As I have every year for the past two decades, I recently began teaching my Winter Quarter UCLA Extension course in opinion writing, which at UCLA’s request I rebranded a few years ago as “writing for advocacy.” That’s a broader, more inclusive, and frankly more accurate term that better fit what most of my students actually intended or hoped to do with their newly acquired skill set. While the course is offered as an elective in the journalism sequence, in past years relatively few students who took it were journalists or aspired to be. What they were, or aspired to be, were writers. Those poor souls, said the novelist Thomas Mann, “for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
They yearned to write to better express themselves, or because they were passionate about a particular topic, like the professional nurse who hoped to write for health industry trade publications about healthcare access, or the field organizer for the local Sierra Club chapter dedicated to promoting green energy.
But this year, it’s something different.
By a show of hands, at least 80 percent of my students are taking the course on their way to earning a certificate in journalism. Don’t you know there are no jobs, I asked them. What are you doing here? And discounting for the one who candidly admitted that she just needed an elective to fit in with her schedule, their motivation can be summed up in a single word: Trump.
My students, ranging in age from their twenties to their fifties, clearly grasp that we are in a national state of emergency. And professional journalism is a way to break the glass, set off the alarm, grab the axe and firehose, and race to the rescue.
This is a unique historical moment—hell, let’s not mince words, an unprecedented crisis in national governance—the likes of which we have not seen since the Watergate scandal, when President Richard Nixon personally directed the obstruction of justice in his attempts to cover up White House involvement in his re-election campaign’s criminal conduct during the 1972 presidential election.
I want to be very precise here: today, all three branches of our federal government, the executive, the legislative and the judicial, are under direct assault by Donald Trump and his ideological allies and supporters, whether they’re true believers in his base sporting red “MAGA” caps; white nationalists and xenophobes hoping to Make America White Again; or cynical plutocrats, oligarchs and hyper-capitalists who fancy themselves the true puppet-masters behind this continuing horror show.
We are in mortal danger.
We are witnessing an intemperate and unfit president speaking and behaving more like an authoritarian dictator than any predecessor in history, including even Richard Nixon himself; we see a Congress, captive to his party, which seems entirely uninterested in and incapable of carrying out its most basic constitutional duties of serving as the check and balance against a runaway executive branch; and we see a once proudly independent judicial branch increasingly subordinated to a mere accessory to the far-Right ideological forces dominating the other two branches.
Moreover, this assault on democracy comes at a time when, thanks to the Internet economy and the collapse of the pre-digital business model, American journalism is losing outlets, hemorrhaging talent, and plunging in public trust and respect.
Nevertheless, against this depressing backdrop, my students are stepping up like never before in my teaching experience. It is, in fact—as I told them—like a welcome return of the animating spirit that prompted me and so many of my generational cohorts, inspired by the almost mythically heroic examples of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to pursue journalism careers of our own.
So, this will be a fateful year for our profession, and more importantly, for our democracy. As American politics, led by the president himself, becomes ever more coarse and polarized, we find ourselves in a new kind of civil war. As Lincoln declared in 1863, we see ourselves once again put to the test of whether our nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, can long endure.
Our obligations are clear, as residents, citizens, voters, and activists. The nation is desperately crying out for help, and once more, journalists must be among the first responders.