Columbia Journalism Review has two pieces on the relationship between Donald Trump and the news media.
Columbia University Prof. Ari Goldman comments on the comparisons between Trump and Richard Nixon:
My mind went back 44 years, to November 7, 1972, when I was a student at the school. I was just 23 years old, but on that night, I got to cover a presidential election and write about it for a special edition of the Columbia News. We followed the results on an AP teletype machine that spewed out state totals and on a black-and-white TV featuring Walter Cronkite on the screen. …
It was not a late night. President Richard Nixon, running for re-election, trounced Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, winning 49 states. McGovern won Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Nixon even beat McGovern in his home state of South Dakota.
By contrast, the night of November 8, 2016 was a long one. It was after 3 am when Donald J. Trump took the stage and claimed victory. A huge, unanticipated upheaval had taken place in America, and few of us in New York media circles had seen it coming. At a Columbia Journalism School forum the next day, students were visibly upset and many, especially women and people of color, spoke about their fears. They worried aloud about Trump’s incendiary comments during the campaign about women, Muslims, African Americans, and the press. After all, here was a candidate for president who said he planned to “open up” the nation’s libel laws so “we can sue them and win money.”
I took the microphone and reminded the students that, like Trump, Richard Nixon, the president of my youth, was an ardent foe of press freedom. He wiretapped journalists’ phones, unleashed the Internal Revenue Service on them, and featured them prominently on his “enemies list.” In one landmark case, he went to federal court to stop The New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of American involvement in Vietnam. (Nixon lost when the Supreme Court reversed a lower court injunction and allowed the Times to keep publishing.) “Nixon won by a landslide that night,” I told the students, “but most important, he never served out his term. He was forced to resign less than two years later because of two young and smart reporters on The Washington Post.”
As George Packer reminds us in this week’s New Yorker, Nixon was felled by more than Woodward and Bernstein. It was the courts, the Congress and, as we later learned, the FBI, whose deputy director, Mark Felt, turned out to be Deep Throat.
But this was no time for a full history lesson. My purpose was to highlight the role of the press in bringing Nixon down and draw a line from Nixon to Trump. “We’ve been through worse,” I added.
Nixon-Trump comparisons are not new. In fact, Trump himself made one on the eve of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. “I think what Nixon understood is that when the world is falling apart, people want a strong leader whose highest priority is protecting America first,” Mr. Trump said, according to The Times. “The ’60s were bad, really bad. And it’s really bad now. Americans feel like it’s chaos again.”
The Times reported that quote in a “news analysis” by Michael Barbaro and Alexander Burns headlined “It’s Donald Trump’s Convention. But the Inspiration? Nixon.”
“In an evening of severe speeches evoking the tone and themes of Nixon’s successful 1968 campaign,” they wrote, “Mr. Trump’s allies and aides proudly portrayed him as the heir to the disgraced former president’s law-and-order message, his mastery of political self-reinvention and his rebukes of overreaching liberal government. It was a remarkable embrace—open and unhesitating—of Nixon’s polarizing campaign tactics, and of his overt appeals to Americans frightened by a chaotic stew of war, mass protests and racial unrest.”
There was no mention in that article that Trump was also using Nixon’s playbook in his treatment of the press, especially what he saw as the elite East Coast liberal media. Like Trump and his Twitter account, Nixon found his own way around the establishment press by taking his case directly to the people through the new medium of television. Television turned out to be both his friend and his undoing.
In 1952, when Nixon was the vice presidential nominee running with Dwight Eisenhower, his place on the ticket was in jeopardy because of a report in the New York Post that he had access to “a secret rich men’s trust fund” that enabled him to live lavishly. Nixon delivered a half-hour televised address in which he defended himself and said that regardless of the charges against him, he was going to keep one gift: a black-and-white dog who had been named Checkers by the Nixon children. It became known as the “Checkers speech.”
In 1960, however, TV was not so kind to him when, running for president against John F. Kennedy, he appeared tired, sweaty and nervous on the screen during a presidential debate. It has often been said that people who heard the debate on radio thought Nixon won; those who saw it on TV thought Kennedy won. Nixon did not have a face for TV.
TV was also his undoing because his fall was played out for all to see when the Senate Watergate hearings were broadcast gavel-to-gavel on PBS and witnesses like John Dean, the former White House Counsel, boldly testified that the president knew of the cover-up.
Trump too is a creature of TV. He has exploited it brilliantly, from his game show, The Apprentice, which ran in various formats across 14 seasons on NBC, to hosting Saturday Night Live, to making the rounds of the late-night talk shows. Although he has blundered during the campaign, in the debates and in interviews, TV remains his friend. Twitter is his constant companion.
Trump also shares Nixon’s antipathy for the press. Some of Nixon’s most enduring quotes are about the media. In 1962, when Nixon lost in his bid to become governor of California, he bitterly lashed out at the media, saying “now that all the members of the press are so delighted that I have lost, I’d like to make a statement of my own. Just think how much you’re going to be missing.”
He later added: “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
It wasn’t, of course. In one of the great political comebacks of all time, Nixon defeated a host of challengers—including Governor Ronald Reagan of California and Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York—to secure the Republican nomination for president. He went on to beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the general election to become the 37th president of the United States.
He started his presidency with this axiom: “The press is the enemy.” That was what he frequently told the White House staff, according to Mark Feldstein’s “Poisoning The Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.” At first, Nixon gave the main attack role to his vice president, Spiro Agnew, who labeled the press “a small, unelected elite,” and famous called them “nattering nabobs of negativism,” a phrase penned by William Safire, then a White House speechwriter.
Agnew was forced to resign in 1973 after being charged with accepting more than $100,000 in bribes while holding elected office in Maryland. He surrendered his role as vice president roughly a year before Nixon, facing impeachment, would himself be forced to resign.
There were others in the White House who picked up Nixon’s anti-press mandate, including G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, who plotted to assassinate one of Nixon’s major irritants, the syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, a tale told in detail in the Feldstein book. The plot was never carried out, but the two would later plan another White House caper: the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington on June 17, 1972, a scandal investigated by two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward, 28, and Carl Bernstein, 29.
My students especially like to hear the story of these two reporters. When I invoked their work at the J School forum, several students thanked me for injecting a note of hope at a dismal time.
“You have your work cut out for you,” I told them. “The goal is not to fear Trump, but for Trump to fear you.”
As opposed to the media’s being in the tank so far for Barack Obama the past eight years it’s surprising no one drowned. (Or Hillary Clinton, though that didn’t help her get elected president, did it?)
Nick Dawes, who worked in the media in South Africa and India, compares life in countries without the First Amendment to this one:
Here is some advice in return, mostly from India and South Africa, where an ostensibly free press is confronted with regulatory, economic, and political pressures that come with majoritarianism.
1. Get used to the end of access as you know it.
The president-elect loves to see himself on magazine covers. Don’t kid yourself that this means you will enjoy meaningful access to his administration on the terms you are familiar with. There will be a lot less trading of micro-scoops for favorable coverage, the transactional stock-in trade of capital city reporting everywhere. In India for example, after Narendra Modi took power, journalists were banned from government offices they had once wandered freely. They were kicked off the presidential plane. Modi granted no interviews to the domestic press for over a year. His ministers and senior officials whispered privately that they had been ordered not to speak to the press.
Losing this kind of access isn’t all bad. It reminds you that your job is to hold power to account, rather than to join its club. Outsider status can be bracing. But it comes with the choking off of other kinds. Twitter and Instagram posts substitute for the tough back-and-forth of press conferences, officials stonewall legitimate queries, and you wait to publish, because right of reply matters, accuracy matters to you. Not to them.
So you take to the law. But freedom of information filings will be slowed-walked to death or irrelevance, as they increasingly are in India, and other countries where the first flush of enthusiasm over FOIA legislation has replaced with a deepening chill.
In one case I was involved in in South Africa three presidents fought us over seven years and two trips to the constitutional court before we won. By then it was too late to do anything but prove a point.
So you have to cultivate other ways to get the data that you need and the democratic process demands.
There are going to be a plenty of officials who are deeply uncomfortable with the direction of the administration. Some of them are your sources already, no doubt. But you will need them much more. Especially the awkward squad. The mid-level career bureaucrats, the ones deep down the cc list, the ones who may not have the secretary’s ear, or the inside scoop on how many almonds the president eats at night.
And you are going to need a knowledge of strong encryption if you are going to keep them safe under a regime that has the most sophisticated surveillance capabilities ever imagined, and a president-elect with history of vindictiveness.
You might think the worst of access culture is already over in Washington. We’ve seen the videos from the White House correspondents dinner. It really isn’t.
So it will feel strange, this new world. It cuts to your sense of who you are, the proximity to power and the capacity for actual influence that makes up for your shitty paycheck and the trolls all over your timeline, but on balance, it is a more honest place, and it is the only one available.
2. Get used to spending more time in court.
You are going to need to litigate to get access to information, but you are also going to have to defend, a lot. Some of the attacks will come from proxies suing over your reporting on corruption, conflicts of interest, and general sleaze. We never lost a suit like that during my time in South Africa, and there were plenty, but we burned countless hours and money we really didn’t have, both of which would have been better spent on more reporting.
In India, where the protections are weaker, obscure activists in country towns launch suits against reporters, editors, and proprietors routinely, seeking immense damages in the overburdened and sometimes compromised provincial courts. Anyone who has worked in an Indian newsroom can describe for you what the words “chilling effect” really mean.
You obviously can’t back down in the face of these efforts, but you can use them as crusading opportunities, both spreading the story and popularizing your sense of mission. You should be quite unembarrassed about this. You should probably also think about some kind of pooled legal defence fund for smaller outlets.
Much more frightening, of course, are the moments when the proxies step aside, and the full might of the security establishment is brought to bear. Your Espionage Act is a truly terrible piece of legislation. Some kind of elite consensus has spared reporters and editors its full force since 1917, but word is the elite consensus is over.
Being fingerprinted for journalism is a very strange experience, you don’t want it to become a normal one.
3. Get used to being stigmatized as “opposition.”
Mr Trump was quick out of the blocks on this one with his “professional protesters incited by the media” tweet. His subsequent attacks on the Times fit a familiar pattern: call out one prominent enemy pour encourager les autres, and let the trolls do the rest. This will escalate. The basic idea is simple: to delegitimize accountability journalism by framing it as partisan.
In South Africa linking the press with the opposition was a routine trope, on really bad days ruling party figures would add the CIA or foreign capitalists.
A member of parliament once asked me, during hearings on a draconian new intelligence law that the national editors’ body objected to “tell me, are you still South African when you go home at night?”
Narendra Modi, on the other hand, never names his enemies, but the liberal-leaning NDTV carries the brunt of his ire, with one of its channels recently ordered to go off air for a day as punishment for allegedly compromising security with its coverage of a militant attack. And his ardent social media fans do much of the work for him. Steel yourself and take a look at Barkha Dutt’s mentions sometime to see the Indian version of Steven Bannon’s white nationalist horde.
“Paid media,” “presstitutes,” “Lutyens journalists” (the equivalent of Beltway insiders) are all routine slurs from India’s ruling party, meant to associate the press with the old, corrupt elite and the opposition Congress Party.
The frustrating thing about this approach is that it works quite well, and it is going to work REALLY well in America next year.
Why should anyone care about your investigation of the president’s conflicts of interest, or his tax bills, if they emanate from the political opposition? The scariest thing about “fake news” is that all news becomes fake. Yours too.
The challenge is to maintain a tough, independent, journalistic politics, a politics of accountability, equity and the rule of law without straightforwardly aligning with the partisan opposition. In places like Venezuela, where private media have been forced into a purely oppositional stance, the result has been a shrinking of real spaces for dissent and accountability.
This is a tough line to walk, because people on both sides of the political divide actually want you to fail at it. But it is among your most important tasks.
4. When they can’t regulate you away, they will try to buy you out or suck up your oxygen.
Congressional funding for public broadcasting is limited here, as is its audience, so one avenue of media capture is foreclosed. But crony billionaires will be lurking all around the fringes of a distressed industry, happy to tolerate losses in return for a voice. India has hundreds of loss-making TV channels and newspapers. In South Africa, the main English language daily group has been bought out by a presidential crony, and gutted. But you can look closer to home for examples, perhaps to Las Vegas.
Some media owners, already ensconced, will tack to the prevailing wind. Gently at first, so you hardly notice it. Completely in the end.
And where that doesn’t work, the president’s people will start, or boost, their own alternatives, and seek to route around you. Breitbart is just beginning.
5. You are going to have to get organized.
My sense is that American journalists aren’t much for formal structures that reach across the profession and represent its interests. The protection of the First Amendment, and your establishment credentials have been enough, by and large. You don’t have a press council, or a meaningful editors’ body, or strong unions.
In the new world, journalism Twitter isn’t going to be an adequate safeguard.
You need to band together around positive principles—independence, accountability, ethical standards, and the defence of your rights, which must be fought for both in the broad constitutional brushstrokes and the narrow detail of regulation and practice. Judging by the recent barrage of anti-semitic and racist threats to journalists, you will also need to address both the climate of hate and specific concerns around safety.
Organizing journalists is a great deal worse than herding cats. We have egos that are at once giant, and fragile. We like to own the story, all of it. We are rubbish at management. But some among you have these skills. Get it together to push them forward.
Also, find some allies outside of your usual circles. In South Africa, for example, our campaigns for freedom of information were vastly more credible when they were undertaken in partnership with organizations with their roots poor communities who could speak to the importance of transparency in ensuring access to clean water, safe streets, and healthcare.
I’m sorry to lecture. But I am worried. We all are. In the countries where I’ve spent my working life, the press still matters, but there is less of it, and the whole accountability ecosystem has become unbalanced. For all its real and urgent problems, US journalism is still the City on a Hill. The fading of its light will be disastrous not just for Americans, but for all of us.
It will. Hopefully some Republicans and some conservatives realize that, or will get around to realizing that.