George Pyle: Now it’s the police who are the Enemy of the People

(Mary Altaffer | AP file photo) In this June 28, 2018, photo, a police officer stands guard outside The New York Times building in New York.

“I’ve suffered for my art. Now it’s your turn.”

— Marshall Crenshaw

So, after four years of the news media being vilified by the president as the Enemy of the People, that anger has backfired on him, in a way that has also entrapped the police.

As one profession passes the baton of this dubious achievement to another, some observations and advice.

Journalism and law enforcement have more than a few things in common.

Although the nature of police work places its practitioners in varying degrees of physical danger every day, journalists do lose their lives in the call of duty. Those killed in action include a few you may have heard of — Daniel Pearl, Jamal Khashoggi, Marie Colvin — and, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, another 1,370 around the world since 1992.

Both professions have a legitimate claim to being a higher calling. To being a trade that doesn’t just make its practitioners a sometimes meager living, but that also serves the best interests of the community and the nation.

Both professions fall short of that higher calling when they ignore the admonition Edmund Burke aimed at legislators. When they debase themselves by abandoning the better judgment of devoted professionals and instead live down to the base desires of their public.

For journalists, doing it wrong means trying to attract a following by feeding the unfounded fears of those who have a very narrow idea of the way things ought to be and ignoring or belittling true dangers because they don’t fit a set of preconceived — or convenient — notions.

For police, doing it wrong means trying to win jobs and appropriations and exemption from oversight so that they can do whatever they want, as violently as they want, their excuse being that they are he only thing standing in the way of a violent collapse of society. Usually at the hands of black or brown people who sound funny and dress weird and listen to ugly music.

The worst of both professions show a considerable overlap.

The fear of different people who are, in the words of Fox News race-baiter Tucker Carlson, about to “come for you,” is what fuels right-wing media. It also gives the kind of police officers who shouldn’t be police officers the confidence to knock over old men and pepper-spray random passers-by, even when everyone knows that they are probably being recorded.

As I have been known to say about politicians, what is important to know about both media operations and police departments is not so much what we think of them but to figure out what they think of us.

Neither the red-meat wing of the media nor the blood-drawing faction of the police act that way in brave defiance of what, in their eyes, the public wants. They do these nasty, divisive, violent and violence-inducing things because a critical mass of them believes that’s what a significant share of us wants.

The scary part is that they may be right. We’ll find out in November.

And all this “Defund the Police” stuff? Poor babies.

Newspapers across the country have been seeing a drain of funds for a long time now.

It wasn’t in retaliation for bad behavior. It was due to the accidental devastation of our business model by online sharing and the loss of classified ad revenue to internet marketplaces. And the deliberate cannibalization of our remaining assets by vulture capitalists who have been buying up wounded newspapers at fire sale prices and burning them down.

Nobody was ever required by law to buy a newspaper subscription or take out an ad. Each individual had to decide for themselves that it was in their best interest to do so. That remains the case today, even as this newspaper is leading the way into a nonprofit funding model. (Click here to donate.)

Now, police departments are going to have to work harder to justify — to city councils and state legislatures and the public in general — the taxpayer-supplied revenue stream they’ve always been able to count on.

Politicians who were once afraid to question police spending, lest it get them marked as soft on crime, are now as likely to be weary of appearing racially insensitive by helping the cops buy tanks and helicopters.

Newspapers — or whatever they call us when we are only found online — and police — or whatever we call them when we finish reimagining how public safety is best protected - will have to work every day from now on to justify each of our existences to a distracted and stressed-out public.

It will be exhausting. But it will be good for all of us.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, began his journalism career covering cops who were as young and stupid as he was. Scary.


Twitter, @debatestate

Return to Story