This letter to a young Kansas journalist is for all who care about democracy

In video tweeted by Matthew Miller (@mattmiller757) and widely circulated on social media, the words "Murder the Media" are shown on a door to the United States Capitol as insurrectionists leave the building on Jan. 6, 2021. (Screen capture by Kansas Reflector)

One of my critics, stung perhaps by a column in which I reported on how much he is being paid to lobby our state Legislature on behalf of free-market fanatics, recently questioned what it is exactly that I teach my students.

As a professor of journalism at a state university, I suppose this was intended not only to question my credentials but also to remind me that I am a state employee and, as such, a lower lifeform in the eyes of the captains of industry, and that I had better watch my step because this well-heeled lobbyist wields influence with lawmakers.

Now, I was going to let all of this go, and even had a different column written for today. But that was before the events of Jan. 6, when a mob seized the U.S. Capitol and for a time shut down the counting of Electoral College votes. These fanatics left five people dead, many others wounded and the nation shaken.

The mob was egged on by the current president of the United States, who used a firehose of lies and tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories to control his followers, and was abetted by officials that included the Kansas attorney general and most of the state’s Congressional delegation, who lent gravity to 45’s risible claims by saying that because many people believed them, the allegations ought to be investigated — never mind there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support any claims of widespread voter fraud.

As I watched the chaos unfold on television, and saw journalists with decades of experience struggle to calmly and accurately explain to audiences these events and their meanings, I thought of that question: What do I teach my students?

Even though the question was perhaps rhetorical, I am not only happy now to answer but take some pride in doing so. My core classes are Reporting, Advanced Reporting, Photojournalism and Investigative Reporting. These are things I know well, having many years of experience at daily newspapers. I also write novels and nonfiction books, including one about the Arkansas River for the University Press of Kansas, and many magazine articles. I also advise (but not edit!) the college paper at Emporia State University, for which I’ve won a couple of national awards.

But perhaps there is no better example of my core philosophy than a letter I wrote to the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper shortly after Trump took office. That editor, now a full-time reporter at a daily newspaper in Kansas, has graciously allowed me to reproduce it in its entirety.

Dear Sarah,

Let’s take a breath and survey the terrain, a week after the election of Donald Trump as president. This seismic shift in the cultural landscape presents challenges to most of our institutions, including government and higher education, but for journalism it represents an existential threat. This assessment is based on Trump’s own words and actions during his election campaign, from his bullying verbal attacks on reporters to his promises to make it easier to sue news organizations for libel.

The stakes could not be higher, and not just for journalists; if Trump succeeds in his promise to curb a free and independent press, then democracy itself will be in mortal danger, for there can be no democracy without an informed electorate.

There’s been a lot of talk during the past week about the need to find common ground as Trump prepares to take office, and while it is important that as Americans we observe a peaceful transition of power, it is also important to resist the urge to normalize events. The (temporary) triumph of hatred, bigotry, and misogyny should not be regarded as the natural course of contemporary American politics, but deserves to become a historical footnote. I don’t know what kind of insanity has gripped the world during the past year, from the Brexit vote to Japan’s abandonment of its pacifist constitution. I can make no comparisons to any events during my lifetime, although 1968 and the Watergate years that followed come the closest. What I fear is that people, whether a few or many, are going to die for their beliefs. I am not trying to scare you — and I doubt that this civil unrest will strike Emporia State, but it might — but I am trying to prepare you for the road ahead. You will be tested, as a student leader and journalist, in ways that cannot now be imagined.

America, and the world, is at an extraordinary tipping point, and journalists are needed now more than ever. Journalists alone cannot save America — but we can help to lead the way to stave off the darkness that looms just beyond the firelight. It will take courage, it will take commitment, and it will take personal sacrifice.

One of my journalism professors, Dr. John Knowles (not the novelist), told me when I was about your age that democracy was a fragile thing; he was unsure if the American experiment would survive into the 21st Century. Historically, no democracy has survived for very long. Athenian democracy, the prototype for most of the models that came later, only lasted for a couple of hundred years. We must break the cycle and establish an inclusive and tolerant democracy for generations to come. Our only path is through education, knowledge, and the thoughtful and thorough reporting of fact.

I won’t pretend to know the emotions you are going through as a young woman who is the editor of your campus newspaper. I’m an old warhorse of a writer, but I am your publications adviser, so I will do my best. In this age where journalists are the targets of scorn from our politicians and our administrators, it is important that you and your staff support one another and establish a safe zone. You may come under personal attack from those who are emboldened by the recent election to spread hate (in fact, I know you have already been subjected on social media to some of this). It will be essential that you retain some professional distance when dealing with this, even though it will be painful and sometimes scary. If you receive threats of violence, you are to report it immediately to campus police. If newspapers are stolen or the racks defaced, this is an important First Amendment issue, and you are to document it with photos and report it immediately. If you are threatened with loss of student fees or other forms of retaliation for your news coverage and opinion, you are to report it immediately to me. This is illegal and we will seek outside help to fight it.

It will become increasingly important that you work with other groups across campus to protect those populations at greatest risk: minorities, international students, and the LGBT community. Establish the newspaper, and the newspaper office, as a safe zone for groups at risk. It would be a good idea to come up with some type of symbol for this. I know there has been some talk online about the safety pin. You might adopt that, or something else of your choosing. Put it somewhere in the Bulletin flag, perhaps. Whatever you choose, make sure your readers know why. Keep the opinion staff focused on protecting these groups. As you know, I firmly believe a democracy can be judged on how well it protects the least popular voices.

In your news coverage, resist the urge to treat all opinions as equal. This is something that Susan Jacoby has called “dumb objectivity,” and it allows journalists to be intellectually lazy. Instead, seek out informed opinion. Verify facts and claims by those in power. Be unafraid to be an advocate for the alienated and disposed. No journalism is ever objective, because we’re human beings and not machines. Strive for accuracy, make sure your reporting is fair, but don’t dehumanize your reporting, either. Never forget that journalism is an integral part of the democratic system, and that it is sometimes necessary to take a principled stand.

This is a tall list.

But I want you to know, Sarah, that I believe in you. You have demonstrated time and again that you have the strength, the intelligence, the vision, and the emotional maturity to handle what I think is the most important student leadership role on campus. We are in for some rough times, but I am grateful that we have students like you willing to put their shoulders to the wheel.

Max

Even though this letter is addressed to Sarah, it also represents what I have told my other most promising students over the years. I have now taught for so long that I have a far-flung extended news family of former students, and I am proud of them all. I have never expected any of them to agree with my view of the world, but I do require that they take journalism seriously and always strive for fairness and context. I worry about all of my students, past and present, because the fight against misinformation and downright lies is likely to never end, and journalism now is more dangerous than it used to be. Between civil unrest and the pandemic, original reporting can be a harrowing enterprise.

But democracy needs journalism now more than ever.

So, to Sarah — and to my many other former students who are making a difference in the world — thank you. Keep the fire burning.