Locals on Trump’s Debasement of the Press

Here are two thoughtful responses to Trump calling the news media the "enemy of the American people."

Mar 1, 2017 at 2:43 pm

Donald Trump wins if news media respond to his “enemy of the American people” speech by curling into the fetal position, closing our eyes and hoping malign forces will not maul us further.

I’m not sure what Trump hoped to accomplish by the calumny — mobs smashing newsroom windows, making us wear yellow badges shaped like Royal manual typewriters and requiring us to step into gutters when Real Americans walk by — but it was obscenity without sex. 

His debasement of our politics leaves almost no space for civility. 

Here, however, are two thoughtful responses to his loutish brutalism. Each is a cri de coeur in the face of Trump’s implicit call to violence against the “enemy.”

The first comes from friends at the old Enquirer on Vine Street. The other was written by a longtime fighter for freedom of information.

Brian Horton is a retired AP photographer and exec, and Marilyn Dillon is a former colleague. She was a reporter and a local editor; he worked out of the AP office at the back of our newsroom. Here’s their response, shared among friends:   

“Since Friday, when President Trump tweeted that the news media is the enemy of the American people, Marilyn and I have been talking and thinking a lot about our lives in journalism. And we know that many of our former colleagues and friends share our concerns. And many are as outraged as we are.

“We have both devoted our entire adult lives (and I grew up in a household centered on journalism — my dad was a reporter) seeking the truth and shining a light into the dark corners.

“We both went to work every day to deal in facts, not alternative truths, but verifiable truths. Not looking at a story through the lens of whether we liked the person or not. Something was not fake because the subject didn't like it. It was only fake if the facts themselves were not true. Those ‘real’ facts, that true information, formed the basis of what we did for many, many years.

“The people we worked with did the same thing. Sometimes there were errors. Sometimes a story got something wrong. But those reporters corrected the record, and doubled-down to work harder to make their work as error-free as possible in the future. None of them ever made up something out of whole cloth and tried to pass it off as a fact.

“We are not the enemy.

“We know a reporter who was held captive for several years in Beirut. We know journalists who lost their lives at work — more than 2,200 journalists have lost their lives covering stories since 1992. We both worked long hours, weekends, holidays, time apart. All to bring real information, real facts, to our audience. We often put ourselves and the people that worked for us in harm's way.

“President Trump is free to say he doesn't like a story. Presidents have always complained about coverage. They would prefer, I'm sure, that only upbeat stories making them look like heroes be put out there. But the truth is that it is not the job of reporters to make everyone happy. It is the job of reporters to tell the truth.

“To say that the news media is the American public's ‘enemy’ is wrong on so many levels. 

“When something goes right for the president, reporters will cover it. When things don't go right, they will cover that, too. The president has to understand that you can't only have the good stuff — you have to take the good with the bad. And, he needs to understand that just because he says something, that doesn't mean it is will be accepted without questions.

“Do we, the American public, really want it any other way? You'll remember that the Nixon administration called Watergate a two-bit burglary. Bill Clinton said he didn't have sex with Monica Lewinsky. Reporters asked questions, pushed the envelope, found the truth. That's the way it should be.

“We are in a world today where there are a million different sources of information. Find something that can be trusted — though it may not tell you what you are hoping to hear. If you find a story in only one place, that's a red flag. Be an informed consumer of news. Know the difference between columnists, who openly voice their opinions, and the news stories which are without slant.

“Thank you for allowing us a few moments to air our thoughts … We felt like the president's tweet could not go unchallenged.”

Lucy Dalglish’s essay preceded Trump’s Enemy of the American People speech. Dalglish is a lawyer, newsroom veteran and former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Today, she is dean of Maryland’s J-school. Here are edited points from her essay at spj.org/quill:

“President Donald Trump craves the spotlight. He will not shut out the media over the next four years. He is too dependent on their attention.

“It will be easy to be distracted by governance via Twitter. While it’s impossible to dismiss tweets from the president, American democracy cannot afford a climate where journalists settle on passing along every tweet as gospel and ignore basic nuts-and-bolts accountability reporting. The president may be reckless in the way he handles social media, but journalists cannot do the same.

“We cannot ignore a threshold problem facing American journalism. We have lost at least one generation of experienced government reporters to newsroom layoffs and buyouts. The White House will be covered, but I fear that coverage of Congress, the courts, state legislatures and local governments will continue to shrink.

“Young journalists are enormously talented but most are not yet equipped to handle day-to-day coverage of the federal executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

“Federal agencies are poised to make sweeping changes in federal health care, education, energy, economic, national security and environmental policy. Decisions will be pushed down to the states and local newsrooms are even less prepared to cover these issues.

“I sat through Senate Judiciary Committee hearings where then-Senator Sessions aggressively tried to block passage of a federal shield law for journalists and user-friendly amendments to the federal Freedom of Information Act. I find it hard to imagine an attorney general with a more dismissive attitude toward the media and basic government transparency.

“Attorney General Eric Holder agreed to adopt guidelines that made it less likely journalists would be sucked into a criminal case merely for doing their jobs. But the guidelines are merely guidelines. Attorney General Sessions could reverse them easily and quickly.

“Several unsuccessful attempts were made during the Obama years to adopt a federal shield law. Then-Senator Sessions opposed them all, often citing arguments consistent with his former roles as a state attorney general and federal prosecutor accustomed to free reign in gathering evidence …

“Congress adopted and Obama signed amendments to the federal Freedom of Information Act in 2016. Then-Senator Sessions was unsuccessful in efforts to weaken it. Attorney Gen. Sessions could take a hard line on fees or aggressively fight FOIA lawsuits.

“A potentially bright note: The shield law bill that had the best chance of passage during the Obama years was co-sponsored by then-Rep. Mike Pence. In Congress, Pence formed a ‘Press Freedom Caucus’ with Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. As Indiana’s governor, Pence increased transparency in the state’s economic development agency and vetoed a bill that would have allowed state agencies to charge a fee for searching for public records. 

“On the other hand, he fought efforts to release emails under the state’s public records law and attempted to start a state-run news agency.”

Curmudgeon Notes:

• Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is strong on First Amendment’s protections for the Press, according to New York Times’ Adam Liptak. 

It’s a wonder that Trump nominated him. 

This, after all, is a president who says news media are “the enemy of the American people” and who pledged “to open up those libel laws” to make it easier to sue.

On this score, Liptak wrote, Gorsuch “seems destined to disappoint his patron. Judge Gorsuch’s decisions in libel and related cases show no inclination to cut back on protections for the press.”

Libel law, Gorsuch wrote in a 2011 appellate opinion, is “about protecting a good reputation honestly earned,” but minor inaccuracies can’t be the basis for a libel suit. He called the freedom to report “a First Amendment imperative.”

Eugene Volokh, an expert in First Amendment law at UCLA, told Liptak that Gorsuch’s commitment to free speech was not guarded or grudging. “Sometimes when judges apply the rules, you can see that they’re holding their nose,” Volokh said. “He didn’t seem to be.”

Gregg Leslie, the legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Liptak that Gorsuch “consistently applied established First Amendment protections when he did get them. He also showed a willingness to uphold protections for speech rights even in controversial cases. It’s always good to see a  judge do the right thing in tougher circumstances.”

Philadelphia news media lawyer Gayle Sproul said Judge Gorsuch voted in favor of news organizations in invasion-of-privacy cases, even when they involved “classically sympathetic plaintiffs, like a victim of sexual assault and by cops cleared of wrongdoing.”

In a 2007 case concerning the broadcast of a videotape of a rape, Judge Gorsuch joined an opinion dismissing a lawsuit by the victim, saying the story concerned “a matter of legitimate public interest.”

Liptak said Gorsuch joined a second 2007 decision dismissing a case brought by undercover police officers on similar grounds. “Courts have generally treated allegations of police misconduct as worthy of public interest,” the decision said, refusing to carve out an exception for disclosing the identities of police officers working undercover.

“We can find no precedent for such an exception, and we are not inclined to create one here merely on policy grounds,” the appellate court said, “despite our concerns about the safety of undercover officers and the need to avoid disincentives for entering their profession.”

Liptak said Gorsuch read other protections of the First Amendment broadly, including the right of citizens “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” That clause, he wrote in a 2007 case involving an unhappy taxpayer, “does not pick and choose its causes. … The minor and questionable, along with the mighty and consequential, are all embraced.” 

Gorsuch seems unlikely to use his skills to advance Trump’s agenda in libel cases, said Volokh, who has known the judge for decades. “To the extent people are worried that President Trump has an anti-libel-protection project,” Volokh said, “there’s nothing to suggest Neil would share that project.”

• Press secretary Sean Spicer excluded out-of-favor news media from a White House briefing last week. What’s worse, telling your editors you were excluded from Spicer’s soiree or explaining why you were invited?

• As far as real news goes, news media don’t expect press secretary Spicer to tell the truth. As his colleague Kellyanne Conway put it, Spicer offers “alternative facts.”

I liked the Los Angeles Times’ editorial take on not being invited: “Trump’s White House press office just put up a velvet rope in front of the media.” 

That’s even more painful than Trump staff penning “lying,” “dishonest” and “false” journalists at his campaign rallies. That was everyone except sycophants. Velvet ropes hold back only the unworthy, unattractive or badly groomed and dressed.

• On March 23, four veteran local journalists will discuss real and fake news and how journalists can/should determine facts. The program is sponsored by the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting and Cincinnati’s Society of Professional Journalists. It’ll be 7-8:30 p.m. at VOA as part of VOA’s 75th anniversary. Speakers will be Kevin Aldridge, Enquirer associate opinion editor; Howard Wilkinson, politics reporter at WVXU; Anthony Shoemaker, politics reporter for Cox Media Group Ohio at the Dayton Daily News; and Hagit Limor, former investigative reporter and now associate UC professor of electronic media. VOA is at 8070 Tylersville Road, West Chester. Admission is $10.

• Milo Yiannopoulos is a full-time narcissist and gay/rightwing provocateur. Popular among conservatives, he achieved ultimate celebrity: one name. Milo was a key editor at white racist and anti-semitic Breitbart News during the reign of Trump buddy Steve Bannon. Milo finally went too far. In an older video clip, he appears to endorse sexual relations between adult men and young boys. 

Simon & Schuster’s rightwing Threshold Editions canceled his book contract. CPAC (the American Conservative Union’s Conservative Political Action Conference) canceled his speech at its Washington, D.C., convention last week. He did not go too far for Breitbart News, but Milo resigned, saying he’d become the story at his colleagues’ expense. 

• Trump should quit invoking his son-in-law, daughter and grandchildren as “go-to” Jews when reporters ask about anti-semitism. If they ever did, they no longer deflect hostile questions and accusations. 

• Trump knew about National Security advisor Mike Flynn’s contacts with Russians for weeks but asked for Flynn’s resignation only when details began to leak into the news media. Then, to prove he’s the savviest guy in the Oval Office, Trump damned the leaks and leakers, not reports of his cavalier inaction on national security.

• My activist and news junkie wife — daughter of an intensely political family — says chaos in Trump’s retinue is not evidence of incompetence. Rather, she says, it’s designed to heighten reliance on The Leader; only he knows what’s going in and can ease fears he has generated.

• As Trump goes about repopulating the Swamp with crony capitalists, Bloomberg News says that Kellyanne Conway’s corporate lawyer husband, George, is being considered for solicitor general. That would make him No. 3 in the Justice Department and the first Asian-American to hold that rank. He’d report to anti-immigrant Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III and argue federal cases in the Supreme Court. 

CNN said George Conway “was part of the team of lawyers in the 1990s who represented Paula Jones in her sexual harassment lawsuit against then-President Bill Clinton. He helped write the Supreme Court brief in the case that would establish a legal precedent for a sitting president to be sued in civil court.”

• Bemoaning the popularity of the French Bulldog among Brits, the Guardian’s Zoe Williams took a skeptic’s look at the new top 10 breeds in the UK. “The German shepherd, at number seven, is known for its intelligence, though I think maybe that is relative to its police handler.”

• Mayor Sam Liccardo in flooded San Jose, Calif.: “If the first time a resident is aware that they need to get out of their home is when they see a firefighter in a boat, that's a failure.”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]