In the documentary, The Way I See It, featuring the work of photographer Pete Souza, there is a point where he acknowledges he can no longer work as a photojournalist because he has expressed political opinions on Instagram.
To the average person, that may have just floated by in a sea of moving visual images of the Barack Obama presidency in all its joyful and wrenching moments.
But not to me. It stopped me cold. Just the way it did when Steve Schmidt, a co-founder of The Lincoln Project, said on a 60 Minutes segment last week that he and the others there could never work as Republican strategists again.
If you’ve never been employed in a profession that requires you to walk this kind of line, it may be difficult to understand what the line is or why it matters. Sometimes it’s not even that clear to those of us who have had to walk it.
Last month I wrestled with a decision about doing anything remotely activist like phone banking to help the Biden/Harris campaign. The ambivalence had nothing to do with a lack of passion for the Democratic ticket. It had everything to do with taking a step that would basically announce that I had crossed over to a place I couldn’t return from.
One could argue that with the advent of social media I have been far from shy in expressing where I stand on candidates and issues, so my objectivity had already been compromised. But I reasoned that since I am not aspiring to cover city council or the state house, it was OK. I was already an opinion writer and it’s what I’m passionate about and excel at. However, working to help a campaign still felt other worldly, forbidden.
A little background is in order.
In the 1990s I was a sports reporter and columnist at a New Jersey newspaper. Obviously, the latter meant I had to express opinions. Still, though, when I wanted to join the National Organization for Women, I was called into the editor-in-chief’s office. He told me unequivocally that if I joined NOW I would never write about a women’s issue for the newspaper again.
Keep in mind that at the time I wrote about issues like Title IX, was active in trying to bring equal coverage to girls’ and women’s sports, and primarily covered sports where females were on the field or in the arena. It was unthinkable to cross a line where I couldn’t do that any longer. This was the line we had and my editor made sure I adhered to it.
Later, during the latter part of the George W. Bush presidency and most of Obama’s first term, I was a twice-weekly columnist at FoxBusiness.com. I had a natural outlet to express myself, even though it was not a political column, per se. Again, opinion was my job.
In that position, when I favorably reviewed a show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) and it caught Winfrey’s attention, I accepted her offer of gratitude to come be in the audience for the show in Chicago. I knew that ethically I could never write about Oprah as a journalist again, but I did it because I wanted to explore that world as a potential career pivot.
These are the kinds of decisions journalists (and some other professionals) make. So last month when I sat on a Zoom training to learn to phone bank for the Biden/Harris campaign, joined another Zoom call for a group seeking to flip battleground states, and wrote my local Democratic committee to volunteer to write letters to voters in Michigan, none of it was done without some measure of anguish.
I could tell by the reactions of some friends that this was a no-brainer. It’s what good, civic-minded people do. Yes, good, civic-minded people who haven’t had to walk the line I speak of. It reminds me of going to the women’s march in 2017 with people who simply had to go in light of Donald Trump’s win, but feared getting caught on camera because it would jeopardize their jobs.
This, finally, is my point. Instead of always focusing on our tragic national divide, as I am prone to do, how heartening is it to see what Trump brought out in many of us?
We are so mobilized in the mission to get this guy out of office; in a lot of cases it’s about a kind of empathic patriotism that wants better for all who want it and even those who don’t know they should. Not just people like Souza or Schmidt or me, for that matter, but those who have changed their names on social media just so they can have a voice and not risk their jobs. Or much-maligned celebrities and athletes who are speaking out and losing chunks of their fan base because they just can’t stay quiet while their country spirals into a place beyond recognition.
People who cannot contain themselves right now are my people. They’re losing family, friends, spouses. Sometimes they think they’re losing their minds.
For those who care to recognize it, Trump has had a unifying effect on this country. We now know who among us is willing to speak out, lend a helping hand, be swayed by authoritarian tendencies, do the right thing at the expense of their own best interests. The voting lines around the country, while horrifying on one level, are another sign of this unification. Ten hours with a chair and cooler to have your say? That is so rousing.
Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez just made a video with Joe and Jill Biden in endorsement. Their message: Please bring our family a better country. Not a political plea, a moral one.
Please let us get back to our lives while the people we “hired” do the work we hired them to do. Create a country that reflects us and our values.
Not one with absurd “both-sides-ism.” Not trumped up stories of trans people stalking your kid in the restroom at TGI Fridays. Not one extolling the virtue of a 16-year-old (and his mother) for spraying bullets into a protest. Not one where a so-called leader says in not-so-veiled terms that black people are coming for your suburb.
The lies and the ease with which they fly out of his mouth or onto his Twitter feed have passed the point of exhausting us. He is embodying the worst of who humans can be in a way most of us couldn’t have imagined. And good for us for not being able to conjure up this tortured reality.
Let the president’s base do a soul search to figure out how to make sense of this failed experiment. We’ll keep doubling down on our principles and our right to fight for them, even if it means finding new livelihoods or friends or parties we can call home.