If there is one thing I think we can say about Martin Luther King Jr. it’s that he was a teller of truths, a seeker of justice and someone who was not afraid to speak truth to power. As a journalist myself, I can say that’s a mission statement that should hang over every newsroom. Because that’s what the free press should really be doing, seeking to tell truths, especially the truths that those in power do not want you to know.
Dr. King, of course, gave many famous speeches in his lifetime. The “I Have a Dream” speech was obviously his most famous. His “Mountaintop” speech the night before his murder is another. But one that sticks in my mind actually came a year to the day before his assassination.
MLK was in New York on April 4, 1967, to speak against the war in Vietnam. The Civil Rights movement had hit a stall. The entrenched racism of American politics, both north and south, had proven to be just that: entrenched. Dr. King had every reason not to break on Vietnam with President Johnson, who after all had used his legislative muscle to push through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
So going on the record against the war carried significant political risk; in fact, he had already come out publicly against the war, but on that day he let that opposition be forcefully known, telling the audience that (quote) ”…Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”
But how does the notion of speaking as a “vocation of agony” square with our current state of affairs?
We live in an era of “fake news,” when those in power can sweep away revelations of deep wrongdoing with that simple phrase. How do we speak truth to power when the very nature of truth is in question?
Many will say this is a phenomenon of the internet age. Anyone can have a platform to push forward what before had been, at best, fringe ideas.
But Dr. King would laugh at that idea. The disputation of verifiable truth is as old as humanity. We don’t need computers to do that. He saw it on full display in his time. Those who asserted the Civil Rights movement was actually doing harm to African Americans. That people of color were happier in subservient positions; that they did not have the capacity to govern their own affairs; that separation of the races was best for everyone; that separate could also be equal.
So the phenomenon is nothing new, and yet it is worse today than it ever was. We have siloed ourselves into information cocoons in which only the facts that verify our worldview are allowed in. And media that doesn’t reinforce our preconceived notions is now suspect, a target for ire regardless of whether what they report is backed up by data and evidence. The very notions of data and evidence are now disputable.
So how do we in the media move forward in such a toxic atmosphere?
We do what Dr. King did.
We continue forward.
He had a dream of racial equality. We have an obligation to provide the public with the information that will enable them to make the best possible decisions about themselves, their community and their government. He refused to deny his own dream because of the antagonism he faced by those unwilling to recognize his humanity. And so must journalism refuse to be deterred from our essential function.
Dr. King said it best: “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”