By Benjamin Holden
President Donald J. Trump’s first 30 days have been a whirlwind of policy initiatives that have left Americans separated into a new, split-screen reality never before witnessed in American politics. His supporters are gleeful that he relishes giving the middle finger to the political and media establishment. Detractors argue that he is mentally ill and dangerous.
The following simple, three-point argument does not wade into the Messiah-versus-Devil swamp that has seen an alarmingly high percentage of Americans retreat to the echo chamber of self-reinforcing beliefs shared by people like us, to listeners like us, then repeated to people like us. Whomever the “us” may be.
No, this modest proposal suggests and argues for positions upon which everyone can agree. To wit, 1) that America’s standing in the world is at least in part based upon the perception and reality of a free press; 2) that undermining the independence and integrity of the judiciary is a really bad idea for a country in the democracy-spreading business; and 3) undermining the press in a time of extreme financial vulnerability harms not just the profession, but is also demoralizing to those attempting to teach or learn the business.
I’m a lawyer and journalist with a strong professional and scholarly interest in the courts and the press and the way they must cooperate in a democracy. President Trump is making my job a lot harder, and those who love this country should consider:
POINT 1: TRUMP’S ACTIONS UNDERMINE AMERICA’S LONGSTANDING MESSAGE OF GLOBAL PRESS FREEDOM
One might call the president’s approach the Trump Press Polemic. Here’s how it works. First, you call any coverage you do not like “fake,” even though you provide little or no evidence of falsity. Next, you publicly equate and reduce the role of a free and independent press to mere political “opposition,” so that anything broadcast or written that is critical of you can be dismissed as petty partisanship. And finally, you play the Trump card: you label the press the “enemy” of the American people, a not-so-subtle dig at the patriotism of journalists.
As a former editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper, I can say that my bosses at the McClatchy corporate offices stayed up nights sweating bullets about factual errors. Gary Pruitt, now CEO of the Associated Press and longtime McClatchy CEO, hated mistakes more than anybody I ever met, and insisted on full and fair corrections when they were made.
Bob Dickey, now the CEO of the Gannett Co. and my boss when I worked at Gannett’s Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs, Calif., had us institute a suspension policy for reporters who made more than a certain number of mistakes in a given period.
These men are not just leaders in the industry; they reflect the overwhelming orthodoxy within the news business that errors simply are not tolerated, any more than door-latch defects would be at a car company or load-bearing miscalculations in an engineering firm.
Any argument to the contrary is a myth and corrosive to democracy — even if those arguments are made by the president of the United States.
But President Trump’s war on the free press is not just bad domestic policy. His overt attempt to equate ordinary journalistic investigative reporting with partisan politics is bad foreign policy as well. It imperils the long-standing, non-partisan U.S. foreign policy objective to encourage government transparency and freedom of information globally, particularly among developing nations.
I spent three media consulting stints in Kosovo, a nation created in 2008 with U.S. military and financial aid from the war-torn former Yugoslavia. Working with Kosovo’s top judges, journalists, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the U.S. State Department, we drafted and circulated a model handbook for Kosovo journalists and judges, which detailed how a free press and an independent judiciary interact.
I interviewed 18 journalists, 15 judges, six actual or prospective court PR folks and a ton of regular Albanians and Serbians who were eager to talk to the first Black American they’d ever seen who wasn’t doing a rap song or dunking a ball. They were eager to embrace American values and ideals of a free press and an impartial, independent judiciary.
But in less than a month, this perplexing and frankly childish Trump Press Polemic threatens to undermine generations of American leadership worldwide in advocacy for transparency, separation of press from politics and the well-settled belief that so-called sedition — or punishment for criticism of government — is anathema to a healthy and functioning democracy.
POINT 2: TRUMP’S ACTIONS UNDERMINE THE LEGITIMACY OF THE JUDICIARY
Whether working with judges and journalists at the National Judicial College in Reno, Nev., or with the Kosovo Judicial Council in Pristina, Kosovo, I am fond of quoting Edward R. Murrow of “See It Now” fame. He’s the journalist who stood up to Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunts in the 1950s and ultimately declared that what separates a true democracy from all other governments is a free press and an independent judiciary.
President Trump said the Hon. Gonzalo Curiel could not be objective in hearing Trump University lawsuits because “he’s Mexican.” But of course, Judge Curiel was born in Indiana. Then when the Hon. James Robart, the federal district judge from Seattle who initially blocked Trump’s travel ban, issued his ruling, Trump attacked the George W. Bush appointee as a “so-called judge.” And finally, when the full 9th Circuit voted 3-0 to block the ban, Trump attacked the entire panel and called the result “a political decision.”
So on my next visit to Kosovo, I’m sure I’ll be asked, “How do you expect a brand new democracy to separate news from politics when you can’t even do it in your own country?”
POINT 3: UNDERMINING TEACHING IN THE PROFESSION OF JOURNALISM
I now teach news reporting at the University of Illinois College of Media. I scolded a student recently for applauding at a city council meeting. She seemed confused initially. She was just doing what everyone else was doing. But I asked her if she’d boo or hiss if everyone else did so. She got it then.
But the Trump Press Polemic is making it more difficult to teach journalism. The coin of the realm for journalists is objectivity. Accusing a good reporter of bias is like accusing a cop of being crooked or a judge of being on the take.
But for the length of his campaign and now his brief presidency, Donald Trump has taken great pride in hacking away at the notion that reporting is a neutral and honorable profession and has aggressively and self-consciously substituted this narrative — with little or no objective facts to back up the claim — that journalists are “the opposition party” or, in a recent Trump tweet, “the enemy of the American people.”
So there I stand, figuratively alongside other college journalism professors, in my classroom in front of 19- and 20-year old once-idealistic journalism students (and the parent holding the checkbook) who arrived on campus to “do good.”
But they hear from their president every day that the business they are entering is both financially and morally bankrupt. It gets more difficult every day to address the sincerely asked question: “Why is President Trump so intent on reviving the American auto business but killing the American news business?”
Doesn’t he know that Thomas Jefferson, whom he so often quotes as a frequent target and adversary of the press, also said famously that if he had to choose a world of government without newspapers or newspapers without government he would gladly choose the latter?
Benjamin Holden, a lawyer and former Wall Street Journal reporter, teaches media law and news reporting at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.