Sunday’s New York Times featured the latest installment in easily-freaked media reporter Jim Rutenberg’s crusade against President Trump: “Trump’s Undermining Reporters May Haunt Republicans.” The online headline foreshadowed Rutenberg’s unlikely attempt to enlist Republicans in defense of the press and against Trump: “Will the Real Democracy Lovers Please Stand Up?” while the text box delivered an empty threat: “This strategy could push Republicans into a corner later.”
Rutenberg made no acknowledgement of the increasingly unconcealed anti-Trump partisanship displayed by the media, including his own newspaper. Rutenberg’s own infamous front-page column from August 2016 argued that the rules of journalistic objectivity didn’t apply in the case of fighting then-candidate Trump.
During another week of presidential declarations that some journalists were “enemies of the people;” of new steps to restrict White House press access by way of a naughty-and-nice list, and of reported moves to force national intelligence agencies to toe the administration line, a now-familiar pattern set in.
Journalists, their subscriptions and ratings spiking, howled about another move to undercut the role the free press plays in a democracy (which “Dies in Darkness” as the new Washington Post slogan has it). The administration doubled down on its antipress aggression, this time declaring it was “going to get worse every day” for these “globalist” and “corporatist” journalists (and other such gobbledygook from the former Goldman Sachs executive Stephen K. Bannon).
And all the while, so many of the most important and credible leaders in the president’s own party more or less kept their traps shut or looked the other way.
If there were ever a moment for government leaders who believe that true information unearthed by independent news sources is vital to our nation to stand up and say so, this would be it.
President Trump’s argument that the national press corps is illegitimate and dishonest has emerged as one of the most consistent themes of his presidency, alongside -- and seemingly as important to him -- his calls for a major tax code overhaul, an end to Obamacare, a border wall and “extreme vetting.”
Those other parts of his agenda appeal to large groups of Republicans on Capitol Hill, including the leaders of the House and the Senate. So you could see the appeal of staying out of the way to let Mr. Trump do his thing against the press -- no great favorite on The Hill anyway-- as their other big policy dishes marinate and cook.
But they might be wise to rethink that strategy. The journalism that Mr. Trump and his aides seek to delegitimize today could be the legitimate research and bipartisan data points they try to use to make policy arguments with Mr. Trump tomorrow.
Not likely. Rutenberg tried to enlist Republicans to go after Trump and defend the press, which has always been just so fair to the GOP in the past.
Asked on Thursday about Mr. Trump’s first declaration that the press was “the enemy,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said, “I don’t view you guys as the enemy.” It warms the heart.
He went on to say: “I expect adversarial questions. And you rarely disappoint me. And I think it’s part of what make America function.”
It was a start, I guess. But it fell short of the full-throated “knock it off” to Mr. Trump that these times demand, at least when it comes to calling true journalism false or calling journalists dishonest enemies.
The office of Representative Paul D. Ryan, the House speaker, declined to engage with me on Saturday when I asked for a comment on whether Mr. Ryan was comfortable with what I called Mr. Trump’s attempt to delegitimize the fourth estate. His office said it disputed the premise of the question.
Rutenberg then undercut his own argument a bit by admitting that tough anti-Trump journalism was still being done.
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And every week I wonder about it myself -- how serious are all the threats and bluster against the news media by Mr. Trump and Mr. Bannon, given that news organizations continue to break big stories about the administration with help from leaks that have not abated despite the presidential pounding?
None of it stopped The Washington Post from reporting on Friday that presidential aides, after failing to convince the F.B.I. to publicly dispute reports by The New York Times and CNN about contact between Trump campaign aides and Russian intelligence, went on to successfully pressure other intelligence officials and key congressmen to do the same. It didn’t keep The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal from reporting on a Department of Homeland Security assessment disputing the basis for the administration’s attempt to block travel to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Falsely conflating pleasing reporters with defending democracy, Rutenberg turned to a grand old man of journalism:
On Saturday, I turned to a sage of the Washington press corps, Bob Schieffer of CBS, whose time in Washington dates to the Nixon administration, to see how seriously he took the recent threats against the press. It was his 80th birthday.
“We need to be taking this very seriously -- any time you undermine the press, I think that’s very dangerous for democracy,” Mr. Schieffer said. “Do we want a situation where the only source of information is the government? I mean, really? Somehow I don’t think that’s what the founders intended.”
Rutenberg even considered boycotting Trump’s next round of media criticism in the name of solidarity.
There should be, however, legitimate questions about whether that reporting should include blanket coverage of the next speech Mr. Trump gives in which he calls honest journalists dishonest or “the opposition.” Those kinds of polemical statements are no longer “news” (defined as “new”) but rather part of a repetitive, antipress, negative branding campaign.