Historian: Why Reporters Are Heroes of Our Time

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I call reporters the heroes of our time. Why is that word “heroes” not an exaggeration but rather a very precise description of how important that service — reporting — is to our moment? An investigative reporter is someone who is trying to find out the way the world actually is and, in the service of trying to find those facts, a reporter is someone who takes risks. I mean that in the most literal sense.

Think of the people who are actually dying, who are trying to work against the basic sorts of injustices that face us: a Slovak reporter murdered (earlier this year), a Belarusian reporter murdered in Ukraine a year and a half ago, numerous Russian reporters who tried to cover Russia’s wars in Chechnya or Ukraine have either been murdered or physically intimidated.

These reporters are taking risks, and in these tragic cases, they are dying for both kinds of truth at the same time. They’re dying because they’re trying to figure out what’s happening in the world that we share. They are also dying because of the particular risk that they choose to take because of what they have decided is important to them.

They, unlike soldiers, are dying as individuals. They are dying for what they, as individuals, are doing. If a soldier dies, we might think of the soldier as a hero, and that’s fair enough. But that soldier is taking part in a general enterprise. The person who kills him or her does not know who that soldier is.

A reporter is dying for a very specific reason. Because he or she has taken a risk for all of us.

The reporters who are taking risks for the truth are taking risks over whether wars are fought or not. Whether we do or don’t fight, whether we start or stop fighting wars in Iraq or in Vietnam, has an awful lot to do with the quality and the availability of the reportage that we have.

What we know about wars that are going on now — whether it’s Syria or whether it’s Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — has to do with a handful of reporters who have the courage and capability to actually go to those places and report.

If we care about soldiers, if we regard soldiers as heroes or as possible heroes, then we should also care whether those people who are performing military service are being abused; whether they are being sent to places they should not be sent. The only way to know that is to have reporters. The only way to evaluate wars — whether they should be fought, how they are being fought, whether they should be ended — the only way to have the facts we need for that is to have reporters. So in that sense, reporters are also heroes for our time.

We can step away from risks and deaths and battlefields and think about our own daily lives.

What reporters do in our daily lives is create the field in which we can have conversations and make decisions. Reporters make something. They make the factual world. The world we can agree on. The world that is solid enough to stand on. Reporters are not the same thing as this vague, broad morass that we call the media. On the contrary, 99.9 percent of this thing we call the media has nothing to do with investigation and nothing to do with factuality. We participate in this thing called the media by paying a lot of attention to things that don’t have a lot to do with the factual world, that don’t have to do with journalism, that don’t have to do with investigation. Investigative reporting is a tiny microscopic sliver of the thing we call the media.

When we talk about the media and complain about the media, it’s easy to forget that within the media are a tiny group of individuals doing what’s hard; they are actually trying to find things out.

Why is that so important?

Everything good that we take for granted in a free society depends on factuality. And without reporters we don’t have factuality.

So consider the rule of law. The rule of law is impossible without factuality. If we don’t believe that there are facts out there, that facts can be discovered, then it’s impossible to have trials. Trials depend on the idea that there are facts to be gathered and to which law can then be applied. Without reporters you also can’t have investigations of corrupt companies or corrupt politicians. So, the rule of law, the predictability and fairness that we would like to take for granted — that depends on factuality and that depends on reporters.

Association. The freedom of assembly. Doing things together we like — whether it’s sports or a hobby, whether it’s political, whether it’s not — all of that depends on factuality. In order to have an organization or a group we have to know things in common. We have to be able to learn things in common. We have to trust one another. And that means trusting there is a factual world out there.

If reporters were to disappear it would be much, much harder to cooperate because what would be cooperating about?

Freedom Depends upon Reporters

Which brings me to freedom. Freedom depends upon factuality. Freedom depends upon reporters.

You cannot be a free person if all you do is accept the things that people tell you that you want to hear. The way much of the media is organized and the way much of politics is organized is to figure out what you want to hear and then tell it to you.

If you accept that cycle, if you buy into that cycle, if you nod your head when people tell you the things that they have figured out that you want to hear, I’ve got news for you – you are not a free person.

Being a free person means not giving in to what you want to hear yourself. Being a free person means accepting that there is a world out there from which you can learn and which might challenge you. Being a free person means doing things that are awkward for you because they don’t correspond to what you think is already true or what you would like to hear or what’s most convenient for you.

Who produces the facts that you don’t already know, who produces the facts that might be inconvenient for you? The reporters, and pretty much only the reporters.

If you want to build up resistance to the almost overwhelming forces that are just feeding you the things they’ve already figured out that you want to hear, if you want a chance to resist them, you need facts, which means you need reporters.

If we want to have equality, reporters and the facts they generate are absolutely indispensable.

For one thing, think about the way the world works if there aren’t freely accessible facts. If you can’t read The Guardian or The Washington Post or whatever newspaper you like to read … if that goes away, what happens to the facts? They become separated out. They become unequally distributed. The people and corporations who have lots of money will still continue to run their intelligence services. They will try to find out how the world works for their own purposes. But you won’t have access to that.

The stronger the press is, the more investigative reporters we have, the greater the equality there is in information, the smaller the difference is between what you know and what other people know. If reporters go away, a very important kind of inequality gets much worse: that’s the inequality of access to information. If the people in power and the people with wealth know things you don’t know or know them faster than you, that means inequality will get much worse.

What Should You Do?

If you care about justice, if you care about association, if you care about freedom, if you care about equality, then you have to care about reporters.

So what can you do?

I can think of at least three easy things you can do.

The first thing is that we should all realize how despicable it is for anyone, especially a leader, to say reporters are the enemy of the people.

If we want to be a people who have freedom, who have association, who have justice, who have equality, if we want to have a fighting chance for any of those things, we have to have reporters.

The second thing we can all do is help reporters with our own behavior. I’m going to read the journalists who are actually reporters, who travel, whose bylines are from different places, who seem to be investigating, I am going to follow those reporters. I am going to read them first and then I am going to choose to post their work on the internet, rather than having the internet give you a feed that you passively consume. You don’t start with the social media platform – you start with the newspaper you like, you start with the reporters, you make friends with those reporters and then you post their work.

Subscribe to Newspapers

Subscribing to newspapers is unbelievably cheap, it’s almost symbolically inexpensive. If those of us who read news actually pay a little tiny bit for it, it helps newspapers and it helps reporters. Given how important factuality is, I think we should pay for it. We pay for plumbing. We pay other utilities. I think it’s reasonable for us to pay a little tiny bit …to support what journalists are actually doing.

Thank Them for Their Service

The third thing is to reflect on our own attitudes toward these people … if it’s right that reporters are the heroes of our time, which I think they are, does it ever occur to us to thank them for their service? If you happen to run into a reporter, and you probably will, that person will be very surprised and I think appreciative, if you thank them just for what they do. That doesn’t happen in this country and it should.

Historian Timothy Snyder on March 6, 2018: “Reporters – Heroes of Our Time.”


This excerpt of US historian Timothy Snyder’s YouTube talk on March 6, 2018, entitled “Reporters — the Heroes of Our Time,” was transcribed by Brian Bonner and first appeared in the Kyiv Post. It is republished here with permission.

Timothy Snyder is the Richard C Levin Professor of History at Yale, Committee on Conscience member at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and author of The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, On Tyranny, Black Earth and Bloodlands.

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