In Henrik Ibsen’s timeless play, “An Enemy of the People,” a medical doctor and a journalist plot to publish a troubling truth about their town’s major attraction, a resort spa. The waters of the spa are contaminated with bacteria. It is not fit for human use. At the last moment, fearing the consequences, the editor cowers and declines to publish the story, imperiling the guests but protecting the town’s economy and — not coincidentally — his hide.
The doctor proceeds to tell the truth in a public forum. It does not go well. The town turns against him and his family. Perhaps the editor made the personally wise decision, but he didn’t make the right one.
On Oct. 9, 2018, the Luskin School presented a UCLA Medal — our highest honor — to Jorge Ramos, a journalist, longtime Univision anchor and proud Bruin. Mr. Ramos recounted his journey from Mexico to Westwood and UCLA. Ramos left Mexico where he was a successful reporter because, unlike Ibsen’s editor, he refused to be censored in his efforts to tell the truth. Ramos was fired for refusing to change a story to reflect a better light on the ruling one-party government in Mexico. He sold his car and came to the U.S. with little more than what he could carry. Not long after, he enrolled in a journalism program at UCLA Extension. “UCLA saved my life,” he told the crowd of students, alums and friends of the University.
We now know that Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was murdered by his own government. Though there are efforts to offer alternative narratives, there is little question that he was killed and largely as a consequence of his critiques. Khashoggi is, alas, not alone. He joins Daniel Pearl, journalists of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and many more… The international Committee to Protect Journalists has documented 590 intentional deaths of journalists in just the last decade, some in the cross-fire of international or civil military conflicts, but the overwhelming majority through murder/assassination. The mission to find and tell the truth sometimes gets you fired, as Jorge Ramos learned. And sometimes it gets you killed.
The values of democracy are powerful but do not defend themselves. They require us, citizens committed to the sovereignty of the people rather than autocratic rule, to defend them, to draw lines, to hold accountable those who cross them. We can and should disagree about policy, about which paths are best. But the truth, facts and evidence must inform us. To suppress the truth is unscientific and undemocratic. It is beneath us. And the values of democracy require a courageous, fair and uncensored press. Calling the press the “enemy of the people” is corrosive to an accountable democracy because it risks trading the courageous Jorge Ramos for Ibsen’s small-town editor, too afraid to publish the truth.
Jorge Ramos closed his remarks to the UCLA audience with this powerful affirmation of our duty as citizens. “When you see racism, disobey. When you see inequality, you have to disobey. When you see injustice, you have to disobey. This is not a time to be silent … The greatest social movements in this country and in the world have happened when people disobey authority.”
Be like Jorge.
All the best,