Plenty of baby boomers defend the behavior of Donald Trump (and some will surely comment on this piece). But plenty more are offended by it, and one of them is longtime journalist and co-founder of BoomerCafé, Greg Dobbs. He would call Trump’s latest disdain for journalism the last straw… except his experience shows, there are even more straws still out there.
President Trump, in his relations with journalists, used to be just a horrible man. Fake News, Enemy of the People, and all that.
Now he has taken it up a notch: he is a horrible, horrible man.
He’s even more horrible than before, because he has gone so personal against journalists. As if they are there to simply regurgitate what he says, not to question it. As if the White House belongs to him, not to the American people.
Thomas Jefferson knew that. He appreciated journalism’s role as a check and balance on government. He famously avowed that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Yet last week, as you no doubt know, Trump made clear his contempt for checks and balances. He pulled the press credential from CNN’s White House correspondent because he doesn’t blindly believe every word the president utters. He told off another CNN reporter, saying she “asks a lot of stupid questions” (because she asked him whether he would have his new attorney general “rein in” special counsel Robert Mueller, which is precisely what the president himself had said he wanted recently-fired AG Jeff Sessions to do).
And all in the same week, Trump called a PBS correspondent’s question “racist” after she asked if his rhetoric encourages white nationalists, and described yet another White House journalist as a “loser” who “doesn’t know what the hell she is doing.” And of course before God and everybody, he denounced the banned CNN correspondent, Jim Acosta, as “a rude, terrible person.” For doing his job.
Maybe most of all, Donald Trump’s even more horrible because he hasn’t stopped calling us “the enemy of the people,” as if Americans would be better off if their president were never challenged.
Thomas Jefferson knew differently.
So did Ronald Reagan. Millions of baby boomers, and maybe some younger Americans as well, will remember Sam Donaldson, the White House correspondent for ABC News. I was Sam’s producer for a while and when I became an ABC correspondent myself, he became my role model.
Why? Because he treated important people like presidents with respect, but not submissiveness. He understood that they weren’t sacred or sometimes even very special. He realized that just like the rest of us, to quote a cliché, they put their pants on one leg at a time. He knew that at the end of the day, they work for us and not the other way around.
In covering the White House under both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Sam practiced his craft accordingly.
Reagan got that. Sometimes assigned by ABC as an extra White House correspondent, I was there a few times when the president’s press secretary would declare a presidential appearance a “photo op,” meaning pictures only, no questions. But if there was a question that needed to be asked to inform the American people about the issue of the day, Sam would shout it out, restrictions be damned.
Or sometimes the president was crossing the White House lawn to board his helicopter to fly off somewhere, and Sam would scream out a question in his booming baritone about an issue, and if the president didn’t want to answer, he’d cup his hands over his ears as if to say, “Sorry, can’t hear you.” Sam had a right to ask a question, the president had a right to pretend he couldn’t hear it.
But Reagan never called Sam a “loser,” or “racist,” or “stupid,” or “a rude, terrible person.” Because Sam was just doing his job.
Like Thomas Jefferson, Reagan understood the import of that job. Or at the very least, that he had to abide it. There is an illustrative tale from the day ABC News opened a bigger brighter bureau in Washington. President Reagan graced us with an appearance. But while he was making his casual remarks, in a newsroom packed to the gills with journalists, Sam shouted out a question about something in the news that needed to be asked.
None less than the president of ABC News, a guy named Roone Arledge, interrupted Sam in front of the crowd, saying something like “Sam, the president is here to honor us right now, not to answer questions.” Inexcusably, Sam’s boss was trying to silence Sam. But he failed, mainly because the president himself interceded, flashing his million dollar smile: “That’s okay, Roone. It’s just Sam being Sam.” Meaning, he is free to ask his questions. I am free to answer or not. That day, he did.
Defaming, demeaning, demonizing his perceived enemies is nothing new for Donald Trump. He has done the same with presidential primary opponents, with war heroes, with Gold Star families. Trump revels in it. He brags about it.
And there’s nothing about journalists that makes us any more untouchable than those others.
But there is something about journalism itself. Those who practice it are the people’s representatives at the White House. It is only because of them that any of us knows what a president is up to, let alone finds out what’s behind it. I’d like to see how the media’s harshest critics would like it if suddenly their only source for scoops was Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Maybe those critics ought to spend a little time in some of the 80-plus nations where I’ve covered news. Nations where journalists are beholden to their governments, and therefore only report what the government wants them to report. If they don’t, they can lose their children’s placement in quality schools, their domicile in decent homes, their jobs, sometimes even their very lives.
This kind of compliance seems to be what Donald Trump wants. Which is why he’s a horrible, horrible president. And a horrible, horrible man.