Time magazine announced its 2018 Person of the Year and once again broke the model.
Just as it did last year — when, instead of choosing an individual, it named “The Silence Breakers” as Person of the Year, helping to cement an ongoing revolution over the historic presence and prevalence of sexual assault in America — Time again chose a group of individuals, dubbed them “The Guardians” and honored them for being individuals “who have taken great risks in pursuit of greater truths.”
Which is to say they were journalists of one sort and form or another. Which is to say that the great risks taken resulted in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (who wrote for the Washington Post and lived in the United States) at the hands of what is widely assumed to be agents and perhaps even leaders of a government. It resulted in the horrific killing of five members of the staff of the Capital Gazette, a long-standing daily newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, at the hands of a gunman who had harbored a bitter, long and lethal grudge against the paper.
Also honored were journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Seo Oo of Reuters, who were pursuing a story about a mass grave for villagers killed in the more and more dictatorial state of Myanmar (once Burma). The two were arrested for their efforts in 2017 and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Also honored was Maria Ressa, head of Filipino news site Rappler, who led critical coverage of the regime of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Ressa was charged with tax fraud by the government and could face 10 years in prison.
Edward Felsenthal, the Time magazine editor in chief, in making the announcement, said: “The manipulation and abuse of truth is really the common thread in so many of this year’s major stories — from Russia to Riyadh to Silicon Valley.”
President Donald Trump, who finished second and won it two years ago, naturally proclaimed that he should have received the honor, without question. This is worth mentioning because the president’s name and thumbprints are all over the central rationale and moving engine behind the selection of “The Guardians,” which is the press and its freedom and meaning in the Age of Trump.
That’s because it was Trump who not too far into the reign of his administration had designated the media “enemies of the people,” a strongly worded phrase that conjures up all kinds of threatening imagery, none of it pleasant. He labeled the professional output of newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post “fake news” so frequently and regularly that it became a popularly used phrase.
Trump and his administration cast a large shadow over the sensational murder of Khashoggi, a citizen of Saudi Arabia and a frequent critic of the regime there. Khashoggi was apparently lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and, for want of a better word, butchered there, with his body disposed of later.
The subsequent outrage of the murder, in which several U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, reached the conclusion that it was likely ordered by members of the Saudi government and the crown prince, has not subsided. The Trump administration, and Trump, displayed a muted reaction to the killing, refusing to weigh in on the prince and his responsibility, holding a “maybe, maybe not” attitude not shared by some Republican senators, who are mulling options with regard to the Saudi regime.
The Khashoggi killing remains a worm in the body politic and international relations — a heated, dangerous political issue as well as a question of conscience and morality among the far-flung members of the press.
Somehow, the killing of five members of the Capital Gazette is different, especially for members of the media, containing the subtribes not only of high-profile journalists but the so-called “ink-stained wretches.” Most of us here could relate; for anyone who’s ever worked on a daily newspaper, the news viscerally and literally hurt.
Members of the Gazette and other publications like them — small newspapers across the United States, be they daily, weekly or biweekly, be they the Gazette, or dare we modestly say, the Georgetowner — don’t normally face dangers of the kind that on a regular basis face the journalists who do investigative combat with governments, businesses and the intelligence and military arms of one-man governments (nor are acts like those perpetrated against Khashoggi a normal part of doing business).
But daily newspapers of whatever size are special in their own way. From all accounts, the Gazette was very special indeed. While the shooting of five of its members was a horrific and extreme aberration, a kind of near-mortal wound to the institution, it did nothing to dispel the notion that community newspapers are what they are: families telling the truth, pursuing facts, news (not fake news), the details and important things and events of our daily lives.
The truth here is the truth of normalcy — deaths and births, marriages, the notes of budget meetings for school boards and government, the deeds, charitable or brave, of those who guard our lives and come to our rescue and heal us and pray for us, as well as the doings of Friday night football or the gifted creators among us.
The battle now for such places, such newspapers, such people is not the prospect of another mass shooter — however much that is the new normal in our country lately — but a fight for survival.
Print newspapers, it has been constantly noted, are disappearing, shrinking, converting to websites, blogs and digital incarnations. That makes it all the more important to note, remember and not forget, not ever forget, when we suffer loses like the ones in Annapolis.
Here’s to, of course, Jamal Khashoggi, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and Maria Ressa. And, perhaps most of all, let us not forget those writers, storytellers, chroniclers of our lives, Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fishman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith.