by Evelyne Vivies
When I decided to write an article about the man that inspired me to become a writer, little did I know how much hand wringing I’d be doing in front of my keyboard. As I sat, wondering how to do him justice, I also wondered how I could possibly leave the politics out of it. Given the man, given the times. This was no easy feat for me, a novice, but frank speaking writer.
James Willwerth is a retired war correspondent for Time Magazine who finds himself living in Visalia, due to his wife’s work.
I attended a lecture he gave at a venue in Downtown Visalia. The title of his lecture, Fake News, packed the 200-capacity room.
I followed James Willwerth into his world of hard-won journalism. Listening to him recount the stories of how he and his fellow journalists in newspaper, magazine, and television took risks on roads controlled by ruthless soldiers, terrorists, and dictators around the world – some paying with their lives. I gained an even larger measure of esteem for the man who not only commands respect for the sacrifices his profession made in the name of democracy for America, but who is endeavoring to educate the public about the dangers to democracy itself through the discrediting of journalism in general.
There is no way to skirt the issue. For the current president, there is no room for journalists that don’t agree with him. So he debases them – calling the press “Scum” and “garbage” at a pre-Christmas Rally in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 2016. At a press conference in Michigan in December 2015, he had this to say about the press, “I would never kill them, but I do hate them. Some of them are such lying, disgusting people.” On February 17, 2017 via Twitter, Trump declared that outlets such as The New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN to be “the enemy of the American People.”
Willwerth explains, “Reporters do not take orders from any government and will not be intimidated by any government.” Donald Trump is trying to intimidate reporters and journalism because he doesn’t believe that being criticized is legitimate and he’s too weak psychologically to allow that. He’s someone who can’t be criticized. It opens very deep subconscious wounds in him. So he’s attempting to create a situation where no one can say bad things about him. He’s been creating this situation for most of his life.”
Indeed, Trump is not a novice in hiding information from the press. With all the bad press leveled against him in the decades that preceded his election, from his abuse of workers, women, and housing regulations to his income taxes, he has always made sure there was no evidence to indict him. That’s why he made everyone leave the room during his conversations with James Comey. And that’s why he has limited the White House press corps’ access to information.
“What I’ve done in the lectures I’ve given is to talk about journalists that I’ve known over the years who’ve been killed. Or who’ve worked very hard to keep things honest,” says Willwerth.
In his decades of experiences on battlefields across the globe, Willwerth has been tasked with finding out what dictators were hiding in places such as Cambodia during the Vietnam War. War correspondents were captured and executed while covering stories that ruthless governments didn’t want to world to know. “Nowhere in the world – and I’ve been to most of it – is there a country run by a dictatorship that also has a truly free press.”
Under Trump’s presidency, reputable news outlets which have been part of the White House pool of journalists under several decades of presidencies before him, such as The New York Times, CNN, BBC, and The Los Angeles Times have been barred from White House briefings. However, FOX and Brietbart have been included. He has been known to deny access to the White House press pool with no explanation and instead instructing the press corps to “follow the tweets.”
During a press conference at Trump Tower in May 2016 that was supposed to be about his donations to veterans’ groups, Trump stated, “I think the political press is among the most dishonest people that I’ve ever met.”
As a war correspondent stationed in Saigon, and later in San Salvador, Willwerth lost over 30 colleagues in the press in battlefields or through violent executions. Killed on the spot or dragged away and executed later.
Per Willwerth, “Think of it, knowing they could be pulled out of a car and executed in the morning, these journalists went out to play their role as journalists in American democracy. Calling journalists “Fake news” and “garbage” at his press conferences, is really not an attack on journalists, it’s an attack on the constitution.”
Willwerth’s reason for being willing to give these sensitive lectures is “to point out something that a lot of people, quite often in this particularly area we’re in [the Central Valley], don’t understand. They think that a journalist should be patriotic. They don’t understand that patriotism is not about getting in line, standing at attention, and pleasing the government. Patriotism is about challenging the government wherever you think the government needs to be challenged. That’s why we have a press and that’s why we’re called the Fourth State,” says Willwerth.
“The Fourth Estate is a fancy way of saying that we are watch dogs whose work provides a necessary, critical window into our government and the culture it serves. The first impulse of almost any government is to hide mistakes, bury evidence of malfeasance, and avoid embarrassment at all costs. As a result, people in power need watching. Power corrupts, as the saying goes, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
When asked his opinion on social media Willwerth responded, “I think it’s presented a whole new set of problems. Journalism has been horribly abused on social media.”
The press, he explains needs a skeptical editor, researcher, and managing editor to challenge a story to make sure it is “accurate, fair, and so forth.” What’s happening in social media is people who want to call themselves journalists, who are really just bloggers, write whatever makes sense to them. There aren’t people looking over their shoulders. They’re just banging out whatever they want to say into the large void of the internet. Some of them are right, but a staggering number are just saying whatever pops into their head.”
Trolling is major threat to accurate information. “Trolling puts out information like ‘Hillary Clinton is dying of cancer.’ They did that during the campaign. And they put it out there, as if it’s real. Sooner or later you get to the point where you can no longer be sure of what’s real and what’s not and that allows somebody like Trump to take over the dialogue and define what’s real and what’s fake.”
Willwerth advises, “You as a consumer of information, the only thing you can do is to decide who to believe. The best way of deciding is to look around and see who’s got staff and who is doing their job. And stay as far away as possible from written opinions based on no reporting, which is what all the blogger does.”
As the next presidential election of 2020 looms, the same strategies used to discredit Trump’s potential opponents in his bid for reelection is already underway. The more virulent attacks are leveled at the most likely candidates, as was the case for Hillary Clinton.
Judging by Trumps clear investment in the discrediting of Senator Elizabeth Warren, he sees her as a dangerous challenger to his 2020 campaign. Warren, labeled “Pocahontas” by the president, is credited with making the reduction of student loan debt a political crusade and she has joined Senator Bernie Sanders on the College of All Act. Yet the Native American box she checked on her college application seems to be the only thing Trumps wants us to remember.
According to Willwerth, that’s the way the Big Lie Works. “You keep repeating false information despite what anyone says. The information may have sounded shaky at first, but over time, people get used to whatever was said, and it becomes reality in their minds. Say something often enough and people will begin to accept it as reality. That’s the real threat in the United States today. Call the press disgusting people and liars, offer alternative facts to stories they write, repeat them, and sooner or later, you’ll be able to control the dialogue. Sooner or later, there won’t be a dialogue.”
“Not all mainstream news outlets are flawless in their delivery,” says Willwerth, “but stories that have editors and seasoned reporters behind them are what any democracy deserves – and needs — to have balanced and honest governments. And any president who says otherwise is, in my opinion, “among the most dishonest people on earth. Maybe even an enemy of the people.”
Interesting developments in the fight against internet-based fake news: Yale University Hackathon took aim at fake news. Two students, Michael Lopez-Bray and Stefan Uddenberg, won that competition by creating a plug-in for the Google Chrome browser that will help users better distinguish fake news stories.
You can use these links to purchase some of James’ books on Amazon. If you have ad blocker on you may not see the links: