Donald Trump’s attacks on the media as “FAKE NEWS,” “very dishonest,” “a dying newspaper” and “a failing pile of garbage” make Richard Nixon’s vice president’s famous disdain for the press as “nattering nabobs of negativism” sound quaint, even flattering in comparison.
Nixon was the modern president who sought most aggressively to discredit and erect legal obstacles for the press. Those days are apparently back. Angered by tough questions and critical coverage, our thin-skinned next president (an admirer of Nixon’s) targeted the media with as many hateful epithets as he hurled at Hillary Clinton. Now that she’s out of the picture, the press is public enemy number one, and he’ll challenge our ability to play the role enshrined in our constitution. The media must fight back — objectively and fairly, of course — but united, armed with facts, pens blazing.
The word “media” derives from Latin for “intermediate layer,” and the role of a free press is to ask hard questions on behalf of the public and to hold the powerful accountable by fact-checking what they say and bird-dogging what they do. Our reality-TV-star-businessman-turned-president is used to wielding unquestioned power, and he has honed the art of communicating without intermediaries. He has no compunction about shouting down, ignoring, threatening legal action and going after reporters in person and on Twitter. The journalist’s job to seek out truth and hold officials accountable will be harder now, but Trump is wrong if he thinks our job will be impossible. There are plenty of credible sources beyond White House insiders and many will be eager to talk.
Trump has been stunningly effective at denying his previous statements and actions (even those on tape, like his initial support for the Iraq War and mockery of a disabled reporter) and rejecting evidence (like the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in our election or the historical record that his electoral college victory wasn’t a “landslide.”) His message? Whom do you believe: me, or your eyes and the lying press?
He’s embraced conspiracy theorists who spread lies that the 9/11 attacks and Sandy Hook school massacre were staged. He vowed to “open up” libel laws to make it easier to sue media. He blacklisted respected news organizations, ejected a prominent Latino TV reporter, and relegated press to roped-off pens where some Trump supporters felt emboldened to spit on and abuse them. T-shirts seen at his rallies promoted the media as enemy: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.”
Victory hasn’t softened Trump’s hostility. He eschewed a press pool and refused a news conference for 167 days, instead picking and choosing interviews and tweeting, allowing him to avoid follow-up questions. Last week’s performance at Trump Tower — with its clapping section and Trump’s shouting down a CNN reporter — is a taste of things to come. Trump’s team floated a plan to move the press out of their West Wing briefing room. So intense was the uproar that Trump on Wednesday said he’d leave it in place, but would “pick the people to go into the room.”
The White House Correspondents’ Association president, Jeff Mason of Reuters, is insisting on access and trying to remain positive. “There is always going to be tension between the press corps and White House that it covers — that is natural and healthy. We hope to establish a constructive working relationship with President Trump’s communications team,” he said in an interview.
Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists admits he’s more accustomed to advocating for press freedom in Russia and Turkey than in Washington. Sadly, “the way Trump treats the media — the constant demeaning and diminishing of their role is very comparable to what you hear from authoritarian leaders,” he said.
He has some advice for the US media. First: “Double-down and recommit” to our role demanding accountability. Next: solidarity. Build coalitions, defending protections for sources and the right to report unflattering information about public figures as long as it’s not knowingly false. Last: expect the unexpected. “Nixon was the last time the press felt under this kind of pressure,” he said.
That pressure, of course, was a powerful motivator to publish the Pentagon Papers and ferret out the Watergate scandal. We all know what happened next.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.