Thursday, August 16, 2018
The Jackson Free Press, and its editors and journalists, have come under fire many times since we launched 16 years ago in Mississippi's capital city. This newspaper was months old when we published facts about the myths behind the Iraq War as a cover story just after it started, amid patriotic fervor and a near-clampdown on any criticism of George W. Bush's rationale.
Popular former Mayor Frank Melton yelled across a restaurant 12 years ago that he would run us out of business in six months because we reported myriad facts about him that other media had ignored until we came along, eventually leading to him facing two trials and losing a re-election bid. We were the only outlet to report that he was lying under oath during his campaign, even as other media knew.
Local developers and businessmen were furious when we reported that they owned potential waterfront property along the "Two Lakes" footprint, and that many of them had put money into an undisclosed political action committee to elect a pro-Lake mayor—names we had to fight to uncover and reveal. For years, some of them disparaged and blacklisted this newspaper, even sending the editor drunken emails in the evening about how terrible we are. (To be fair, that person eventually apologized.)
When the editor of the Jackson Free Press interviewed former Sheriff Malcolm McMillin in response to allegations that he had covered up details of a local drunk-driving tragedy, a local blogger, who uses a fake name in his posts, called her a "journalistic slut." The blogger was pushing the conspiracy and had not tried to interview the sheriff.
In the early years, a conservative blog called for boycotts of the Jackson Free Press because we dared talk about the racism behind crime rhetoric that a white district attorney candidate used to disparage his black opponent. One commenter even started a "parody" blog linking the picture of the young daughter of a backer of this newspaper to a picture of genital warts.
A man from Brooklyn, N.Y., who supports the Confederate flag threatened the newspaper's male publisher physically and by phone and email for weeks because we support changing the Mississippi flag.
In a heated U.S. Senate race between the right-wing State Sen. Chris McDaniel and incumbent Thad Cochran, this newspaper exposed how the Republican Party was directing money into PACs for black leaders, so they could gin up support for Cochran, who had a less-than-stellar voting record on many issues affecting black Mississippians, including opposing a congressional apology for doing too little about lynching.
And now, as national progressive media publish glowing reports of Jackson's current mayor's promises on criminal-justice reform, the JFP publishes critiques of his decisions to allow the police department to participate in Jeff Sessions' controversial "Project Eject," to continue withholding names of police officers who shoot and kill citizens and to promote mugshots of accused juveniles tried as adults, as well as agreeing to "perp walk" juveniles for media. We endorsed the mayor, but it is still our job to hold him accountable. (To date, our coverage led to the mayor revoking the mugshot and perp-walk policies.)
When we broke the story that Gov. Phil Bryant had (again) declared Confederate Heritage Month, his press person (again) would not return our calls to confirm or deny, later giving a statement to the Associated Press after our story went viral nationally.
To add journalistic insult to injury, some newsroom leaders in the state ask not to appear alongside our journalists and editors in discussions because they apparently fear we might bring up some of the under-covered stories in the state. And we might—respectfully, of course.
This is a small list of the responses this newspaper has faced for doing our damn job and challenging the entrenched status quo in Mississippi. But we continue doing our job to afflict the comfortable with accurate journalism and, in so doing, comfort and help those afflicted by it, to borrow from an 1893 phrase about the role of a free press.
If you are smart, you do not go into journalism, or start a newspaper, to have citizens, elected officials or a political party universally love you. If you are serious about doing serious journalism, you get into this industry ready to be pummeled near daily, personally and as an organization, for reporting facts that one or more people would rather you ignore. Journalism requires a tough skin and hard work, and we have the First Amendment to protect our role for a reason. We are the watchdogs of democracy and truth when we do our jobs well. It is not about soft-pedaling to maintain access; it is about reporting facts.
Good journalism is not designed to make people comfortable, especially public servants whom the public elects and pays to represent us and, ostensibly, to make good decisions. Donald Trump, of course, is pushing the same marginalization of good journalism that we have long faced in Mississippi, so it's not unfamiliar to us. But it is very dangerous to our democracy when the nation's top official works constantly to comfort the very comfortable and afflict the afflicted by creating distrust in those of us willing to report truths he would rather us not.
Newspapers around the nation are publishing editorials today warning about the risk of elected officials weaponizing lies about the media in order to cover up their own corruption and malfeasance. We are not here to reinforce what any public servant of any party tells us we need to support. We are not here to dote on the governor at cocktail parties so we get invited to the next signing of a discriminatory bill. We are not here to reinforce the views of any elected official or political party, even if we endorsed that candidate.
In a time when journalism is very difficult to sustain, those who remain in this industry must dig deep into issues that the public does not have the time nor the expertise to investigate for themselves. We are here to give the public information they need. We are here to warn the public about lies, deceit and false information.
We are here to serve American democracy despite any elected official's open disdain for it. We are not the "enemy of the people"—we are the enemy of lies and corruption.