OPINION | Journalists are heroes in Houston, deserve Trump apology

As the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey continue to bury Houston, President TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE owes journalists an apology.

This week, we’ve all seen the horrifying images in Texas: elderly men and women submerged in floodwaters of their nursing homes waiting to be rescued; heroic volunteers and first responders conducting search-and-rescue operations; and yes, reporters from local news outlets and CNN alike saving lives while broadcasting live to a stunned country.

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The president of the United States has twice referred to the press, which includes reporters who have recently risked their own safety to drag flood victims out of submerged homes, as “the enemy of the American people.” As the hurricane neared landfall in Texas, he told the country from Phoenix that journalists are "really dishonest people, and they're bad people." Most reporters, he suggested, "don't like our country."

 

Hurricane Harvey couldn’t have proved him more wrong. Local journalists at the Houston Chronicle worked around the clock trying to share critical information with residents trapped by historic flooding, driven on by caffeine and a desire to save their fellow citizens’ lives. 

Several newspapers, including what Trump regularly calls the “failing New York Times” made their storm coverage completely free to ensure that those in need received the best possible up-to-date information. 

Local news stations fought to stay on the air to provide life-saving updates as the water crept up the stairs and destroyed their newsrooms. When their studios had to be abandoned, reporters went mobile — out into the relentless storm, so that they could continue to act as a megaphone for emergency services and the first responders.

As those trapped in rising water without power clung to the precious remaining battery charge on their cell phones, they turned to journalism to figure out what to do next. Sometimes, they asked reporters on social media to relay their plight to rescuers. As reporters shared the government’s advice to avoid attics as water rose, did anyone question whether that was “fake news?”

Between the journalists who helped in the rescue efforts directly while reporting and those who relayed the proper advice to terrified citizens unsure how to react, it is blatantly obvious that the press saved countless lives this week.

The press is not “the enemy of the people” as Donald Trump has falsely claimed. Yes, reporters occasionally get stories wrong and must issue corrections. Coverage often seems maddeningly slanted, with partisan sycophantic reporting across the media spectrum. The constant drive for ratings or clicks injects destructive sensationalism into our national discourse.

But despite all these very real failings, the overwhelming majority of journalists devote their lives to accurately informing the public. They are the unsung heroes of democracy. An emergency like Hurricane Harvey makes that obvious. When a mega-storm bears down on an American city, the press showcases its crucial role in our society. 

But the rest of the time, we tend to take the press for granted, egged on by politicians who find it convenient to scapegoat the media and blame them for their own failures. We don’t recognize that journalists, love them or hate them, routinely inform the public in ways that prevent avoidable emergencies.

Investigative reporting about fire safety or product recalls helps us avoid sleepwalking into tragedies. Politicians who seek to deceive the public would have a free pass to lead us down a dangerous path without the media holding them accountable. Without the press, Americans would not have the information to fight corruption or abuse of power or make basic decisions about our self-government.

In emergencies like Harvey, the press is often a relay station between the government and victims in peril. It also exposes government failures to protect citizens, as with Hurricane Katrina.

But democracy more generally is based on informed consent of the governed. For people to consent to their government, they must know what the government is doing and be able to access well-sourced, credible reporting that is not constantly being unfairly maligned as “fake news.”

If President Trump is successful in his attempts to further scrap regulations aimed at preventing floods or slashing FEMA’s emergency response budget that provides disaster relief, how would we know were if not for the press? We wouldn’t. Those in harm’s way would be far less safe without even knowing. 

The supposed “enemies of the American people” protect our national security too, saving us from political and diplomatic storms with potentially catastrophic effects.

Without investigative reporting by the Washington Post and the New York Times, Michael Flynn would likely still be Trump’s national security adviser, even though he turned out to be an undisclosed foreign agent who had been paid by Russian state television and received $500,000 from the Turkish government to bend American foreign policy to cater to Turkey.

Americans are undeniably safer without such a compromised individual advising the president on national security.

The information we receive from intrepid reporters helps citizens in democracies make better decisions. Without the press, our decisionmaking would be blind. We would stumble into more disasters that don’t arrive from the heavens. 

Today, Trump arrives in Texas to see the devastating floodwaters for himself. In Houston, he will see a city under water, but he will also meet people who managed to escape the rising flood because of information they received from reporters who risked their safety to help fellow Americans.

Trump has never apologized in his presidency. He has never praised the press as a bedrock of American democracy enshrined in the First Amendment. On both counts, now would be a good time to start. 

Brian Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and author of "The Despot's Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy." Follow him on Twitter @brianklaas.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.