When I heard that Donald Trump had branded journalists as “an enemy of the American people,” I had a flashback. It was early in the 1980s, and I was running one of Poynter’s first seminars on media ethics. One evening, with popcorn served, we had a showing of a movie, starring Steve McQueen, called “An Enemy of the People.”
No wonder the line was familiar.
The movie was based upon an 1882 play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, rewritten and adapted for American audiences in 1950 by Arthur Miller (author of such works as “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible.”)
Miller, an author caught up in the witch hunts of the McCarthy era, offered an explanation as to why he was inspired to reach back to Ibsen: “I believed this play could be alive for us because its central theme is…the central theme of our social life today. Simply, it is the question of whether the democratic guarantees protecting political minorities ought to be set aside in a time of crisis. More personally, it is the question of whether one’s vision of the truth ought to be a source of guilt at a time when the mass of men condemn it as a dangerous and devilish lie.”
My motivation in showing the movie to journalists was simple. I found the protagonist, Dr. Stockmann, a scientist not a reporter, a sound role model for an ethical journalist. Both the scientist and the journalist have attachments to the truth; and both, it turns out, must deliver uncomfortable truths, truths with negative consequences. Instead of fame, the reporting of truth can bring shame, exile, even death. To do the right thing, the courageous reporter must be willing to stand alone.
A summary of the plot give these theories a shape and substance.
A small Norwegian town has the benefit of hot springs, a place where tourists come for healing waters. The springs are central to the identity and prosperity of the town. Upstream there is a tannery, and Dr. Stockmann suspects than effluent is poisoning the water. He awaits the results of a study, and its arrival, which confirms his suspicions, kicks off the action of the play. The doctor’s only concern is that when “this exposé breaks they’re liable to start making a saint out of me.”
At first it looks that way. The mayor and newspaper publisher treat him like a champion of the town until the consequences of his revelations begin to take shape. Stockmann struggles to get the message out, but all forms of democratic expression abandon him: first the mayor, then the newspaper publisher, then the citizens of a town meeting, who brand him not a hero but “an enemy of the people.”
(In Norwegian, the play is titled “En folkefiende.” That language is revealing. The truth teller turns out to be not just an enemy of the common people, but a “fiende,” a word that translates as devil or demon.)
The town banishes the doctor, but he refuses to leave. In the harrowing final scene, Dr. Stockmann is alone with his family. A mob gathers outside his house. Rocks fly through the windows. He tries to encourage his family: “But remember now, everybody. You are fighting for the truth, and that’s why you’re alone. And that makes you strong. We’re the strongest people in the world… and the strong must learn to be lonely.”
It has become a political commonplace in our time that the “truth” is up-for-grabs. As an alternative to evidence, we are offered “truthiness,” “fake news,” “alternative facts,” not to mention the “bubbles,” “biases,” and “echo chambers” of a so-called “post-fact” world. Propagandists become “merchants of doubt,” especially when the epistemology of science or journalism threatens corporate or political interests.
We know that a good doctor, like Dr. Stockmann, should bellow: “The water is poisoned! The people are poisoned!” at the top of his lungs, but corporate and political interests, encouraged by personal greed, could not tolerate the truth, no matter how many scientific reports supported it.
Here is how it should work when the water is poisoned — in a place like Flint, Michigan.
It was Ron Fonger, reporting for the Flint Journal and Mlive, who broke news that terrible problems with the water system in Flint had led to “elevated lead levels in children’s blood.” Like Dr. Stockmann, Fonger was “relentless on the Flint water story.” And like the doctor, the reporter faced “push back” from authorities.
Dr. Stockmann was exiled, willing to stand alone, if necessary, in his espousal of the truth. Ron Fonger was honored by colleagues and his community in his dogged pursuit of the truth and his willingness to speak truth to power.
If there were a sequel to Ibsen’s play, I wonder how the people of the town would react when the poison from the tannery reached their homes and workplaces, when it manifested itself in disease and death. Maybe then, the mayor, the publisher, the business community, the people would find their way to do the right thing. Maybe Dr. Stockmann would get the medal he deserved. But probably not. Instead, all original deniers would find their way to give themselves the credit.
I see on social networks that some who believe in science and journalism are beginning to embrace “enemy of the people” as a badge of honor. In recent weeks, when the new administration has attacked its opponents, it has led to an interest or revival of some classic works of literature, such as George Orwell’s “1984.”
A revival of “An Enemy of the People” would be a good thing. For democratic purposes, Miller’s adaptation is better. It purges the original of Dr. Stockmann’s attachment to eugenics, a theory of racial and cultural superiority that, flowing from Ibsen to Goebbels, would become dangerous in the 20th Century.