Jim Moroney, retired publisher of The Dallas Morning News, spoke of public mistrust in the media and of the pertinent role of watchdog journalism at the 19th annual Sammons Media Ethics Lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 2.
Moroney started his “I am an Enemy of the People” speech by taking the audience back to Dallas on May 21, 1921. An army of Ku Klux Klan members are marching in the streets with blazing crosses and have taken over almost every public government position. The next day, the Dallas Morning News immediately runs an editorial opposing the Klan and calling it a “slander on Dallas.” Even as the Klan grows larger and more powerful, the Dallas Morning News continues to document the acts of violence KKK members commit.
Moroney pointed out the vital role the Dallas Morning News played in taking down the Ku Klux Klan to remind the audience the true significance of The Fourth Estate. Without the fearless reports of The Dallas Morning News, the Ku Klux Klan may have remained in power and continued to carry out their violent actions unpunished.
“When those in elected office act badly, it is the duty of the press to report it—and not just the duty, but the protected right of the press to report it, a right that is protected by the First Amendment of our Constitution,” Moroney said. “That’s what the news did. It reported, and it reported unflinchingly. Once the news informed the citizens of the Klan’s lawless conduct… citizens were able to refute the character of these elected officials.”
Following the 2016 election, President Trump created a negative dialogue about the media. He portrayed them as enemies of the people and often dismissed reports that were critical of him as “fake news.” In response to the current administration’s scrutiny of the media, Moroney made a distinction between fake news and ethical news.
“I want to be clear on two things: There is no ‘the press’ or ‘the media.’ There is the press or the media, but it does not seek to inform or enlighten, instead, it seeks to misinform and to deceive. This press, this media, has no ethical underpinning,” Moroney said. “Then there is the press that works within an ethical perimeter. This press aspires to give light with every story, every day. This press works diligently every day to find the truth and to publish the truth.”
Moroney warned the audience of the dire consequences the Trump administration’s anti-press sentiments can have on the free press and on citizens who need the press to hold government officials accountable.
“When the government has convinced us that nothing the press publishes which is critical of them is true, that it is all fake news, then the government has effectively dismantled the press’ watchdog role for those citizens,” Moroney said.
Moroney implored the audience to think about what would have happened in Dallas in the 1920s if the Klan had successfully undermined the credibility of the Dallas Morning News and convinced citizens that its reports were “fake news.”
“What if the Klan has said that what the Dallas Morning News had written was fake news and that the Dallas Morning News was the enemy of the people? How many more people would have been whipped with no justice to follow? How much more violence would there have been?” Moroney asked.
Moroney closed his speech by asserting that it is a misconception to view the press as an enemy of the people.
“I am not an enemy of the people. I am the enemy of fascists. I am an enemy of governments without free, fair and open elections. I am an enemy of governments that deprive their people of their freedoms. That’s who I am, I am the free press.”