One of my early jobs as a newspaper reporter brought me to the opening ceremonies of the Washington State Legislature in 1975. The Olympia press corps was seated at a table at the head of the chamber at one side of the podium, fully on display, and when the self-congratulatory clapping of the new lawmakers, families, and officials began, I figured it was polite to clap too.
“Don’t you clap for those S.O.B.s,” growled veteran AP reporter John White. “We’re the press!”
Ah, yes. Unelected and unappointed, journalists nonetheless served (and serve) as a fourth branch of government. We had the role of watchdog, communicator, snoop, and critic. A dozen of us sat on our hands while everyone else applauded.
Yet we were given the best seats in the House. Why? Political news sold newspapers, and favorable newspaper coverage could help a politician’s career or pass a bill. Each side used the other.
Leaks and gossip were not just fodder for scandals. They were a way for government to float trial balloons, get around bureaucratic feuds, air dissenting opinions, and in general lubricate society.
The media was never really liked, but usually respected, and occasionally courted. A platitude of the political class was, “Never argue with a guy who buys ink by the barrel.” They meant publishers and the owners of television stations. Trying to outshout monopoly media outlets was a losing proposition. Much better to manipulate the press than fight it.
The media in turn was frequently cozy with, and sympathetic to, the government entities that it covered. Most government employees were earnestly trying to make the world cleaner, safer, smarter, fairer, and so on. Even politicians!
Donald Trump is trying (as of Feb. 18, 2017) to upend the ink barrel truism, and has had some remarkable success. During his campaigns he insulted reporters and anchors, tweeted his way into the national subconscious, monopolized cable news, was embarrassed by scandals, and received almost no major newspaper or magazine endorsements.
He still narrowly won in enough key states to gain the Presidency.
Trump and his advisors recognize how antique the very word “press” has become. A few days ago he held a long, rambling, stream of consciousness press conference so bizarre in its hostility that “the press” hardly knew what to make of it. At the same time, wrecking machines were demolishing the old headquarters and pressroom of the Seattle Times, where I worked for many years. It was a painful juxtaposition.
The Times still exists, with new presses in the suburbs and a rented, shrunken newsroom downtown. But when I started as a journalist there were no wrecking balls at all. Newspapers and the three television networks were as entrenched and as powerful as utilities.
There was no talk radio. No Internet. No “alternative facts.” Today, our privileged monopoly on information is long gone.
At the same time there is a rising contempt for objectivity, science, logic, compromise, and the very usefulness of data. Why read, when a loudly stated opinion can suffice? By his own boasts, Trump reads very little and seizes only on headlines that confirm his latest worldview. There is a modern trust of conviction over fact that is weirdly medieval.
“It is not the truth that matters, but victory,” Adolf Hitler supposedly said. (His other famous quote, “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it,” is apparently apocryphal, based on a passage in Mein Kampf in which he was accusing Jews of lying and gullibility. But it sounds like something the Fuhrer would have said.)
There is nothing new in our current babble of “truthiness.” When mass literacy gave rise to the news industry, there were many rival newspapers in the 19th Century that put partisanship ahead of accuracy.
But as newspapers consolidated into monopolies in most cities in the 20th Century, a new ethic of “objective” (or at least reasonably fair) reporting was adopted to make the product acceptable to a mass audience.
Each paper had both liberal and conservative columnists. Reporters were policed by editors to keep their personal opinions out of news stories. Times stories were reviewed – or “vetted” – by two, three, or even more editors.
We had a code of ethics. Journalists were fired for violating it.
If readers challenged our facts, we were expected to have notes, data, and sources to back up our information.
The newspaper printed corrections. Make too many and you were gone, or at least reassigned.
Technology has destroyed such quaint conventions. Anyone can host a blog, start a website, tweet an opinion, or weigh in on Facebook. Anyone can post fake news, and claim it is the established media news that is “fake.” Lies can flit around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
There is nothing new in Trump’s hostility to the media. All Presidents become frustrated.
But Trump has shattered conventions by making his hostility so overt. He is testing technology in trying to go around the press by using tweets and marginal news websites in ways reminiscent of how FDR, Churchill, Hitler, and Stalin used radio to appeal to followers directly.
John White of the AP wrote it straight. The new Internet world that knocked down the walls of the Seattle Times is a war of rival propagandas.
Two terrifying tests are going on right now. First, can Americans separate fact from cynical lie, use logic over loudness, and cherish the scientific method over blind belief? Some citizens interviewed on TV appear to struggle with this.
Second, has the “ink by the barrel” power moved from publishers to the bully pulpit of the White House? Is reality what a President says it is? Can a President declare war on the media – as Trump has done – and count on an American minority of hardcore believers to push his agenda on the country as a whole?
Judging from his first month in office, Trump’s combativeness and intellectual laziness is not proving as successful as he expected. Reporters are suckers for schmoozing, and he could try some charm. But Trump’s insulting bluster is cementing a dangerous hostility.
Reporters are human, reacting to attack. I’m guessing just about every one of them in Washington, D.C., right now would love to have Trump’s peculiar scalp.
It’s a fascinating, horrifying, and recklessly gambling way to start a Presidency. Does the ink barrel really not matter anymore?
Hitler eventually lost. The truth catches up. And Donald may still find himself over a barrel. We’ll see.