Being a journalism student in the age of Trump means a lot of good discussions and valuable learning experiences. But it also means preparing for a profession which the President of the United States of America frequently bashes, and one in which the public does not have a great deal of trust.

And yet I know that for myself, and many of my peers, these things do not discourage us: they motivate us to be more committed than ever to our decision to pursue journalism. We are committed to report accurately, to be watchdogs, and to stand up for the truth. The same can be said of the countless working journalists who refuse to back away from the present-day challenges of journalism.

“Thank you very much. Good luck,” Barack Obama said at his final press conference as President. When I read this in the newspaper, it made me tear up, because it really set the stage for what was coming: a time when luck was needed for journalists. (Journalism has always been a challenging profession. But when the President refuses to take questions from certain outlets, doesn’t even hold a press conference for months after he is elected… it is a different kind of challenge.)

Much ado has been made about Obama telling journalists “Good luck”; I want to focus on the former part of his statement. Obama thanked journalists, and I want to thank journalists, too. Thank you for doing what is right, even though it is not always easy. You have a new generation of journalism students who look up to you, and who are eager to join you in afflicting the comfortable, being watchdogs and, most importantly: being journalists.


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