NATION OF SHEEP

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We’ve been here before – gripped in a national nightmare of suspicion and blame.

The parallels are striking. Senator Joe McCarthy invoked lies and half-truths to promote fear, repression and retribution against innocent Americans.

Politicians, journalists, soldiers, housewives, even actors were targeted as being ‘commie sympathizers’. No one was immune. The intimidation was so intense – that none dared speak up against the rabid McCarthy tirades.

CBS newsman Edward R Murrow had seen the fear, the damage – as careers were destroyed and lives ruined by lies and innuendo. And he decided to challenge the seeming unstoppable flow of hate and falsehoods.

That historic decision – and series of broadcasts, are superbly chronicled in the George Clooney film ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’.

Murrow and his courageous team, with timid yet unflagging support from William Paley and Frank Stanton of CBS, faced down Goliath with the mightiest of weapons on earth – his own words.

The broadcasts sparked Senate hearings that eventually exposed McCarthy as a deeply-troubled and angry man who held America hostage on what almost became a long dark journey into a hateful night.

Those Murrow  broadcasts offer an important lesson.

When a powerful, unyielding zealot – especially one without proper temperament, reasoning or facts – browbeats and demeans those who factually disagree, or those who question his authority – a Joseph McCarthy, or Donald J Trump – or worse ensues.

The Declaration of Independence says, ‘Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’  We the people establish government – their powers are on loan from us.

Government is accountable to the people – not the other way around.

That also means it is our right – no, our duty – to demand answers and accountability from every government official, elected, appointed, or employed in our behalf.  If they refuse full access to facts, and full answers to our questions – we the people must revoke consent for them to govern us.

Our tricameral form of government has always enjoyed an adversarial Fourth Estate – the press. Their unfettered access, informed observation, and critical reportage allow them to function as our own Guardians of Democracy – the public eyes and ears in the hallowed and often-secretive halls of governance and power.

They get to ask the questions we can’t.

In recent days, the privileged and powerful have decreed they can can bar access to our own public witnesses and certain ‘troublesome’ members of the Press. The desire is to manipulate perception and spoon feed us propaganda from those who pander and profit from infotainment and partisan discourse.

We the People deserve answers – we must demand them. We must insist that the Fourth Estate operate freely as our surrogates to examine all records and facts. No secrets should be kept from the electorate – after all, government exists to serve us.

We must not be silent – or yield.

Murrow, in typical fashion, put it more bluntly:

‘A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.’

NATION OF SHEEP

NEWS. FAKE NEWS. AND HELEN.

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Helen Thomas would have never allowed Trump to become President.

Her life was devoted to discovering the truth. She’d then speak and write those facts regardless of the discomfort – or consequences. Helen was relentless.

She hated lies, and liars. Covering the White House – she encountered plenty of both. Her ground rules were clear – speak the truth – or stay silent.

Early on at United Press, her slight Lebanese stature didn’t command much respect. Until she spoke. Her voice and arrow-precise questions made her the biggest man in the room. Helen never played the girl-card. To everyone who knew her – she was ‘one of the boys’. And she liked it that way.

Lyndon Johnson often retold the time he ducked into a men’s room to avoid Thomas’ relentless questioning about the Vietnam War. Undeterred, Helen followed him in and continued demanding answers from the next stall. She got her answers – and her story. And the American people learned a bit more about the war we couldn’t win.

To Helen, journalism’s sole value to society is to: ‘… to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ The role was a perfect fit:  ‘I love hearing people sweat’.

When Helen died in 2013 – no one swooped in to fill her shoes.

In fact, Barack Obama was eager to ease her out the door as her health deteriorated. He privately observed that Helen’s abrupt style and pointed questioning was wearing on his geniality. Offering a birthday cake, and perfunctory well-wishes – he optioned her front row seat to a media soft baller.

With real journalism now contaminated by bloggers, social media, and other activist outlets – it’s now more difficult to ascertain credibility of the source, the media or the author. Facts are lost, obscured, or invented in the retelling, the packaging, or in the editing.

Journalism is no longer defined by real deadlines, or the kind of accountability that comes from your name hanging on a byline – with serious factual errors – in print editions of thousands of newspapers staring you down from newsstands.

Got that factoid wrong? CNN changes the Chyron next loop, or a webmaster makes a quick edit, and the problem goes away with the next screen refresh. That kind of factual fluidity has damaged journalism. Helen saw it – hated it – and called it out frequently.

She also knew that clicks meant death to newspapers. Facts no longer mattered. It was the glitz, the baiting headlines, and often the repackaging of stale or bogus stories that caught attention. Helen decried that William Randolph Hearst’s yellow journalism had returned, in 140 characters or slightly longer tomes surrounded by ads belched up by Google.

She mourned the passing of hard-nosed journalism.

But, Helen never stopped reading – it was her way to boycott shallow news. Her blue bag was always crammed with newspapers – majors, regionals and locals, and magazines of every slant and persuasion. Newstands in DC and airports loved her – as did loggers who supplied the pulp she consumed daily.

Helen Amelia Thomas would have loved to bring Donald Trump down to size.

He would have been mincemeat against Helen’s encyclopedic fact fact base and incisive analytical skills. Donald would have been reduced to rubble – bigly.

Sadly – Helen and America never had the chance.

In her last dozen years, Helen and I rekindled a long friendship – harkening back to my days as a fourteen year old stringer for UPI.  More on that another time…

NEWS. FAKE NEWS. AND HELEN.