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03 Jul 2018

Democracy in Crisis: Why This Column Is Coming to the End

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This is the final Democracy in Crisis column that I will be writing.

I remember the urgency with which it started. I was super-stoned in a Denver hotel room just days after Trump was elected. Editors at various alternative newspapers had been wringing their hands about how to deal with Trump. Many of these papers had been militantly local during the Obama era—when I was managing editor of Baltimore City Paper, my unofficial motto was “militantly Baltimorean.” But now it seemed that whenever someone picked up their local paper, they would want to see some news from the “alternative” angle—the independent, insouciant and fiercely opinionated alternative press.

Now, more than 70 weekly columns later (the Independent ran the column once or twice per month), either that has changed, or I was wrong-headed from the start. The Trump regime has taken up so much air from every other story that, while it is wildly important and has implications everywhere, each of these papers is better served covering the ways in which Trump’s policies affect their local communities.

If it were like the old days, when papers were fat and had money, a national column would be great. But this is a time of crisis for the press as much as it is for democracy. David Simon, creator of The Wire, has said the death of newspapers will usher in—or has already started ushering in—a golden age of corruption, because there is no one left to watch City Hall. Except for the wretches who work for the paper you’re reading right now.

Support them now, or you will miss them when they are gone. Since the beginning of this column in January 2017, my own home paper, the Baltimore City Paper, was shut down. We immediately responded with an attempt to start a new paper. We partnered with the nonprofit Real News Network and the Washington Blade and founded the Baltimore Beat. It lasted for four months before the people with the money pulled out.

Now, in Baltimore—where we will have more than 300 murders again this year, where we had a major police corruption scandal that will overturn nearly 2,000 cases, where the police commissioner was federally charged and resigned after only months in office—we have no outlet like the paper you are holding. There is no single place where you can mourn for those murdered, mock the bullshit politicians, and celebrate some artistic or culinary innovation or creature comfort. There is nowhere for this voice. And our city sorely misses it.

The art and music scenes are less cohesive, hardly scenes at all anymore. New writers aren’t following their passions and learning their chops. People aren’t doing insane experiments—like when I once listened to only local music for an entire year. (Music writers, take note.)

The Washington City Paper, one of the other early sponsors of this column, came dangerously close to death during the last year; an execution was stayed only by the intervention of a billionaire, a local rich dude. The Bezos model seems to work in Washington, but we can’t all count on that.

I’ve gotten countless emails from other editors saying something like, “Hey, man, we love the column but can’t afford it anymore.” I was once in the same boat myself as a managing editor. It is brutal.

Between the first draft of this column and this final version, five of my fellow reporters were murdered in their newsroom, an hour away from my own. Every reporter I have ever known has been threatened or maligned at some point, and this has gotten so much worse under Trump. We don’t need the CNNs and MSNBCs. We need the Annapolis Capital Gazettes and all the small, struggling papers that carried this column. Fuck you, Milo, and fuck you, Trump.

I learned from Spy Magazine that every good column has heroes and villains. Donald Trump was one of Spy’s main villains back in the 1980s, and he was the overarching villain of this column. But there were also all of those who enabled him, and whom he enabled, especially Michael Flynn, the alt-right goons of Charlottesville and the dark corners of the web—Project Veritas, and the ever-so-silly and sad “Western chauvinist”™ frat of the Proud Boys, whose litigious western chauvinist™ lawyer threatened legal action against the papers carrying this column.

Foremost among the heroes are the 230 people arrested during the inauguration protests. The very first column detailed those protests, after I was gassed and pepper-sprayed and almost arrested by the mobs of cops with covered faces who ultimately kettled a large group of protesters. The protesters were all charged with the few windows that were broken on the theory that because they wore black and were part of a “black bloc” protest, they all conspired to damage the property. They were facing more than 60 years each.

After a year and a half of the government paying two U.S. attorneys to prosecute the case, and a full-time detective and part-time Trump lover Gregg Pemberton to work it, several defendants have been acquitted on all counts, and the charges against many others have dropped. This includes the charges against Elizabeth Lagesse, one of the real heroes of this column, who taught herself everything possible about the case and went to nearly every proceeding, and filed suit with the ACLU against Washington, D.C.’s police department.

Aaron Cantú, a journalist at the Santa Fe Reporter, is still facing charges. Over the last year and a half, the #Resistance has half-heartedly fallen in love with the “free press,” railing against Trump’s tweets while still lying to us if they are politicians—and ignoring Cantú’s plight if they are Beltway journalists. He has been living under serious criminal charges for a year and a half because he covered a protest. And he’s a hell of a good reporter.

But the real heroes of the column are the alternative papers that ran it and the readers who followed along. I am so grateful to have been able to have a home in each of your cities and towns. And I learned so much from having editors in Colorado Springs or Jackson Hole, and so many others.

Mary Finn spent countless hours filing FOIA requests—some of which we are still waiting on (fingers crossed)—and editing the column. Brandon Soderberg was a tireless editor and a great friend and collaborator through this.

Brandon and I will be writing a book over the next year, so if you enjoyed the column at all, keep an eye out for it.

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