Enemies of the People?

In the face of the administration's attacks on the press, Greg Britton questions whether his work as a scholarly publisher really differs from that of journalists.

September 24, 2018
 
Istockphoto.com/attypeek
 

Amid chants of “Liars!” and “Lock them up!” America’s beleaguered reporters find themselves under unprecedented attack. Journalists have never had an easy or safe place in totalitarian regimes, but in democratic countries like the United States, they have usually been treated with a begrudging respect. Those in power may find reporters irritating, but as the fourth estate with First Amendment protections -- in the United States, at least -- journalists have been accorded a valued role. Not anymore.

The current administration’s unrelenting abuse of reporters who do not hew to the president’s narcissistic perspective represents a fundamental shift in the state’s relationship with the news media. While past presidents have sought to control and sometimes stifle journalists, Trump actively baits them. He routinely goads crowds into anti-journalist chants, suggests reporters deserve incarceration or worse, and openly accuses them of disseminating fake news. He does this all the while creating his own confusing narrative with little relation to the truth.

This war on journalism is not specific to the United States. Worldwide, nearly 1,000 journalists have been killed over the last 11 years, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Threats, reprisals, intimidation and even assassinations directed at reporters and their families have become common in places like Russia, Brazil, India, Mexico and Turkey.

In recent weeks, this attack broadened in a frightening way. During one of his flailing tweets, Trump swept book publishers into the charge of “enemies of the people.” In response to a regular flow of anti-Trump books coming from former members of his own administration, he threatens lawsuits and more. It’s hard not to anticipate where this is headed.

As disgusting as these attacks on journalists has been, the question that plagues me as a publisher is, what’s really different between what a reporter does and what I do? Aren’t scholarly publishers really in the same business? We both identify nonfiction stories that need to be told. We select, shape and publish information. We make ideas public. Some of us work with scholars whose research is deeply unpopular, because it sheds light on issues that others would rather stay in the dark. We challenge the status quo. We peer review our work. We, too, trade in the facts. We believe in the truth.

Now, I have no illusions that my job as editorial director at a university press is nearly as difficult or dangerous as that of an investigative journalist. I get cranky emails or questions about my intelligence on social media, but no one has threatened my life. No one has called for me to be jailed. The worst I face is a bad book review. But as I watch the abuse heaped on journalists, I can’t help think that, broadly speaking, we are doing the same work. I might comfort myself by thinking that what they do bears little resemblance to what I do. But we have far, far more in common than not. When the truth is attacked, it is an attack on what our community stands for.

Another result of this systematic campaign against evidence-based publishing comes in more subtle forms. Wanting to avoid the problems associated with publishing controversial material, publishers self-censor. “The question of self-censorship and how it arises is important,” said Thai publisher Trasvin Jittidecharak at this year’s International Publishers Congress, “because when you grow up in a country like Thailand, you don’t know when it happens” to you. “It just happens that you use self-censorship all the time without noticing it.” That’s how fear works.

After the 2015 attacks on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, supporters of the satirical magazine pulled together around the call “Je suis Charlie” -- I am Charlie. As scholarly publishers, whether we like to think so or not, we all are.

Bio

Greg Britton is editorial director at Johns Hopkins University Press. You can find him on Twitter at @gmbritton.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top