Donald Trump thinks any American media unaffiliated with Fox News is the “enemy of the people.” His road show appearances are framed by a great deal of insults for the reporters covering him, who are kept in a cage in whatever venue he’s performing. It’s cheap applause, the way bad comics turn to crass humor when they don’t have anything more searching. His tweets, when he runs out of insults for black women or black men or silent praise for white supremacists or their enablers, regularly refuel his bile with attacks on individual reporters and stuttering repetitions of the words “fake news.”
Trump is no original. Every president has denigrated the media over the years. LBJ used to bring reporters into the Oval Office to assault them whenever he didn’t like the way a story read. JFK did something worse than insult reporters. He regularly lied to them, and reporters even more unforgivingly covered for him when they knew of his lies (no, not the sex, the Bay of Pigs). Nixon did his share of treating reporters like the enemy, though at one point or another he treated everyone, including his own cabinet, like the enemy. George W. Bush had so much contempt for factual evidence that his administration invented events out of thin air, whether it was the rescue of a soldier in Iraq, “Mission Accomplished” or saving of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. And Barack Obama had the distinction of actually prosecuting more reporters than any president before him.
Trump is just more crude and more violent. He instigates violence. Like any lusty coward with a pair of Caligulas for testosterone he enjoys it, as long as others are inflicting it for his jollies. His rallies became dangerous places for anyone not in lockstep, and they are now dangerous places for reporters the way no venue featuring a president ever was before, at least not in this country. Trump is encouraging his followers to hate the press and is sending a message to authoritarian leaders and their mercenaries around the globe that attacking journalists is OK. Five hundred journalists have been killed or murdered since 2010 around the globe, about half of them in crossfire, that’s true, but that’s to say the job is dangerous enough without a couch-potato president lighting fuses and encouraging attacks on reporters.
Last week the Boston Globe asked editorial boards from around the country, liberal or conservative, to push back against Trump’s assaults by writing editorials on the same theme. The call drew an impressive response from over 300 papers basically saying what the Denver Post said: “We are simply standing up for what we believe in as journalists.”
We are. But I wonder if the effort was necessary, if it wasn’t redundant, a bit self-serving and a bit off-key. It’s necessary to speak in defense of the press, and we may wish that those in power did so more than they attack it. But the last place reporters should seek validation from is the seat of power. Anyone in power dripping flattery on the press, whether in the public or private sector, is as trustworthy as a time-bomb.
If there are few things more deplorable in journalism than obsequious reporters cozying up to those they cover, it’s reporters seeking affirmation from them, or bitching about those they cover for being too mean. Especially in a country where, all told, the problem isn’t a lack of freedom for the press, a lack of voices or a lack of access. It’s a lack of guts, an addiction to lazy formulas and the false idols of “balance” and “objectivity” posing as fairness. That’s when the press isn’t wasting the majority of its airtime and page space on trivialities not to inform, analyze, question and debate, but to “amuse ourselves to death,” in the words of Neil Postman. And as skepticism goes, I’d also question this call that originated from large media outlets and gave many six- and seven-figure talking heads a chance to speak about how hard they have it. I’m not sure I want sermons on press freedom from the Megyn Kellys and Jim Acostas of the trade (and their armies of lawyers).
There’s inspiration closer to home–that is, anywhere outside the echo chambers of big media. The Observer last week published its endorsements for the coming primary. No doubt half the politicians running for election wish a plague on the Observer. So do I, for some of them: unanimity about any media outlet is also suspicious, unless you like propaganda organs. The News-Journal, the Observer, WNZF and FlaglerLive’s news staffs aren’t running around Flagler’s streets to hear commendations from local politicians, but to hold them to account. Doing what we do day in and day out, “without fear or favor,” as Adolph Ochs wrote in his very first editorial after buying the New York Times in 1896, is a more eloquent defense of the press than any editorial we could write.
So the joint effort to speak in defense of media may have had its value for half a news cycle. So is denouncing Trump’s violent and sham rhetoric. But if politicians and their sycophants think we reporters are the enemy, let’s be proud of it, shut the hell up and do our jobs. If we do it well, that’ll shut them up. They’ll soon be gone anyway. We won’t.