A big part of our work on behalf of writers—sometimes the most important, sometimes the least visible—is the part in Washington. We meet with both parties in Congress on issues of copyright and taxes. We highly value our working relationship with the new Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden. Our advocacy on antitrust and other issues affecting publishing has often taken us to the Justice Department and to the White House itself.
You may have noticed that all is not well in Washington at the moment.
First President Trump complained that “the media” was biased against him. “Dishonest.” Presidents have made such complaints before, in moments of weakness and self-pity.
Then he labeled the media as “the opposition party.”
Now he has declared journalists to be “the enemy of the American People.”
We hear that as a declaration of war. We know our history. Enemy of the People is a phrase long favored by authoritarians and tyrants. The “correct Russian term,” Gary Shteyngart points out, is враг народа, vrag naroda. Long before Lenin and Stalin used it, Robespierre inaugurated the Reign of Terror by declaring that the Revolutionary Government “owes nothing to the Enemies of the People but death.”
An earlier president, John F. Kennedy—when he was taking a beating in the press after the Bay of Pigs fiasco—was asked if he resented the media. He said this:
It is never pleasant to be reading things that are not agreeable news, but I would say that it is an invaluable arm of the presidency, as a check, really, on what is going on in the administration … I would think that Mr. Khrushchev operating a totalitarian system, which has many advantages as far as being able to move in secret, and all the rest—there is a terrific disadvantage in not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily …Even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn’t write it, and even though we disapprove, there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.
President Kennedy was a member of the Authors Guild. So are many of the journalists now covering the Trump presidency, the historians who will soon reflect upon it, and the novelists who challenge us with their imaginative—and, yes, subversive—visions.
The administration is now preparing the elimination of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities under the false guise of budgetary necessity. We understand this, too, to be part of an attack on the free expression of diverse views. We’re asking all our members to add their voices.
The Authors Guild serves writers as a nonpartisan advocate. Our members represent a broad spectrum of social and political views. We are a big tent, and I don’t speak for everyone. But blanket attacks on writers and journalists, as a class, are not a partisan issue; they are attacks on democracy itself. And, as advocates for authors and the first amendment rights of writers, we cannot let these attacks go unanswered.
We are not the people’s enemies. We are the eyes and ears of the people. And we are the people’s memory.