Our Opinion: The 'war on journalism' hits close to home
Melanie Plenda, who has written for the Reformer and other regional outlets as a freelancer (and has done an outstanding job, by the way) was covering the New Hampshire GOP's "Spring to Victory" fundraiser featuring Kellyanne Conway on May 18 at the Radisson Hotel in Nashua. Plenda was standing outside the meeting room listening to the comments when she was invited into the no-media-allowed, but open to the public, event by an event organizer who perhaps should have asked if Plenda was a member of the media.
"I was perfectly prepared, if anyone asked me who was I? Did I have a ticket? Anything like that, I was going to be honest," Plenda told New Hampshire Public Radio. "I was going to say no, I'm a reporter and could I speak with an organizer or I would like to get an interview with Ms. Conway. But no one did."
Plenda's 139-word coverage of the event was, by no means inflammatory or biased. She noted Conway told the attendees they should "just ignore" Trump's critics "and the incessant chatter about the scandals dogging him." Apparently though, Plenda hurt the feelings of the organizers and Patrick Hynes, a senior adviser for N.H. GOP, when he read Plenda observed there were 150 people in attendance. Hynes maintained 430 people were there. "This is an absolute outrage," Hynes told WMUR. He also told NHPR "We want the public to know that there is bad activist reporting happening in New Hampshire and will use all the channels that we can, all the channels we have at our disposal, to get the truth out."
As if that wasn't enough, noted Plenda on her personal Facebook page, Jeannie Forrester, the former chairwoman of N.H. GOP, "... found one post from my private Facebook [page] that [I] wrote after the 2016 election in November ..." In response to Forrester's discovery, the N.H. GOP sent out an official press release, asking why the AP "intentionally sent a reporter to a closed press event especially when that reporter has called for protests against the president of the United States."
"She and the Democrats are peddling fake news!" stated a fundraising email circulated after Plenda's report. "Her agenda is to discredit Republicans and we aren't going to let her write our narrative!"
"The reporter is an anti-Trumper who seems to have written that specifically for the Democrats so they could make false claims about the event and Trump's support in New Hampshire," wrote Kimberly Morin on nhpoliticalbuzz.org. "Because Democrats are trying to paint the picture that Trump is losing support and therefore Republicans are losing support. It appears they are lying, as usual. Rather than try to push their ideas of why they are a better choice than Republicans, they simply keep trying to paint a false picture of Trump and his supporters."
What was so offensive about Plenda's Facebook post in November? Plenda called for people to fight, "Not with guns and fists but with protests, with our thoughtful words and reasoned arguments, with fact checking and canvassing for midterm candidates and our votes for the same, for defending and supporting those targeted by [Trump]."
"This apparently makes me an activist," wrote Plenda, after deleting her November post. "For the record, I am a registered independent and have voted for as many republicans as I have democrats and have even written my dad in a time or two. But, frankly none of that matters and none of that has ever made it's way into my work. Ever."
But worse was to come, when right-wing "news" sources such as Breitbart (which also published a head shot of Plenda on its website) characterized Plenda as "a leftist hack" and "a left-wing activist," and claimed she lied about the head count to push her liberal agenda. Social media and email attacks quickly followed the national circulation of story. Those attacks included comments such as "Great work you did for the AP. When you look in mirror, do you see a vile piece of human filth? Ideologically rotten whore," and "Melanie you stupid slut. ... We know where you live."
"Even if my count was wrong, I don't think it warrants me being called a 'rotten ideological whore,' " said Plenda. "I think it's disproportionate."
After six days of haranguing by the N.H. GOP, the Associated Press printed a correction, noting at least 300 people were at the event. And in response to the discovery of Plenda's November Facebook post, the AP suspended Plenda from supplying it with political content, because "AP standards require employees to refrain from sharing political views in any public forum."
But as Erik Wemple noted in the Washington Post, "Plenda's not an employee; she was working as a freelance reporter."
The Society of Professional Journalists recommends (a guideline to which the Reformer ascribes) reporters not express their political beliefs and reactions to current events, even on private social media or via lawn signs. But that rule is disingenuous as applied to a stringer just "trying to do her job," as Wemple noted, "a job that, on this day, required about seven hours of work, including 2.5 hours commuting from her home to the Radisson. All for $150, a death threat and pejorative comments about her body." We urge the AP to reconsider its suspension of Plenda.
Nonetheless, the verbal attack on Plenda and the recent assault in Montana on a reporter from The Guardian shouldn't be considered a surprise. As the Los Angeles Times noted in an editorial on April 5, "In Donald Trump's America, the mere act of reporting news unflattering to the president is held up as evidence of bias. Journalists are slandered as 'enemies of the people.' Facts that contradict Trump's version of reality are dismissed as 'fake news.' Reporters and their news organizations are 'pathetic,' 'very dishonest,' 'failing,' and even, in one memorable turn of phrase, 'a pile of garbage. ... Trump ... has escalated the traditionally adversarial relationship in demagogic and potentially dangerous ways. ... By branding reporters as liars, he apparently hopes to discredit, disrupt or bully into silence anyone who challenges his version of reality."
The Reformer, like any hometown newspaper, has received criticism over the years, some of it deserved, but most of it not. Nonetheless, this isn't a defense of the Reformer, its sister newspapers or of media outlets around the nation. This is a defense of the people who wear out the shoe leather, burn through ballpoint pens, talk to numerous people and sacrifice family time to cover events such as the "Spring to Victory" in Nashua.
And a free press was singled out in the Bill of Rights as deserving of expansive protection from government interference for a reason. While the First Amendment protects the media from government sanction, it doesn't protect the media from censorship by non-governmental players. We understand this, but it is vitally important, in light of recent events, that no one be allowed to stifle the voice of an institution that stands as a bulwark between liberty and tyranny.
"A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with power which knowledge gives," wrote James Madison prior to the ratification of the First Amendment in 1791. "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both."
And even before that, in 1722, Benjamin Franklin said "Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freedom of speech."
"Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together," wrote Joseph Pulitzer in 1904.
And, more to the point of this most recent kerfluffle and sage advice for all politicians comes from Jawaharlal Nehru, who wrote in a letter to Indira Ghandi in 1920, "Never do anything in secret or anything that you would wish to hide. For the desire to hide anything means that you are afraid, and fear is a bad thing and unworthy of you."
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