Closing Newsrooms, A Society On The Brink, And A Repeat Of The 2020 Election Push Journalists To Their Limits

Can we write our way out of the apocalypse?
The grand undoing of progress in the name of “making America great again” is tough for anyone who has only known the moral arc of the universe to bend toward justice.
The grand undoing of progress in the name of “making America great again” is tough for anyone who has only known the moral arc of the universe to bend toward justice.
Jianan Liu/HuffPost

Journalism has always been a wild profession. The hours can be nutty. The pressures are severe. The competition is stiff, and the money is often nonexistent, as the closure of dozens of newsrooms over the last few years attests. Basically, it’s not for the faint of heart. But I’m not sure anything in modern history has challenged journalism and its limits quite like the 2016 election and the presidency of Donald Trump.

The already rapid-fire news cycle went from 24 hours to some supercharged new controversy, wild statement or possible constitutional crisis about every 24 seconds ― punctuated by COVID-19 and its lockdowns; nationwide protests over police brutality; the war in Ukraine; and the devastating and deadly fiasco that was the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. Needless to say, most journalists were tired by the time Joe Biden was sworn in, and a lot of us, including me, have never really recovered. There was no time: to process, to think, to reflect on what we’d collectively gone through. And now it’s 2024, and we have to do this all over again, with our unprocessed grief from the pandemic, the compressed news cycle and the grim reality of how unhinged and toxic our national discourse has become.

To some, it may seem hyperbolic, but to those of us who are both blessed and cursed with information, 2016 and the pandemic offered sobering realizations that no one is actually in charge.

Oh sure, we have a president, a Congress and a judiciary. We have laws, and institutions that enforce them, if sometimes unevenly. But no one is really “in charge.” There’s no single person or entity who can actually stop us from sliding into anarchy. There is no hand at the wheel. America is essentially held together by things like “norms” and social contracts that are only as strong as our belief in them. Trump, an iconoclast, a smasher of norms, has pushed us all to the limits of understanding and reality, as the things we were told as children were “wrong” are apparently fine if they’re done in the name of your team. Lying? No problem. Violence? Encouraged. Cheating? “Everyone does it.” Serving your country or paying taxes? For suckers. Caring about your fellow human beings? Damn them all and let God figure it out. The ends justify the means no matter how ugly and unfortunate, causing the death of what one once thought America was, and the birth of a new, even uglier reality than one could have imagined.

I have post-traumatic stress disorder. My first experience with it came from a long-gone, almost-forgotten romantic relationship that turned sour in my 20s. I would be perfectly fine and happy until that person would reach out to me, triggering a response that was one part screaming and another part paralytic. I didn’t want a return, ever, to the status quo. I wanted my new life without this person. I wanted them to disappear. Their insistence on thinking they had any right to have access to my life led to hospitalizations and my almost quitting journalism by the time I was 30.

My second experience with PTSD came from being a working journalist during the 2016 election; its deadly aftermath of Charlottesville violence and empowered white supremacists; the pandemic; the slow bleed-out of American journalistic institutions; the “racial reckoning” of 2020; and the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. But unlike with my toxic relationship, I didn’t seek help, because I didn’t see the problem for what it was. I allowed myself to lose interest in things I’d always loved, and found myself shutting out the information I’d consumed since I was about 11 or so, when I started reading the newspaper every day.

I could read the news, but I couldn’t watch it anymore. Things that used to be daily and nightly habits — “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, CNN at night — turned into reruns of Bravo’s “Real Housewives.” Knowing that there was no one in charge. Knowing that our fates were literally in our own hands, and that it was up to us whether we’d continue the progress of the past 60 years or completely regress to an authoritarian state. It both humbled and horrified me. The idea of an illuminati — some shadowy cabal actively reinforcing the status quo — sounded comforting compared to the actual, cold reality.

It’s not that things haven’t been bad before. My 82-year-old father survived the 1950s and ’60s when we were essentially an apartheid state, with democracy for some and autocracy for everyone else. But this grand undoing of progress in the name of “making America great again” is tough for anyone who has only known that long, moral arc of the universe to bend toward justice, and not toward the complete regression of everything.

I am not built for this.

I was born in 1977. The president was Jimmy Carter. He was a Christian Southerner, a former peanut farmer who seemed to have actually read the New Testament, which is all about loving the poor, the sinners and the sick, with the meek inheriting the earth and us all being good stewards of it. Carter put solar panels on the White House, got too honest when he (more or less) told America it was in a malaise, got waylaid by a hostage crisis in Iran, and then was called weak and ineffective. He was voted out after one term.

The great undoing technically started with the first president I actually remember, Republican icon Ronald Reagan, who raged against progress by pushing myths about welfare queens, ignoring the AIDS crisis and downplaying the racialized violence of the 1960s. But, again, there did seem to be a patina of sanity, as Reagan also supported gun control ― even if the reasoning behind it was race-based and riddled with double standards ― and he’s credited with ending the Cold War with the former Soviet Union. Subsequent presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, attempted to at least pretend like there were some rules and decorum, and parameters about what a president could and could not do.

For the racists, sexists and -phobes of all kinds, both parties mostly offered lip service, deregulation and some conservative judges. But the Republicans took it a bit further by entertaining the far right, making them think they had power. Still, the GOP establishment was slow to deliver on the things the fringe wanted, because what they truly desired — a return to authoritarianism for anyone not a heterosexual, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant man — would screw up everything. All the progress, wealth and prosperity the United States had experienced after the 1970s would be devoured in civil unrest and a collapsed economy.

Mind you, that wealth and prosperity wasn’t for the people. It accrued to a select few, as laws meant to rein in excess were rolled back under both Democratic and Republican presidents. But those same select few didn’t want their apple cart upset by political violence and an unpredictable discourse. So the religious right, Christian conservatives, the “moral majority,” Tea Partiers and other culture warriors were disempowered and reduced to a sideshow. But like the Pied Piper, these angry, anti-everything “patriots” were going to demand, at some point, to be paid for consistently voting Republican.

Donald Trump was that payment that came due, and the Republican Party wasn’t willing, or able, to stop it. He swallowed them whole, causing waves of resignations of establishment conservative politicians unable to survive this new MAGA reality. Soon, the discourse was led by the loudest, most crass voices in the room, regardless of competence, intellect, experience or understanding.

At the same time, with the increasing browning and liberalization of America, capitalism declared that racism, sexism and all those phobias were bad for business. That message became widespread, drawing irrational rage from some quarters at everything from pride flags in Target to trans people drinking Budweiser. Racism and sexism weren’t the problem; the problem was the policing of it. Experiencing racism? Tired. Claiming that being called a racist is worse than actual racism? Wired! The real victims of an unjust society weren’t the people who had always been marginalized, but the people who had always benefited and profited from that injustice.

Some people would rather watch it all burn than share.

Nobody is in charge.

We’re on our own.

And help is not coming.

It never occurred to me to talk to a therapist about the existential crisis I was going through until nearly a month ago, after Jan. 6 returned to the news and the 2024 campaign kicked into full gear. The conversation was prompted by my significant other, who told me I needed some hobbies upon realizing that I was often lonely, isolated, bored and disengaged. It was then I realized how I’d lost interest in so many things post-2016: art, cartoons, drawing, reading, writing, long walks, politics, international relations, history, books, film, most TV, dancing, singing, songwriting, museums and all the things that used to fill my free time. My world just kept getting smaller and smaller, the pandemic accelerating and exacerbating this. The only interests I’d retained post-2016 were cooking, shopping, reality television and listening to music. And then, when I became worried about my spending, I lost shopping as well.

I was living in two realities. In one, I’m happy. My life is good. I recently lost 75 pounds. I have a job I love, a great family and lots of friends, and I’m in a loving, supportive relationship. On the other hand, I feel like the world is ending. I’m trapped in the climate change satire “Don’t Look Up,” and I’m just raging into nothingness as no one can agree on what reality is anymore.

As I talked to my therapist and finally unpacked this, pinpointing that my waning interest in things I’d loved was clearly tied to 2016 and its aftermath, the tears came hard and fast. I’d lost belief in the idea of justice in our society for those long denied it, and it had poisoned my well of hope. There was no comfort, just the truth.

Ordinarily, having my back against the wall would have ignited my desire to fight — against ignorance, apathy and oppression — via my chosen profession of disseminating information. But for the first time in my life, I was tired. I was full of dread as one presidential candidate vowed revenge on the free press and his many “enemies,” and the other seemed to be struggling to stave off World War III. I never thought I’d want to go back to the “halcyon” days of our checkered, messed-up past, as I have always believed the future would be better than what we had left behind. I’m pro-progress. I always joked I’d never get into a time machine, that I didn’t even want to go back to last week, let alone yesteryear. But now, I’m pining for my past ignorance. The rose-colored lenses are gone. The party is over. I am sober, and existing in the waking nightmare rather than pretending it’s not there.

I have no answers, other than that I don’t want to do this but I have to do this. The only path that remains is the path forward. I can’t go back to before 2016 and change anything. I can’t bring back those who died unnecessarily of COVID because people cared too little about each other to wear masks, get vaccinated or self-isolate. I can’t bring back the people killed by police brutality. I can’t save the people harmed over and over, who have died because of racialized, sexualized and anti-LGBTQ+ violence. I can’t stop the crisis at the border. I can’t reverse the overturning of Roe and the criminalization of women’s bodies. I can’t make corporations choose the planet and people over profits.

I can only move forward, hoping that by giving the marginalized a voice, by giving the truth a voice, I’ll help open someone’s eyes and they will be able to make a better, healthier decision for our society.

And as frustrated and defeated as I sometimes feel, I know I won’t stop fighting. I love my life. I love my friends and family. I love my extremely dysfunctional home country and my equally dysfunctional profession. I want things to get better, not worse. I want to be part of the solution, not the problem. So I’m not going to stop until something makes me stop. Like the end of everything. Like death. And even then, I still might be swinging at something, anything, everything, raging against the dying light as I want to leave this world a better place than I found it.

There is no salve that will heal my lost hope except justice. So I guess I better stop feeling sorry for myself, and get back to the business of living.

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