The Dangers of Speaking Truth to Power

I’ve watched the news out of Annapolis with the kind of slow disbelief that accompanies the witnessing of great tragedy. The deaths of four journalists and a sales assistant in their own workplace frightens me, but more because of its implications for U.S. culture today than because I never believed something like that could happen. History is fraught with the murders of people whose job it was to speak truth to power.

As a journalist in the 90s, I accepted the dangers inherent in the profession. People do not like to have their dirty laundry aired in public. People do not like to have their hypocrisies exposed, or their careers threatened, by the truth that reporters are required by their professions and ethics to deliver to the public.

Journalism is an honorable profession. Journalists gather information, process it, and present it to the public in a way that’s easily understood so that the public can make informed decisions about their lives. Politicians by nature have difficulty with journalists, because politicians by nature must have some secrets. In order for government to move smoothly together, a great deal goes on behind the scenes, and politicians are not eager for their constituents–the voters–to necessarily know about these kinds of machinations.

And so, journalists are attacked, regularly. Because ethical, responsible journalists are trained to tell all sides of a story, keeping out of them as much as possible, journalists themselves are left vulnerable to such attacks because the profession prohibits them from defending themselves in public and in the press. It’s a shame, because the unscrupulous who understand this fact have no difficulty at all exploiting it, labeling the best of our work “fake” to imply that it has no truth at all.

By undercutting truth in this way, the public is duped. By undercutting truth in this way, journalists become even more vulnerable to attack. By undercutting truth in this way, democracy comes under attack.

Journalists’ only defense for their printed words? Truth. Provable in a court of law, if necessary. Accuracy. Solid, cited sources.

One of the best compliments I ever received as a journalist was from a politician who really didn’t care for my work, mostly because it compelled him to think more about the implications of his decisions, I think. But he said, “If that’s what her article said, than it must be right. I might not like what she says but it’s always truth.”

And the truth, in many corners, is a dangerous, dangerous, thing.

I grieve with the staff at the Capitol Gazette today, and I urge caution in those who are quick to lay blame. We do not yet have all the facts. And it would not do to be inaccurate in the retelling. Honor those fallen with truth.

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