Last week, Luke O'Brien, a writer for the Huffington Post, penned an article which revealed the person behind the Twitter handle @AmyMek (real name: Amy Jane Mekelberg), an account dedicated to peddling racist garbage predominantly aimed at Muslims. O'Brien's story itself quickly gets muddled in minutia (albeit interesting minutia), revealing various details about Mekelberg's life. As one can imagine, the article was met with scorn from Mekelberg's many fans, but things took a distinctly violent turn over the past few days, with O'Brien receiving death threats online. Over the course of Donald Trump's presidency, rhetoric against the mainstream press has become increasingly malignant.
Political criticisms are touted as un-American and there's a rapidly growing sentiment that our freedom of the press is under siege. But, while direct threats against journalists are frightening, there's an argument to be made that we're entering a new golden era of American journalism.
A Brief History Lesson:
The rise of newspapers in this country runs directly parallel to the adoption of our two party system in the late 18th century. Following the end of George Washington's second term, political groups rapidly began sponsoring papers to curry favor with the general public and to support their candidates. In this way, the press is directly responsible for stoking the fires of American partisanism. Still, these early papers were little more than pamphlets, and there were no pretenses surrounding unbiased reporting. These political newspapers were essentially used as a means of smearing the competition. The press as we know it began with the invention of the Linotype Machine, a device that rapidly industrialized the newspaper business by allowing papers to be printed at astonishing (for the time) speeds. It's important to remember though,while freedom of the press was baked into the fabric of the constitution, there were no rules prohibiting newspapers from distorting the truth, or in some case, outright lying in their publications.
In the late 19th century, the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer pushed us into the Spanish American War. Throughout the early 20th century, the news slowly became more and more fact-based, eventually reaching what many consider to be the "Golden Age of Journalism," that brief period during the Vietnam War when the press core took on the U.S. government and won. Unfortunately, this period was little more than a blink, an exception to the rule of American media. In the decades following journalism's golden age, the 24-hour cable news circuit coupled with the Internet, rendered print newspapers obsolete.
Nowadays, Americans in search of reliable news sources find themselves lost without a compass. Most news organizations are either low on funds, or owned by wealthy people with pretty specific political agendas. At the moment, the press is extremely vulnerable to attack, and the ability for established outlets to publicly criticize powerful figures is waning. Remember when Peter Thiel destroyed Gawker Media because they outed him as gay? He literally just stopped trying to buy their archives. Tech darling Elon Musk also recently started waging a war on the press and vowed to start a site called Pravda (oddly named after the USSR newspaper that published all of Stalin's propaganda) where users can vote on whether or not they believe a story is true. Musk clearly started this fight as a means to deflect from the fact that Tesla is failing, despite their adoption of unsavory (but cost saving!) labor practices. Musk's attacks on the press are strangely reminiscent of Donald Trump's insistence that any critique of his presidency is fake news. Trump and Musk are also similar because of the (somewhat overlapping) cult of personalities surrounding the two men. In the same way Trump supporters tend to lash out at dissenters online, Musk obsessives go after journalists who speak ill of their hero.
While large media companies are slowly reverting back to the 1890s style of constant pot stirring for the sake of ratings–Fox News on the other hand has adopted the polemical style of the 1790s, its hosts shouting their way through every topic of discussion–the supposedly-free world of Internet journalism is under constant attack from enraged people with large Twitter followings. The truth is though, we're living in a new golden age of journalism, and we don't even know it. Sure, native advertisements and corporate interests are taking over most major media companies. And yes, journalists like Luke O'Brien have to fear for their lives. But nostalgia has a tendency to obfuscate reality. When Neil Sheehan began publishing the Pentagon Papers, it's a virtual certainty that he feared for life as well. Foreign correspondents in Nazi Germany (before the war broke out) struggled to send accurate reports back to America. We should certainly be worried when public ineffectuals like Elon Musk use their influence to shut down online journalists or when any reporter receives death threats, but the press is not dead yet. There are plenty of journalists working today who are still fighting the good fight. Luke O'Brien decided to stand up against the Twitter mob and double down on his original thoughts on Amy Mekelberg. Erin Biba stood up against Elon Musk and his followers as well. Good journalists are right to be afraid right now. They have no shortage of powerful enemies. Maybe one day, people will look back on our most courageous reporters and dub the 2010s the second golden age of journalism. For those of us living in it right now, we can more accurately describe these times as terrifying.
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Popdust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff