As a correspondent in Moscow in the twilight years of Soviet power, I well remember the term “enemies of the people.” It had fallen out of favor by then but still evoked lingering threats to any free-thinking Soviet citizen. Many had been exiled or killed after being publicly labeled a “vrag naroda” in an earlier, more militant era. This ugly label, as much as any, signified the many ways Americans felt their democracy was superior to Russian communism.
Now that the American president has taken to using this very term against American journalists, I’m reminded why Mikhail Gorbachev would never have done so. The last Soviet leader desperately needed the media to shine a light on those parts of the system that were not working — which were, by the late 1980s, very many parts. Lazy bureaucrats and corrupt officials had previously been safe from the glare of publicity. The media proved useful to Gorbachev in rooting out inefficiency and renovating the system.
Journalism does many things, including entertaining readers, informing them about the wider world, and letting them know what time the school board is meeting next week. The Marshall Project focuses its spotlight more narrowly, on parts of the criminal justice system that have grown lazy, corrupt, inefficient and sorely in need of renovation. We produce journalism in the service of change — coincidentally under the editorship of another former Moscow correspondent, Bill Keller. The Marshall Project would not need to exist if the criminal justice system were in good shape.
People in power have acknowledged our contribution to better criminal justice policy. After we published a story about solitary confinement in partnership with the Gannett network, landing on the front page of the Tennessean, the governor of Tennessee grudgingly admitted how useful the media could sometimes be. Our story revealed that people who had not yet been convicted of a crime were being held in solitary confinement, sometimes for months on end, because of non-threatening medical conditions like having a rash or being pregnant. “We don’t always think that the media are the most helpful folks in the world,” said Gov. Bill Haslam. “But there are times — a lot of times — when an issue comes up that you don’t know about. One of those was this.”
It’s important not to overstate the notion of a partnership between journalists and policymakers. Mostly, the media are a pain in the neck to people in public office. We don’t live to serve the goals of people in power, even reform-minded ones. We live to point out wrongdoing, and if someone in power has the good sense to act upon our revelations, so much the better. If they don’t, we need to keep doing our job anyway.
Gorbachev, for all his admirable commitment to openness, wanted the media to act as a partner and as a tool of his reforms. Things didn’t work out that way. The media pushed beyond such a limited mission and the Soviet Union collapsed in a paroxysm of popular unrest. With a few heroic exceptions, the media in Russia today have reverted to lapdog status.
The American media are not in danger of lapdoggery, at least not in the aggregate. But we do run the risk of political polarization. When Donald Trump deploys the term “enemies of the people,” he really means “enemies of me.” But a sizable minority of the electorate has come to define his enemies as their own. And many media organizations seem willing to take Trump’s bait and become heroes to the anti-Trump portion of the electorate. If they’re doing their jobs right, that sometimes feels inevitable.
Criminal justice issues may resist political polarization more than most. Quite a few nationally prominent Republicans, as well as many on the state and local level, support at least some criminal justice reform. As The Marshall Project has reported, some red states have outperformed blue ones on issues such as reducing prison populations and ensuring indigent defense. Democrats and Republicans can share the blame for America’s slide into mass incarceration. Both parties will be needed to drag it out. And politicians of any stripe are welcome to use The Marshall Project’s reportage to bolster their arguments for making the system better. The facts should have no enemies.
Carroll Bogert is President of The Marshall Project. Her commentary is in response to a call by The Boston Globe for opinion pages of publications across the United States today to address President Trump’s attacks on the news media.