"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
So says Dick the Butcher in Shakespeare's "Henry VI, Part 2." Though often regarded as a Renaissance-era lawyer joke, the line is actually a backhanded compliment to the legal profession. Dick, a follower of the rebel Jack Cade, knows that before their insurrection can succeed, they have to get rid of the defenders of law and order.
We are seeing a disturbingly similar strategy unfold in American politics. Except that this time, they want to kill all the journalists.
The 2018 massacre at a newsroom in Annapolis and ongoing violence and threats against reporters make the analogy a rather sensitive one, so let’s emphasize that it’s only that — analogy. The people we’re talking about aren’t actually out to kill journalists, just their credibility.
Tom Wright-Piersanti is the latest victim. According to a report in Sunday's New York Times, Wright-Piersanti, a Times editor, was targeted by "a loose network of conservative operatives allied with the White House." Their aim: Discredit news organizations they consider hostile to Donald Trump. Their strategy: posting damaging or embarrassing information about journalists.
So last week, after the Times ran two pieces unflattering to the Trump White House, this group unveiled on Breitbart some racist and anti-Semitic tweets Wright-Piersanti wrote 10 years ago. He has apologized and expressed “deep shame” for “lame attempts at edgy humor” — and also, in essence, for being a millennial.
"For my generation, the generation that came of age in the internet," he said, "all the youthful mistakes that you made get preserved in digital amber, and no matter how much you change and mature and grow up, it's always out there, waiting to be discovered." The Times said it was looking into what it dubbed "a clear violation of our standards."
One need not condone Wright-Piersanti's old tweets to note that whatever offensive thing he said, he said 10 years ago when he was in college. The last offensive thing Trump said was less than 10 days ago, and he is in the White House.
But there is far more at stake here than one man's career. A president who has branded journalists "enemies of the people" and news media "an evil propaganda machine" now has working on his behalf an anti-journalism hit squad. These people are nothing less than termites in the woodwork of freedom.
Beyond Wright-Piersanti, they're also said to have targeted reporters from The Washington Post, Business Insider and CNN. Like him, most were in their teens or early 20s when they penned the offensive posts. Arthur Schwartz, a conservative political consultant and friend of Donald Trump Jr., described by The Times as a central figure in the campaign, says it has only just begun. The group claims to have done deep dives into the digital histories of numerous journalists — and their family members.
"Lots more where that came from," he tweeted last week.
To which journalism as an institution must respond: Bring it.
Yes, some people may be embarrassed, some careers damaged. But bring it. Because truth itself is facing a hostile takeover. Because the machinery of authoritarianism is being assembled before our eyes. Because the people's right to know is sacred. And because without an informed electorate, democracy is not possible.
See, this group understands what Dick the Butcher did not. The first thing you do is "kill" not the lawyers, but the reporters.
Then you can do whatever you want to the lawyers, and no one will even know.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. firstname.lastname@example.org