A few days ago, the chief editorial writer and columnist for New Jersey’s largest newspaper wrote he leapt to his feet to applaud Gov. Chris Christie’s recent State of the State address. The journalist wrote he was “standing up and cheering” the politician who persists in trying to punish an independent press by depriving it of revenue from legal ads. He was cheering a man who, until Nov. 8 and the election of Donald Trump, represented the worst in modern American electoral politics.
Before the Russia-backed coup that brought Trump to power in the United States, I would have dismissed the columnist’s antics as an embarrassing lack of professionalism. If I were the newspaper’s editor, I would have spiked the sycophantic column and then lectured the man on the obvious—journalists are not cheerleaders for any politician and should not be seen to be. It is a betrayal of a fundamental value in our increasingly fragile democracy—a free and independent press.
But that was before Nov. 8. Now I see the sycophantic cheering as more than just another embarrassment one writer will have to live down. In the era of The Great Leader Who Will Make America Great Again, such behavior is just one more frightening hint of what will come. An independent press and the public’s right to know face many threats now—and one is the existence of media outlets that will, for whatever their reason, try to get on board the bandwagon that is now sweeping up Quisling Republicans, weak Democrats and others who see opportunity in an authoritarian quasi-dictatorship.
Some media employees always have sought the favor of the powerful, serving more as shills than as genuine journalists. Christie rode to power as governor based on the good press he received as a federal prosecutor—a good press he all but guaranteed by his generosity in spreading leaks around that enhanced the careers of reporters who covered him. Trump may have insulted the press that covered him, but the ratings for cable television networks were fabulous and the money kept rolling in.
That sort of butt-kissing will, of course, continue—but its depth and frequency are likely to be magnified by the threats Trump has made and will make against the mainstream press, by the economic depression in the news business, the distrust many outlets have earned by their poor judgment in 2016, the threat of legal action, the competition from fake news outlets, and the collapse of shared values.
The reporter you once trusted could soon become just another toady for Trump, publicly leaping to his feet to congratulate The Leader for making America great again.
I have heard and seen some hopeful signs . The decision by The New York Times to use the word “lie” in a headline over a story that described Trump’s lying comments about voter fraud was one of them. The newspaper’s editors showed rare courage. But it’s still too soon to determine whether the newspaper will press on—or whether other publications and other media, including cable tv news, will follow that lead.
Let us not forget how the Times helped lead the nation into the Iraq quagmire and reported with such vigor on the non-story involving John Podesta’s stolen emails. Let us also not forget that other once trusted media, including National Public Radio (NPR), have refused to follow the Times’ lead by calling lies what they are—lies.
Evan Osnos, the brilliant New Yorker writer, noted hopefully in a recent radio interview that the press had the power to bring down the Nixon presidency in 1974 by reporting on the Watergate scandal. That institution, the free and constitutionally protected press, was still with us, said Osnos, a former Times journalist. It could do to Trump—a far more cynical and dangerous man than Richard Nixon ever was—what it did to Nixon.
Let’s face it, the attitudes of Americans toward political corruption have changed radically since Watergate. The Nixon Administration was brought down by a botched “third rate burglary” and a clumsy attempt at a cover-up ultimately exposed by insiders willing to talk to reporters. The attempted burglary, the crime at the core of Watergate, was nothing compared to the wholesale hacking of the Democratic Party’s communications by a hostile foreign power, Russia, that made no secret of its support for Donald Trump and effort to rig the 2016 election.
Yet the outrage generated by the successful 2016 coup—the second in my lifetime, after the Supreme Court’s decision to install George W. Bush as president in 2000– was nothing compared to the reaction to Watergate. The constant barrage of damaging revelations about Trump (racism, groping, foreign influence, refusal to release tax returns, on and on)—any one of which would have brought down the most popular politician in the past—only served to enhance Trump’s reputation among the deplorables. He is truly the Teflon Don—and now he has power.
Showing journalists that—like toadying politicians–they can get on board. Or they can get lost. No access. No leaks. No promise of future employment as public relations men and women for federal agencies or favored lobbying groups.
Maybe not even a White House press briefing room.
Forget the Constitution. The First Amendment can only do so much. Wednesday’s Times published an op-ed piece by two law professors who warned the First Amendment alone cannot save the American press from Trump’s predatory and vengeful attacks. They listed the reasons—what’s missing now, in addition to the media’s financial strength–including “ the good will of the public; a mutually dependent relationship with government officials; the support of sympathetic judges; and political norms and traditions.”
The First Amendment will not protect outlets that no longer can afford to put reporters in the field.
The First Amendment will not protect outlets that have lost the trust of informants.
The First Amendment will not protect outlets that are avoided by fearful government officials.
The First Amendment will not pay the legal bills of broke media outlets in the face of libel suits and efforts to use the courts to pry out information.
The First Amendment will not protect reporters from being hounded by powerful public figures who threaten their editors.
The First Amendment will not protect the search for the truth when reporters decide to leap to their feet and cheer on “great leaders,” whether in Trenton or Washington.