Why Brian Karem’s defense of the free press matters

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It’s June 27th, 2017. Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, in his every-flowing usage of endearing colloquialisms and congenial tone, sets the stage after his brief introduction via Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

First, he lets the press know that our president cares about clean, sustainable energy. Secondly, he assures us that things are actually looking up, as our president plans to keep “utilizing our abundant resources for good.” Perry then reminds everyone that despite our withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, we’re actually a leader in cutting down on harmful emissions (Unfortunately, the President’s twitter feed is not amongst them).

He fails to mention that this is largely due to policies rewarding smart energy reduction choices. However, Perry does touch on policy, saying that energy-related matters “have been over regulated” for years. There’s also a confusing answer to a question regarding the effect of human activity on the environment, particularly focusing on climate change.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry

He lets the reporter inquiring know that he believes we have an effect on climate change, but also hints at the need for a conversation, saying, that if evidence is provided he “could be convinced.” The reporter follows up to clarify, asking if the Secretary of Energy is referring to our plan of action. In the most jovial display of defensiveness this writer has seen in a while, Perry frames his position as being scientific and repeatedly asks if we can just “have a conversation.”

Enter again the ringleader of this press briefing, Press Secretary Sanders. In her decisively calm and deliberate manner, she delivers a joke about how tired everyone must be, implying that they could all go home and skip the question segment. The room lightens with the anticipated laughter, and the event commences.

It is at this time that a strange and notable blip in the system emerges.

A reporter asks an innocuous and relevant question regarding the president’s recent tweet about CNN, labeling the network as “Fake News.” As context, he references how CNN’s recent apology issued to the target of a false news report. The reporter speaking to Sanders pointed out that while the person directly affected by the story accepted the apology, and the network made public note of this retraction, our President still felt the need to tweet negatively about the media.

This prompts Sanders to cite “multiple other instances” where “that outlet” has had to retract untruths. The president, she says, is reacting to “a barrage of fake news” directed at him. She calls the Russia investigation a hoax, stating, “We’ve been going on this Russia-Trump hoax for the better part of a year now with no evidence of anything,” and then follows this up almost immediately advising reporters to report on the actual news.

With either no irony or no dignity left to lose, she continues, referring to the *Project Veritas Video: “There’s a video circulating now — Whether it’s accurate or not, I don’t know, but I would encourage everybody in this room and frankly everybody across the country to take a look at it. I think, if it is accurate, I think it’s a disgrace to all of media, to all of journalism. I think that we have gone to a place where if the media can’t be trusted to report the news, then that’s a dangerous place for America.”

Watching the footage later, my personal gut reaction was to shout, “We’re in a dangerous place for America because our president believes fake news, creates fake news, and lies as naturally as most people push “snooze” on their alarm clock every morning!”

Not surprisingly, many of the actual reporters being indirectly lambasted in the room feel the same, as a simple application of the “Pause” button indicates via glancing at their facial expressions, but only one actually speaks up.

Brian Karem, an editor and reporter for multiple publications, comes to his fellow press members’ defense.

White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders

“You’re enflaming everyone in this room, right here, right now, with those words,” he interjects. “This administration has (produced fake news and failed to cite actual sources) as well.”

For those who haven’t seen the clip, here’s a link to that footage (at the 45 minute mark).

Karem continues to point out the hypocrisy and weakness of the current administration simply by pointing out the facts, despite being interrupted several times. “Any one of us, right, are replaceable. And any one of us, if we don’t get it right, the audience has the opportunity to turn the channel or not read us.” Sanders interrupts: “I think—”

Karem continues, “You have been elected to serve for four years at least. There’s no option other than that.”

Another interruption from Sanders, followed by Karem further defending those in the press, stating, “We’re here to ask you questions.”

Sanders eventually answers the question with a dismissive reply. The room moves from tense to forcibly calm as another reporter ask a question about healthcare. Strangely, this is the topic Karem, in a short phone interview, stated he was going to cover.

Asked if he went in planning to tackle such a hot button issue, he replied, “I had planned to ask a question about healthcare … then she came out and took another reporter’s question, then branded them as fake news, and called the Russia investigation the Russian hoax.”

“She encouraged us to watch a video, about which she basically said, ‘I don’t know if it’s true but by golly if it is we should all be (concerned).’ I’d taken six months of this.”

However, it was clear in speaking to him that Karem didn’t raise the issue for reasons of deliberate provocation — or even for his own sanity. He spoke largely out of indignation for the free press, and for Americans who rely on that press to relay the truth, not just the version of the truth that has been approved by the government.

“I thought I articulated our position concisely,” he agrees when this writer compliments him, before almost instantly shifting to another expansion on his reasons for voicing dissent. “I didn’t like being the news that day, but it was necessary. In retrospect, I didn’t know how necessary.” He elaborates, “If (the press) says nothing, our audience is going to think we’re worth nothing. A lot of people thanked me. They came up to me afterwards and said, ‘If I would have done that, I would have been fired.’ ”

He prefaces his advice to other reporters with some context. In a response that is slightly less straightforward than the threats they fear, he says, “The prevailing idea has been for us to take the hit, weather the storm. That isn’t working. The rules aren’t working with this president.” Rather, he emphasizes, “We can’t play by the old rules. Reporters need to go back to editors and let them know … There’s an audience out there that wants us to say something. Those numbers, that money speaks to editors.”

He adds, “I’m not encouraging daily confrontation. But I’m receiving emails, tweets, and even old fashioned snail-mail … (If we don’t say something) we appear to our audience as complicit or guilty.”

The White House Press Corps

When asked if he was aware of the impact his statements would make, he thoughtfully replied, “It is a big issue. This particular incident enlightened me. I was unaware that this affected others as keenly as it had me. I touched a nerve. This administration wants to undermine the democracy of our republic, and that includes a free press. This is the president of the United States, not the King, and he serves the American public, and we represent that public.”

By now, several sources, from mainstream to indie, from The Washington Post to The Daily Beast, have covered this interview. There’s little chance that 8 minutes and 53 seconds of rather hurried conversation about the incident and this administration is going to provide much in the way of new insight, but if there’s a takeaway to be had from this, it can best be summed up by someone who knew the value of a free press:

“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.” — Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823

Please, by all means, attempt to refute Thomas Jefferson on matters of the free press. Even 191 years in the grave (almost exactly, as of this last Independence Day), he makes more sense than this administration and its defenders.

Where facts cannot be denied, there should be no apology for reporting the truth, and no shame in open retractions of falsehoods. Shame need only rest on the shoulders of those who claim to be blameless.

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*Project Veritas is an extreme right wing conspiracy group run by James O’Keefe who is infamous for highly-edited videos he produced to discredit ACORN, Planned Parenthood and others. In 2010 O’Keefe was convicted of the misdemeanor charge of “entering a Senate office under false pretenses,” — Senator Mary Landrieu’s (D-LA) office — to gain information about the senator.

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UPDATE: Project Veritas contacted LAPX to let us know James O’Keefe pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of “entering a Senate office under false pretenses,” not for breaking into Senator Landrieu’s office.

Photos are screenshots from a YouTube video
Top photo: Brian Karem confronting White House spokesperson
Sarah Huckabee Sanders about the White House disinformation campaign.