The politics of outdoor writing

We in the Circle of Chiefs write regularly in OU about threats: to our clean air and water, to our public lands, to our endangered species. My message concerns a far more immediate and deadly threat, the potential destruction of our free press, our First Amendment rights and ultimately, our democracy and way of life.
President Donald Trump has, for the last year, embarked on a near-continual attack on respected American press institutions, even as he fawns over those fringe outlets that shamelessly promote his message. He regularly denigrates The New York Times and Washington Post, two of the pillars of American journalism, and not coincidentally, two of our most effective watchdogs over political missteps — think Pentagon Papers and Watergate.
His attacks on the press are not the normal executive branch complaints about unfairness. No, implicit in his tweets and quotes are threats of government action. Here’s a quote from a discussion at the White House:
“It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.”
His tweets are even more unhinged. Here’s one from Oct. 11, 2017:
“Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!”
Is there bias? Certainly. On both sides. Welcome to the world of human frailties. But anyone who knows anything about American history understands the absolute necessity of a free and unfettered Fourth Estate.
But now we have a president who doesn’t know or care anything about American history. He wants what he wants right now; historical implications do not matter, long-term consequences be damned. Members of the free press are not loyal. They are in his way. Therefore, the press is an “enemy of the people,” a description so fraught with tyranny and bloodshed it should never, ever be used by an American politician.
Were any one of those quotes read alone they would be considered unfortunate. Taken as a group, in the context of his unstable maunderings, they are terrifying. A continual litany of verbal attacks on the press by the president could easily mobilize a group of his most ardent supporters to attack a newspaper or broadcast outlet considered critical of him. Even more frightening is the possibility of his using governmental agencies to impose stricter controls on the outlets and to marginalize the leaders of those organizations.
If your response is, “It can’t happen here,” read again the president’s statements about the press. Then explore the actions by Vladimir Putin, the world leader Trump most admires, against the press in Russia over the past decade.
The threat against our free press by the present administration is real. Our only effective deterrent is the will of the people. And the people’s will is determined and strengthened by the knowledge they glean from the free press.
We in OWAA are outdoor journalists, true. Our interests lie in the natural world. But first and foremost we are journalists, and if political opinions are under attack, how long before our articles and columns about natural resource protection are labeled fake news? Our responsibility to the nation and to the tenets of democracy is no less important and no less solemn than that of political reporters from the most powerful newspapers and broadcast companies.
We must speak out against the pressure and threats and demonization of the press coming from the White House. I know political commentary is not part of your regular outdoor beat, but you need to find a way to make it part of your message. Your involvement could not be more critical. Because freedom of the press is not just about the press. It’s about freedom. ♦
Circle of Chiefs articles are written by those who have received the Circle of Chiefs Award for conservation reporting and coverage. The Circle of Chiefs honorees are considered OWAA’s conservation council. The article reflects the opinion of the author. If you’d like to add to the discussion, please send a letter to the editor.

Pat Wray is an award-winning writer and book author from Corvallis, Oregon. A former Marine helicopter pilot and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife information supervisor, he lives with his wife Debbie, about whom it has often been said, “What was she thinking?”

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