As you know I don’t usually report on other reporters. Nor do I link to material behind paywalls, although I support the use of paywalls to enable reporters to make a living. But there is a story justifiably blazing through the cloud that touches on many of the topics I hold dear and deserves a shout-out.
My tip of the hat goes to Joe Heim of the Washington Post and his story, “National Archives exhibit blurs images critical of President Trump.” Heim, in a Twitter post after the story went viral, said his story was in part due to “chance.” I’ll respectfully disagree. Heim was visiting the National Archive when he noticed something that had nothing to do with his reporting assignment. That’s not chance. That’s good reporting. I’ve often told journalism students the best story ideas come from their own observations. A good reporter always keeps eyes open.
What Heim saw was a large color photograph showing the Women’s March in Washington on January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Heim noticed the wording on several of the placards the marchers carried was blurred, and wondered why.
He tracked down the original photograph, and saw that the large version had been altered. In some cases wording critical of Trump was obscured. For example, one sign reading, “God Hates Trump” was blurred so that only “God Hates” was readable. That change probably offended an even larger audience and the change certainly defamed the placard carrier. Other changes blurred wording that contained words of a sexual nature, or which refereed to female anatomy. One that read, “This Pussy Grabs Back” had the word “Pussy” obscured.
The National Archives, created to collect and preserve the records of the United States government and the custodian of the nation’s most treasured documents, including originals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, confirmed that the photograph had been deliberately edited by agency managers and museum staff.
How does something like this happen? I figured there had to be some Trump political appointee in charge, ready to censor anything that put Trump in a bad light. But no. The archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, participated in the discussion regarding the exhibit and supported the decision to edit the photo. Ferriero is 74, a professional librarian, and was appointed to his office by President Barack Obama in 2009.
Heim asked the archives for a comment and reported:
“As a non-partisan, non-political federal agency, we blurred references to the President’s name on some posters, so as not to engage in current political controversy,” Archives spokeswoman Miriam Kleiman said in an emailed statement. “Our mission is to safeguard and provide access to the nation’s most important federal records, and our exhibits are one way in which we connect the American people to those records. Modifying the image was an attempt on our part to keep the focus on the records.”
Yeah, sure. The Archives has now, to its credit, apologized, removed the altered photo, and promised to replace it with the original image.
So here’s the thing. We have become so frightened of retribution from political opponents that otherwise intelligent, reasonable and fair people are afraid to speak up and call out those who challenge the very foundations of this nation. In America, we do not censor, we do not lie, we do not make up “fake news,” an oxymoron if ever I have heard one.
If you pull out your hair trying to understand how our nation has reached the state of extreme polarization we now find ourselves in, I suggest you start by looking in the mirror. Whether you are the Archivist of the United States or someone just arguing with a family member over the dinner table, the choice to defend the truth is up to you. You can’t wait for some talking bobble-head on cable television to tell you what to think.
There was a character on the television program NCIS who often quoted from movie scripts to make a point. I should have copyrighted the idea because I was doing that long before Anthony DiNozzo was created by Donald Bellisario and Michael Weatherly. I used to drive my teachers crazy.
There’s this great speech toward the end of the film, The American President, written by Aaron Sorkin. President Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas, has been ignoring all kinds of abuse and personal attack from a political rival, Senator Bob Rumson, believing it is beneath his office to respond to the taunts. Finally, as he seems to be losing both his legislative program and the woman he loves, he boils over:
America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours….”
We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism. You tell them she’s to blame for their lot in life. And you go on television and you call her a whore.
—–Aaron Sorkin, The American President (1995)
Truth is truth and facts are facts. We can’t be afraid to stand up and fight for them.