Journalism or Propaganda?

Journalists tell the truth. It is their prime directive. A search for the truth is what wakes a great journalist up in the morning, after only three hours of sleep, because they spent the night chasing the great truth. As an American you may know some of their names; Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite, Barbara Walters and Christiane Amanpour, but high profile journalists have never been the ones I've been super-excited by. I've been excited by the work of people like Randy Shilts, who covered the AIDS epidemic for the San Francisco Chronicle, published a book about the topic, and left this world far to young, at only 42 years of age, the year I graduated high school.

CNN Producer Ingrid Formanek

Robert Weiner, Ingrid Formanek, and their team at CNN might be the reason I aspired to a career in journalism. At a time when Walter Cronkite was beginning a sentence with "CNN is reporting that," it behooved me to switch over CNN, where the CNN team was the only live reporting taking place on that 17th day of January, 1991, as American Tomahawks and laser-guided smart bombs landed in Iraq. There was something about the immediacy of that truth that struck me. As a high school student I knew friends who had graduated and joined the armed forces, and I worried for them, but seeing the flashes in the night sky, hearing the voices of Weiner, Bernard Shaw, and Peter Roth, provided context to what was happening in the world around me. That context is vitally important. Brave men and women, from the middle of a warzone, shared with us what they were seeing, what was happening. It was journalism, with the very real risk of death, either from an Iraqi military that saw them as spies, an Iraqi government that saw them as useful hostages, or as accidental casualties of an American smart-bomb that was less smart that its designers intended.


They're part of a long list of journalists I admire, a list that has to include Sacha Pfeiffer, Robby Robinson, Mike Rezends, and the rest of the Globe Spotlight team, who brought to light the abuses of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church isn't just part of Boston, it's a deeply connected piece of Boston culture, a place teeming with Irish Catholics whose ancestors fled the United Kingdom for the right to be Catholic. Telling that story, in that time and place, takes courage.

Neil Sheehan in 1972, the day The New York Times won the Pulitzer. (Barton Silverman/New York Times)

Of course, this writing is taking place today because the world lost Neil Sheehan today, at the age of 84. Neil became famous in 1971 with his acquisition of the classified Pentagon Papers, detailing the secret history of the Vietnam War that the DoD had hidden from the American public. To take on his government because the public deserves to know the truth, is patriotism. Other important writing took place today in regards to Neil Sheehan, as Janny Scott finally published the story of how Neil Sheehan obtained the Pentagon Papers. He had told the story in 2015, battered by Parkinson's, on the condition that the story not be released while he was alive. Journalists are, in my mind, the defenders of democracy and among our great patriots. Yesterday, we watched as insurrectionists attacked journalists because the insurrectionists don't understand the differences between truth and lies, between journalism and propaganda. This is because, as a country, we've allowed people to claim the title 'journalist' who are unfit to wear that mantle. Tucker Carlson is not a journalist. Tomi Lahren is not a journalist. Sean Hannity is not a journalist. Christina Bobb is not a journalist. Jenn Pelligrino is not a journalist. This is just a little list of people who work for news channels, in both on-air and digital roles, but have no right to claim the title of journalist. These people are propagandists. These people are the modern-day equivalent of Joseph Goebbels, doing the propaganda work of yet another narcissist, Donald J, Trump. These people, through their actions on camera; the lies, the fear-mongering, and the othering of people who disagree with them, are a contributing factor in what happened in this country yesterday. I don't know the answer. I don't know how we fix this. These people have mobilized a mob because it sells advertising slots and lets them pick up some dollars on merch, but they're not journalists. They don't get to claim the title of honorable truth-seekers, because that's not what they are. They are dishonest, and dishonorable, to their very cores. They find profit in political division, and that is despicable. The Society of Professional Journalists breaks their Code of Ethics into four sections. Seek Truth and Report It Minimize Harm Act Independently Be Accountable and Transparent The First Amendment to the Constitution speaks of freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, in two distinct clauses. This has caused much debate as to whether or not institutional press, true members of the Fourth Estate, are entitled to greater freedom from governmental regulations than we might see for non-press individuals, and that's worth discussing. In Brandenburg v Ohio (395 US 444 1969) the court ruled that the government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless that speech is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to produce it. The case involved Clarence Brandenburg, a KKK leader in Ohio, who invited a reporter to a rally, and then that reporter showed portions of the filmed rally on television, including the burning of a cross and some speeches that involved exactly the language you would expect the KKK to use in 1969 in Ohio.

TV New Gear attacked and destroyed in Washington DC, on 6 JAN 2021 (Agnes Bun/Ghetty Images)

Eventually, this case makes it way to the Supreme Court, and we now have The Brandenburg Test to think about in cases of free speech. Put simply, does the speech in question have the potential to cause imminent lawless action. The Brandenburg Test has never been put to use against a media organization, but we may be past our time to see what the courts say, because while these propaganda machines may not have created the divisions in our country, they have certainly amplified them. To those propagandists who are profiting from their evil, I wish you a swift trip to the dustbin of history, like the sociopath you have enabled for the last four years. To journalists, to real journalists, seeking to tell the truth, I say thank you.

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