THE NEW WEST: Holding Power Accountable

By on January 31, 2017

Members of the media must not forget the American public is relying on them.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – And now the curtain has risen in Washington D.C.: Act 1 on the stage of what some are calling America’s new Theater of the Absurd.

No matter what one makes of Donald Trump, he is the new president. There is no turning back for him or the country.

I, and most of my professional colleagues, refuse to accept the assessment that we must now reconcile ourselves to living in a post-fact, post-truth age. Unless it is challenged and resisted by the media it will indeed become a fait accompli.

The perpetrators of such nonsense are, after all, people who either believe facts and truth don’t matter or they have agendas as hired guns to ensure facts and truth do not factor in how our democracy operates.

The tradition of the free press is that it does not cotton to attempted intimidation meted out by a sitting president.

I give Trump’s media advisor Kellyanne Conway credit; seldom have we witnessed a public relations flack so deft in the art of deflection. And if one wants an example of how her spite for legitimate scrutiny should be handled head on, check out her endorsement of “alternative facts” and the Trump Administration declaring a discerning media an enemy of America.

Scrutiny of the president or any politician or entity that influences the public interest is not about partisanship. In the case of Trump and his advisors, it is a response to unprecedented attacks on the media, an apparent callous indifference to conflicts of interest guarded against in the Constitution, attempts to shut down ethics panels, the weakening of environmental laws based on false premises, the proposed selling of public lands, and the appearance, at least, of crony capitalism.

If you want to know how the press is expected to behave, then hear it from the chief executive of our country after eight years of service. Obama told the press corps this two days before Trump’s inaugural: “…Even when you complained about my long answers, I just want you to know that the only reason they were long is because you asked six-part questions. But I have enjoyed working with all of you. That does not of course mean that I’ve enjoyed every story that you have filed, but that’s the point of this relationship.”

“You’re not supposed to be sycophants,” Obama continued. “You’re supposed to be skeptics, you’re supposed to ask me tough questions. You’re not supposed to be complimentary, but you’re supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure that we are accountable to the people who sent us here.”

“…I’ve spent a lot of time in my farewell address talking about the state of our democracy. It goes without saying that essential to that is a free press. That is part of how this place, this country, this grand experiment in self-government has to work. It doesn’t work if we don’t have a well-informed citizenry, and you are the conduit through which they receive information about what is taking place in the halls of power.

“…So America needs you and democracy needs you. We need you to establish a baseline of facts and evidence that we can use as a starting point for the kind of reasoned and informed debates that ultimately lead to progress. So my hope is that you will continue with the same tenacity that you showed us to do the hard work of getting to the bottom of stories and getting them right and to push those of us in power to be the best version of ourselves.”

Tenacity with fact- and truth-checking is vital and in this space in weeks and months to come, I, as someone who has been penning this column for 28 years, direct you to a person who represents a north star.

I steer you to a column by the late great Mike Royko hours after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He wrote what needed to be said; Royko never sought to win a popularity contest.

During my days as a violent crime reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago, where Royko had been an alumnus, he was a hero to all of us in the newsroom for calling out abuses of power and standing up to the mightiest.Although some on the political right portrayed Royko as a journalist with a liberal bias, he became a thorn in the side of longstanding Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, a Democrat, calling out Daley’s arrogant legacy of corruption.

Royko’s agenda wasn’t partisan; neither is mine. It just so happens, however, that in the interior rural West, especially in a so-called red state like Wyoming, one party singularly dominates policy discussions and there is no such thing as a loyal political opposition, at least one that carries any weight. Except in Teton County and scattered pockets, Democrats seem more rare than wolverines and almost irrelevant.

As British historian Lord Acton once proclaimed, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In Wyoming, across most of this state, the GOP wields absolute power and some consider it a problem because nowhere in the public discourse is the veracity of ideological assertions—such as, denial of human-caused climate change—being rigorously challenged.

With the recent transition of power in Washington, with the executive and legislative branches of the federal government now in the hands of the GOP, and with the judicial branch now completing the Republican Party’s trifecta, much is at stake for the public-lands-rich American West.

I don’t mean to pick on Wyoming’s new lone Congresswoman Liz Cheney. Really I don’t, for my scrutiny of her is not personal. But her rhetoric for the last eight years, and that of her father, as oragious critics of the Obama Administration, has often strained credulity.

Seldom has the Wyoming media fact-checked what the Cheneys say against the record of reality. In this valley, there is a member of Congress and a former U.S. vice president who claims it as a home base, and the media establishment almost behaves as if they are invisible. They are national figures spouting off nearly every week on issues of interest and importance to people here and across the country. It is incumbent that local media not give them a free pass; accountability isn’t optional; when you are a public figure trying to influence the future of the world, you invite examination.

Together, the Cheneys claimed the Obama administration wrecked the American economy when the Great Recession, which nearly caused global economic collapse, began on the former vice president’s watch. They said Obama didn’t respect the intelligence community and made America’s national security weaker when 9/11, the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, was carried out early in Cheney’s administration. And though they lambasted Obama for allegedly being soft on arch-enemy Russia and Vladimir Putin, the Cheneys have been conspicuously silent about Trump’s obsequious tone with Putin, refusal to stridently condemn Russian hacking and Trump’s pillorying of our own intelligence agencies.

Had the roles been reversed, had Obama behaved as Trump has, had the Russians been involved in trying to swing the election for Clinton, there can be no doubt the Cheneys would be calling him (Obama) and her (Clinton) traitors. Yes, the press exists to illuminate hypocrisy and as readers of this column know, it has been a New West staple. If you are going to zing fibs, prepare to be zung by fact checking.

A great rigorous source for fact checking is factcheck.org, devoted to calling out all politicians and other public officials. Here, you will find as much scrutiny aimed at the manure spreading of Democrats as Republicans.

Even Obama, who was raked relentlessly over the coals by the press, wasn’t bitter and never threw a petulant tantrum whenever the press quoted Republicans, including the new President, who cast him as a radical, Kenyan-born communist.

Again, here is how Obama interpreted the role of the media: “…you’re supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure that we are accountable to the people who sent us here.”

This rule should apply to all governors, state legislators, county commissioners, city council people and members of Congress. In Jackson Hole, it certainly applies to Cheney, the latter-day resident of Wilson who claims to call the state and this valley home.

If members of the media are unwilling to ask tough questions or worse, if they pull punches because they’re too afraid to incur the wrath of their subjects, then they and their newspapers are in the wrong business. Their readers and the public interest deserve better. PJH

Todd Wilkinson, who has been writing his award-winning New West column for 28 years, is a nationally-known environmental reporter living in Greater Yellowstone who proudly calls himself an old school journalist. The New West is syndicated weekly through thebullseye.media

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