If you don’t think this presidential campaign will get even dirtier between now and Election Day, you’re not paying attention. The course of the campaign particularly irks BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs, who writes in this Boomer Opinion piece that as a journalist, he took a lot of chances with his life to help protect freedoms that some Americans now abuse.
More times than I can count in my career, I put my liberty on the line, sometimes my life, to perpetuate a paramount privilege: the free flow of information.
Not always fun, but that’s what the job sometimes requires: defying authorities’ arbitrary dictates, going where we’re told not to go, reporting from repressive countries where we could disappear without a trace, running toward trouble when smarter souls are running the other way. From bush wars in Africa to guerrilla wars in Asia to drug wars in South America to terrorist wars in Europe to big wars in the Middle East, the risks I had to take back in my day were high. For journalists still out there today, who risk being arrested or tear-gassed or shot even during discord right here at home, they’re no different.
But there’s a driving force that impels journalists to take these risks: our constitution, which grants Americans gifts that most of the world’s people don’t have— freedom of speech, freedom of information, freedom of the press. Foundational freedoms in our democracy.
However, as the Supreme Court established a hundred years ago, free speech is not unfettered. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the unanimous court in a sedition case, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre.” That has since been colloquially altered to the simpler, “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.” According to legal scholars, that means that a statement that’s true, albeit dangerous, is protected, but a statement that is both false and dangerous is not.
Sadly, many Americans, including some who lead us, don’t care any more. They shamelessly abuse our freedoms. They debase our information. We all suffer for their shortsighted selfishness.
Which brings me to the president’s fallacious and dangerous speech.
Just this past week, employing coded phrases to petrify his base, Donald Trump claimed that Democrats were trying to “destroy” suburbs with “low-income housing, and with that comes a lot of other problems, including crime.” He warned of “people in the dark shadows” supporting Joe Biden. He made unsupported (meaning, absurd) assertions that an airplane had been headed to last month’s GOP convention “almost completely loaded with thugs” wearing “dark uniforms” to do “big damage.” And, that recent protests in American cities were incited by anarchists “trying to take down the President.”
What does that incendiary kind of speech lead to?
For one thing, a Trump-supporting truck mechanic in Old Forge, Pennsylvania, saying of the Democrats, “If they think there’s unrest now, just wait to see if they try to steal this election. Personally, I think people that are nonviolent, we’re going to get very violent.”
Just what Doctor Trump ordered.
Equally egregious, a video just out showing Joe Biden sleeping during a television interview. For real? Of course not. It’s doctored, manipulated, phony. It’s bad enough that unprincipled players stoop to such lows. But what’s it mean when the unprincipled player who tweeted this video out to a cast of millions is Dan Scavino, the Director of Social Media in Donald Trump’s White House?
But this stuff isn’t new. When Joe Biden announced that his vice presidential pick was Oakland-born Senator Kamala Harris, Trump magnified baseless alt-right assertions that unabashedly questioned her citizenship.
A few months before, he brazenly blasted critic Joe Scarborough, an MSNBC talk show host, tweeting, “Did he get away with murder? Some people think so,” referring to the death 19 years earlier of a young woman on then-Congressman Scarborough’s staff, who fell in his Washington office, hit her head, and died. Scarborough was 800 miles away in his Florida district at the time, but why let facts get in the way? Trump doesn’t, which is why he doubled down in a followup tweet: “So a young marathon runner just happened to faint in his office, hit her head on his desk, & die? I would think there is a lot more to this story than that? An affair?” Which of course maligned not only Scarborough’s reputation, but the dead woman’s too.
Freedom of speech? Or audacious, reckless, groundless, dangerous speech? Even some of the president’s allies thought it was the latter. “Vile,” according to the reliably rightwing Washington Examiner. From the otherwise conservative Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Trump is debasing his office, and he’s hurting the country in doing so.”
He’s hurting the country because by his standards of free speech, anything goes.
Like his smear back in June of the 75-year-old peace activist in Buffalo who a police officer knocked to the ground during a George Floyd demonstration. He hit the sidewalk hard, blood seeping from his right ear. But again, why let facts interfere with fanaticism? “I watched, he fell harder than was pushed,” the president tweeted. “Could be a setup?”
Host Jimmy Kimmel said it best on his late night talk show: “It takes a special kind of monster to see a peaceful 75-year-old man shoved to the ground by police so hard he bleeds from the ears and take the side of the concrete.” It’s a disgrace. And more important, dangerous.
But it’s not just the president. It’s the fringe telecasts and websites to which he pays attention. One America News, Conservative Treehouse, and others, whose bullhorns blasting baseless conspiracy theories wouldn’t get much traction if they weren’t amplified from the bully pulpit of the White House.
And now, there are candidates for Congress proudly pushing the preposterous conspiratorial claptrap of QAnon, which has risen to the top of the heap of hogwash these groups dish out.
Despite their deliberate abuse though, I would never compromise, let alone disclaim, our freedoms, for which everyone from soldiers to first responders to journalists takes risks. They are foundational, indispensable, the cost of a free democracy, even when exploited.
We can only swallow hard and remember the wisdom of Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government… except for all the others.” We can only hold the abusers morally, and electorally, to account. November is our last chance.