By Jan Worth-Nelson
Today’s it’s 95 degrees outside and the AC is rumbling like a 19th century train. I’m passing on taking my daily walk, and I hurry outside only briefly to add water to the bird bath, hoping all the creatures will find a cool retreat.
I’m recovering from a trip to the dentist, where something came over me. I had a mouth full of the hygienist’s hands as she scraped away, and I got a coughing fit. I grabbed her hand time and again and started to panic until we slowed everything down and I calmed down. She was very kind and we got through it.
But I think the panic was telling me something: there’s too much scary stuff going on right now. What’s going on is just too much to swallow.
And it’s hot inside, too: my TV today is sizzling with anguished testimony, an afternoon of mourning wails on the fourth set of Jan. 6 hearings by people whose lives were ripped apart by a bullying former president and his lawless minions.
That sobering reality leads me to think about how journalism — and those who love journalism — are managing to keep the truth alive in these chaotic times.
You may notice that every story in the July print issue of East Village Magazine is about democracy. Among us, we’ve been calling it the “good governance” issue, and it corresponds not just to an observance of July 4 but to the nation’s most explicitly urgent themes: outright and deliberate threats to democracy; among them, repellent, unapologetic lying, and escalating, shocking violence and threats of more violence directed at those simply trying to do their jobs — as election workers, as investigators, as journalists.
Our need for government to do its democratic job is huge. That applies to our own local elected officials. When democracy doesn’t work here, in our own city, in our own neighborhoods, it feels like ALL the dominoes are falling.
It’s my job as a human to examine my own heart first, before presuming to tell other people what to do. So here is my reflection.
I usually come here to you as a journalist.
It’s generally a pretty safe place to be, in which the objectivity that is supposed to characterize the profession theoretically shields me from having to take a stand.
We’re supposed to be available to tell “both sides of the story” and let the reader decide.
That’s a simple, common way to describe our job. But it also could be seriously misleading.
Today in the midst of the continually and increasingly damning Jan. 6 committee hearings, I am rethinking my role and my responsibilities.
And not just rethinking, but re-acting…a word we never separate with a hyphen but which means something powerful if you do it that way.
Allow me to indulge in some personal history. One aspect of my presumptuous privilege as a white American is that historically I assumed I could be myself first of all, following my own lights. For much of my life, the best government was the one I could ignore.
Before I was a journalist, of course, I was an American. To be an American comes with particular meaning, often uncomfortable and carrying dark burdens — but also with rights and responsibilities we too often fail to consider.
And to be an American journalist is particular and exceptional. It means I’m part of the constitutional architecture that was created to support and sustain this democracy, this country.
I was the child of actively religious people who believed their chief calling was to save other people from sin. As a young adult of the Sixties, I scoffed at those obsessions. What other people did was not my business. I hated the self-righteousness of it, the unctuous and embarrassing efforts to demand a certain kind of inflexible religious conformity.
In contrast, I loved the “neutrality” of journalism. It was the perfect discipline for me.
And I still love journalism. I love that it relies on facts and evidence. I love that it doesn’t tell the reader what to think – but expects readers to decide for themselves what to think, based on what you have observed.
I love when somebody famous advised a young journalist, “If you want to prove a man a fool, don’t call him a fool: just quote him.”
And most crucially, perhaps, in today’s tumultuous, nervewracking world, I love that journalism is protected in the Constitution. A free press cannot be separated from the democracy: the two are unequivocally intertwined.
Here’s the thing; If democracy goes, the free press will go with it.
In this picture, I’ve got a personal complication. For me, there has always been a tension between the neutrality of journalism and my own impulses toward self-revelation. When I was a preacher’s kid growing up in Ohio in the Fifties, I was jealous of some of my little Catholic girlfriends. I was jealous of their First Holy Communions when they got to dress up like tiny brides and kneel for the Host and then get lots of presents.
I was also jealous of something else: the Confessional.
I envied that my friends could slip into those mysterious wooden boxes and, with the screen ostensibly keeping everything private, spill their venial little secrets to the priest.
And apparently, once spitting it out, they’d be forgiven for most of it and get back to hopscotch and sneaking bubble gum from the corner store. I imagined, of course, as grownups their confessions took a darker turn — even more, then, I envied their ritual release.
My craving for confession took an adult turn too. Becoming a writer was my path to my own truth hut. At the moment that confessional is called East Village Magazine. So freedom of speech has always been my thing. But there’s another side to it.
Sometimes, I’ve used journalism as an excuse. I’ve liked being “neutral” about many controversies all these years.
Using journalism as an excuse for neutrality, I increasingly understand, can be Fourth Estate malpractice.
There are some things that are not two-sided.
When it comes to threats against democracy. when it comes to lies as government policy, there’s no place for the “other side” to be given equal time. And I cannot afford to ignore or tread lightly when those threats to the country begin to tear away at our national fabric.
I’m angry lately at the violations of my country’s noblest ideas. I’ve about had it with the indecency and corruption. But most of all, as a journalist, I’ve had it with the lies — the audacious lies delivered without shame. The repellent lies, which have ruined people’s lives and led to breathtakingly needless deaths — from a million dead from COVID to five Capitol police. It’s infuriating. Who do these liars think they are? How dare they?
The need is urgent to confront those who would take away our American right to the truth and those who act as if lying and threats of violence are just the way we do business these days.
That is to say, the need is urgent for ME as a citizen and as a journalist not to sit idly by, to keep clear the sometimes stark and life-threatening differences between truth and lies. The people I work with at East Village Magazine share my passions on this point and are devoted to the essential values of freedom of the press. In our hearts, when it comes to truth and democracy, not one is neutral.
I’d like a lot of things to change. I want decency back. I want those who commit or threaten violence to be put in handcuffs and sent away. I want hope back. And I understand that if this is what I want, I’d better be prepared to stand up for all of it.
.As my body was apparently trying to remind me today, I can’t swallow the lies. I won’t. I have to exercise my voice for truth.
Please try in your own way, if you can — for democracy — to do the same.
EVM Consulting Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.