On Wednesday evening, a tall, thin man wearing a baseball-style cap stood up from his seat at the Paramount Theatre in St. Cloud to pose a question. He is still on my mind this July 4th weekend, when we celebrate an America that’s trying to be great again but is apparently wildly conflicted on what that really means.
The occasion was a forum on journalism and how we cover the news during a time of unsettling rancor, calculated fearmongering and just plain goofiness. The event was in honor of this newspaper’s 150th anniversary, and our panel included members of the St. Cloud Times.
The man rose, paused and admitted he didn’t quite know how to say what he was about to say.
Uh-oh, I thought, here it comes. Engaging the public is always risky business, particularly in a region that elected Michele Bachmann. Would this man be the troll in the bleachers?
The man, who later said he was 96 years old, eloquently spoke of living through tough times in this country for nearly a century. He mentioned President Nixon and Watergate and other American political carnage, but he concluded he’d never seen anything like what we are seeing right now, in 2017. He said he feared for his country and even for democracy, and he was deeply troubled by Russia’s attempts to interfere with our elections and the apparent lack of concern by some officials.
The man encouraged the press to be tough and fair and to hold the government accountable. A woman sitting near him rose to echo his comments, and she begged members of the media to continue to fight lies and fake news and to counter them with “reality.” Others asked for more investigative and enterprise journalism. Their questions and suggestions drew hearty applause.
The evening was a wonderful exercise in the kind of democracy we need, with thoughtful questions and civil criticisms. It was a reminder that journalists probably need to get out more. I left the theater inspired and for the first time in a long time, hopeful.
We all needed it. The previous day the Trump administration had ramped up its war on what he calls “the enemy of the people.” His sock puppet press secretary derided journalists for continuing to ask about Russian hacks into our election system, something nearly everyone agrees happened — except our president. Even the secretary of state that he appointed believes it.
Do I even need to mention Trump’s crass attack on MSNBC newswoman Mika Brzezinski? He made fun of her intelligence and claimed she was bleeding from a face-lift when she visited his Florida estate, a Twitter attack condemned by members of both parties.
We learned this week that the person who screams “FAKE NEWS” at each Russian revelation is the same guy who has a fake copy of Time magazine, with his picture on the cover, hanging inside several of his clubs with the headline: “The Apprentice is a television smash.”
That cover never happened.
That distance from reality is apparently contagious. A few days earlier, I listened to a young colleague talk to a caller from the state of Virginia. The caller had read on some obscure website that the mayor of Minneapolis was levying fines on people who criticized sharia law. No, my colleague politely explained, that is not true. She told him that the First Amendment protected criticism. Nevertheless he persisted, trying to get her to reveal her feelings on sharia law and hate crimes. I was glad to see her back at work the next day.
We were reminded of just how dangerous fake news can be a few weeks ago, when Edgar Maddison Welch was sentenced to four years in prison for shooting up Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. because he believed ridiculous “news” accounts that Hillary Clinton was running a child abuse ring inside the restaurant. “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” Welch admitted.
And during protests last month over the not-guilty verdict for former St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez, reporters were both harassed by protesters and arrested by police. Nice work if you can get it.
As the week ran up to the day we celebrate all that’s good in this country, I had reason to join my 96-year-old reader in his fear that things we once celebrated are now targets. The Trump administration continued to fight for its Muslim ban, telling the poor and huddled masses who we embrace on our Statue of Liberty to go away.
There was also news that the draconian cuts to Medicaid supported by the U.S. Senate Republicans and the president could strip $4 billion from school programs that pay for medical aid for poor children with health problems and disabilities. That prompted me to dig out a quote from Hubert Humphrey:
“The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life — the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
Humphrey was right, and he’s right now.
I also stumbled upon a quote from a favorite, H.L. Mencken. It was written decades ago, but seems prescient today:
“The most popular man under a democracy is not the most democratic man, but the most despotic man. The common folk delight in the exactions of such a man. They like him to boss them. Their natural gait is the goose step.”
Right now I’m about 80 percent optimist and 20 percent skeptic, so on July 4th I will grill a hot dog, wave a flag and make a vow to the people who spoke up in St. Cloud last week: We have your back.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin