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Ink by the Barrel

by bdietrich on February 18, 2017

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.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Floyd McKay February 18, 2017 at 6:03 pm

Bill, excellent piece and I certainly can relate. I had the same experience when I first covered the Oregon Legislature in 1965. Those were great days, the relationship between press and pols was as you state it, positive yet skeptical. We stayed seated while others rose in the presence of power. We determined when a news conference would end, the senior reporter calling the shots. In Oregon we actually worked together on one important measure–a Reporters’ Shield law–with Governor Tom McCall, a former reporter, working with the press room gang to promote the bill. Conflict of interest? Well, yeah, but it was clearly declared. I think a lot changed with Watergate, on both sides. Such an interesting time.

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Jan Roberts February 18, 2017 at 6:35 pm

Hi Bill,
I’ve spent the last hour discussing Trump with a co-worker Trump sympathizer. I don’t see how anyone with a good look at the facts is still willing to give him a chance. I’m exhausted from it, and there’s so much more to come. What is going to happen when the FCC cross-ownership thing comes up again and Rupert Murdoch has Trump in his pocket? Free press? I wonder. What scary times.
Say hi to Holly for me.
Jan

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David Wood February 18, 2017 at 11:26 pm

” Why read, when a loudly stated opinion can suffice?”

Very true and very sad.

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Patrick O'Connor March 20, 2017 at 6:35 pm

Wow! How do you guys (Bill and commenters) get anywhere? Don’t your heads get stuck in the doorways?
Reading, like listening, is only as useful as the source material and THAT is not something to be taken for granted.
And the contempt is not for “objectivity, science, logic, compromise, and the very usefulness of data” but rather the lack of objectivity and the abuse of science, logic, compromise and data.
Get over yourselves.

When’s the next Ethan Gage novel coming out? :-)

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Mike Griffin May 9, 2017 at 7:52 am

“Rising contempt for logic” Those few key words right there pretty much sums up the entire article and, in my opinion, the root problem with Trumpers. Even with a small amount of simple logic applied to any statement by Donald Trump, one should clearly be able to define fact from fiction. Yet here we are with continued support from the feeble minded. It is quite disturbingly a matter of defiance of basic logic. Patrick O’Connor above is the perfect example of a true Trump supporter and one in denial. Despite the entire story, he picks out just one part he can use to attack people with and write disparaging comments. Patrick? Exactly how in gods name can one abuse logic? Think things out too much? Explore all avenues before making a commitment or decision which may affect the lives and welfare of millions of innocent people? And what would be the harm in compromise if it would amount to even one step forward? Must we be mired in a permanent political bog from which there is no escape? The very essence of compromise is peace and progress. Solving critical issues together through give and take. That’s the problem with you Trumpers. You want it all your way and you want it now no matter how it may affect the lives of others or even your own life down the road. You’re ignorant of fact yet closed minded enough to be convinced your right. So let me ask this question. Given the average background and education of Trumpers, what is the likelihood that they are right and the highly educated intilkectual opposition is wrong? In other words, who would be more likely to be correct about Donald Trump, smart people or dumb people? Humanitarians or racists? Caring individuals or bigots? People fighting for equality or sexists? I am a Christian and proud of it. Yet I am deeply ashamed and offended my faith would so blindly endorse a person like Donald Trump. I believe in separation of church and state as long as the church stays out of politics while demanding the government stays out of the church. Two way door. I believe in the rigjt to keep and bare arms but also common sense laws restricting their ownership and use. I am pro life but also believe there are certain considerations that must be taken into account where a woman makes the choice. So before I am called a dirty liberal, consider my conservative views but also my willingness to compromise. That’s how I move forward. No matter my personal views, I place more value on the future and moving forward through peaceful compromise. Also, despite my conservative views on some issues, I would never consider voting for a republican. Simple logic dictates I choose a different party. Republicans are destructive to the poor, the working class, unions, the environment, and actually to their own supporters that aren’t wealthy. Unbiased, objective logic. It does a body good.

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