Steve Bannon and Donald Trump have done me a huge favor. I now have a new job. I’m a newsboy. No, not a paperboy; I’m a newsie. My uniform is knickers, collarless shirts, suspenders and one of those motorist caps. I stand on the street corner and yell out, “Extra, extra, read all about it!” However, the first favor Bannon and Trump have done is to show me how NOT to join the Democrats (or the Libertarians, or the Greens, for that matter). I’m a full-fledged member of the Opposition Party, but since that is NOT the Democratic Party, I’m free to resist what I don’t like wherever I happen to find it.
The unelected Steve Bannon is President Trump’s chief strategist. On January 25, Bannon gave a telephone interview to the New York Times, the same interview where he proclaimed that the media should “keep its mouth shut.” “I want you to quote this:” he told them, “the media here is the opposition party.” President Trump was later asked about the Bannon quote and replied, “Yeah, I think the media is the opposition party in many ways.”
Ahh. Thank you. (And like a young newsboy would say: “no backsies!”) I have wanted to join the Opposition Party, but I refuse to join the Democrats. I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, and have no desire to walk lock-step with Schummer, Pelosi, or whomever the DNC picks to replace Wasserman. I am married to a Canadian, lived in India for 14 years, and am a closet Anglophile—so now, thanks to Bannon and Trump, I get to indulge a parliamentary fantasy: namely, that America can have a “Loyal Opposition”— loyal, yes, to the vision of America embodied in the Declaration of Independence, but opposed, also yes, to a regime which seems to have pulled off a proto-fascist coup d’etat, albeit through lawful and legitimate constitutional means. I get to indulge a line in my favorite poem by Wendell Berry: “Renounce the Government and embrace the flag/Hope to live in the free republic for which it stands.”
Join with me. Embrace the flag. Join the Opposition Party. Renounce the government. Join the role of a free press in society. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands. (I’ll tell you at the end how to join up—spoiler alert: it involves knickers, motorist caps, and a Disneyesque joy.)
Now mind you, Bannon and Trump did try some modified backsides, or take-backs, if that's what you call them. President Trump told his interviewer:
Yeah, I think the media is the opposition party in many ways. And I think that, and I’m not talking about all of them. I know people, like yourself, but I know people in the media that I have tremendous respect for. Respect them as much as anybody, so I’m not talking about everybody, but a big portion of the media, the dishonesty, total deceit and deception. It makes them certainly partially the opposition party, absolutely. I think they’re much more capable than the opposition party. The opposition party is losing badly. Now the media is on the opposition party’s side.
So what is it, Mr. President—certainly, partially, or absolutely? Trump is not about to bash his interviewer with the Christian Broadcast Network, whom he had invited to the Blue Room for only his third interview of his presidency. We also assume that Breitbart News has his respect. Bannon no doubt has a similar perspective. For example, the Times asked Bannon about Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s refusal to disavow his boss’s lie about voter fraud, and whether Spicer had lost credibility with the news media as a result. Bannon exploded, “Are you kidding me?” he said. “We think that’s a badge of honor. ‘Questioning his integrity’ — are you kidding me? The media has zero integrity, zero intelligence, and no hard work.” Does this mean that Bannon thinks Breitbart News also has zero integrity, zero intelligence, and no hard work? I doubt it. Trump might still allow for “the media” to be “on the opposition party’s side,” a case of simple favoritism, but Bannon is adamant. He told the Times: “You’re the opposition party,” he said. “Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.”
I’m glad I don’t have to join the Democrats in order to be a member of the Opposition Party. I was always astounded during the campaign when Trump supporters would ask me, “So why are you voting for Hillary?” “What?!” I would reply, “How many times do I have to put myself on record: I’m not voting for Hillary or Trump?!” “Oh,” some would respond, genuinely puzzled, “I just assumed that because you were so vocal in your opposition to Trump that you were voting for Hillary.” To tell you the truth, I’m less troubled by those incidents of presumption than I am by the person who said, “Oh, I just assumed that because you are an evangelical Christian that you would be voting for the Republican nominee.” Extra, extra, read all about it: you are free! You don’t have to be trapped in the party of McConnell and Ryan either, with their cowardly acquiescence and their own destructive agenda. You are free to join neither the Republicans nor the Democrats. You too can be part of the Loyal Opposition.
If a free press is the Opposition Party, how do people like you and I join? There are four steps:
1. Learn from the Trump/Bannon critique, but don’t be paralyzed by it. The whole quote from Steve Bannon is “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Listening is always good advice. I do however wish that Bannon had defined “for a while,” since I fear he prefers the Opposition Party keep its mouth shut for a full four years. Nonetheless, there is bad journalism out there, and sometimes the New York Times and the Washington Post are guilty of it. Reporters do have editors to keep them accountable, and editors have publishers, and publishers have boards of directors, boards of ombudsmen, subscribers, and competitors (other media outlets). Sometimes all this accountability does indeed fail, but Trump, Bannon, Spicer, and Conway are running an intentional, insidious, and proto-fascist propaganda campaign whereby they want you to believe that ALL the media fails ALL the time. Jon Stewart taught us long ago that CNN should be among your last choices for news, but even so, Trump is dead wrong to call them “Fake News.” CNN didn’t make up the story of the Russian dossier; they merely reported it in such a way as to fail to live up to the lowest standards of professional journalism. But we can still throw CNN in the mix and ask the question: does the media fail so often or so badly as to deserve Bannon and Trump’s absolutist opprobrium: “zero integrity, zero intelligence, total deceit and deception”? I have friends who have been convinced by Bannon and Trump to abandon all news outlets except the ones that the White House approves: Breitbart News, Fox News, and apparently CBN. I have other friends who have abandoned news altogether. Screw it, they say. Wake me up in four years. Newsies however have their own means of holding the media accountable. They confidently can join the Opposition Party because they themselves are free market subscribers, choosy distributors, and discerning commentators.
2. Financially support the Opposition Party. The Republicans and Democrats ask for donations. Print media, however, sells subscriptions. TV news asks that you don’t grumble unduly about their advertisers, and maybe buy a product or two. NPR and PBS will soon only have their fund drives and underwriters. The big papers also sell advertising, so just a visit to their website is a “click” they can report to their marketers. As for the old subscription business model in a digital age, the New York Times and the Washington Post allow you to view ten articles a month for free and then their computer logarithms block you out. Just two weeks ago, my wife and I subscribed to the New York Times. We’re not the richest people but we can afford the $143 Basic annual rate. We have subscribed to Atlantic magazine for years. The Washington Post is included in our Amazon Prime subscription. Now, I do want to read counter-balancing perspectives to the NY Times and Atlantic, and so am grateful that our local public library carries the Wall Street Journal and the Economist. Public libraries are also part of the Opposition Party and deserve our financial support.
The one other media-related financial transaction we made this winter was to donate to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a worthy organization that promotes a free press throughout the world. Admittedly, we donated more out of a desire to encourage our college-age son who was campaigning for CPJ on his Facebook page, but that’s another thing about the Opposition Party—it’s all about encouraging the next generation whenever they speak up for justice, compassion, and truth.
Trump has been quick to deride the New York Times, and has labeled them the “failing” New York Times—a lie, if you look at their skyrocketing subscriptions--but that is a funny thing about the rank-and-file of the Opposition Party, especially those killed or jailed or sued, i.e. those represented by the CPJ: Journalists are among the lowest paid of all professionals, but they aren’t in it for the money. That’s why the Opposition Party is going to eventually win out against proto-fascism.
3. Become a distributor. If you are a high school or college student thinking of a career, consider going into journalism. We are about to experience another golden age of it—mark my words. For most readers however, it is unlikely that you will join the Opposition Party as a reporter, but we do need more of them. We need more reporters and correspondents in the field, tracking down sources, investigating leads, fact checking, finding the human side of such events as Trump’s travel ban. Your subscriptions or advertising dollars or fund drive pledges help put more reporters into the field. Of course, with your cellphone video camera in hand, at any event or incident you have the potential to become a “news source,” someone that reporters turn to in order to uncover the facts.
It’s more likely that we will be members of the Opposition Party by becoming a distributor of news and opinion. A Pew study in 2016 found that a majority of U.S. adults—62%--get news on social media, and 18% do so often. Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter are the most active “news distributors,” but even YouTube significantly registers on the survey. And so, there, you have your platform. Once a reporter provides you with the facts in a news article, make sure that you first cross-check those facts with other news sources. There’s no need for you to “score a scoop,” so be patient with when you choose to post a news story to your Facebook page or retweet something or send the link via e-mail.
4. Become a commentator, or editorialist. When I was editor of the Junction City High School newspaper, the Blue Jay, we were carefully taught the five W’s and one H of the lead paragraph: who, what, where, when, why, and how. These were “the facts.” You had to obtain then, then you had to verify them, and only then could you publish them. Immediately however, interpretation followed upon the facts. You had to convince your editor that this set of facts was somehow “newsworthy.” That’s an interpretation. If you ended up writing a story which made only a quick reference to the facts, but then was mostly interpretation—well, that’s called an editorial, and editorials get their own page and are labeled accordingly. Facts are king in journalism, but interpretation is also necessary and also legitimate.
Donald Trump’s problem is that he starts with interpretation and then works backwards to the facts. For example, his all-consuming interpretation is that “Donald Trump is a winner. Period.” Having won the election, he had to immediately assert the “alternative fact” that his electoral college victory was the largest in American history, when—according to the five W’s and one H—it ranked only 45th out of 58. (Obama’s victories are ranked higher, 32nd and 37th). Trump looks at the “fact” that Hillary Clinton won almost three million more popular votes, but his “interpretation” that he is an absolute winner leads him inexorably to the “alternative fact” that three million people voted illegally in this past election. Even this past weekend, Opposition Party member George Stephanopoulos (ABC News) pressed White House Senior Policy Advisor Stephen Miller for proof of massive voter fraud, but the only W and H Stephanopoulous got from Miller was, “[H]e, Trump, is a [W]inner, therefore three million people voted illegally.”
When you become a distributor of solidly-researched news stories or solidly-argued editorials, then consider the next step by becoming a commentator yourself. Send the story out into the world but with your personal touch. Interpret it for your Facebook friends, for your e-mail correspondents, for your coffee shop conversationalists. Tell them why you posted this story, article, or video. What does it mean to you? How does this story jive with your understanding of Scripture? For example, how did you feel to see Elizabeth Warren silenced by her Republican colleagues in the Senate? What do you think of Franklin Graham’s claim that Trump’s travel ban is “not a Bible issue?” This is more than just stating your opinion. Good commentary involves the age-old discipline of discernment. You must reflect on the facts, tease out their implications, project out their trajectory. Don’t be lazy. Be thoughtful.
Your social media friends and followers trust you. They are interested in what you think. Commentating can be as simple as posting an article and saying, “This really disturbs me;” or posting an editorial and saying, “This writer was able to articulate something I’ve been feeling for a while;” or posting a news story and asking, “At what point should Christians stand up and say, ‘Whoa, this isn’t just ill-advised; this is evil’?” Or maybe you want to take it one step further and become an editorialist yourself. Give us a few paragraphs of reasoned argument in your next Facebook post. Start your own blog on Wordpress or Squarespace. Write letters-to-the-editor and submit them to your local paper.
After just one week of the Trump/Bannon presidency, Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas took to the floor of the House to lionize Trump’s accomplishments. Smith said. “Better to get your news directly from the President. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.” I choose instead the opening lines of the most rollicking song in the Disney musical Newsies:
Open the gates and seize the day.
Don’t be afraid and don’t delay.
Nothing can break us,
No one can make us
Give our rights away.
Arise and seize the day.
The anthem on the Opposition Party. (Enjoy a joyfully defiant dance version of it from the Broadway musical on YouTube: click here.)