Witcover: Trump's war on the Washington press corps

There's an ancient print-journalism bromide still heard in newsrooms around the country: "Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel." It's now being ignored and defied in spades by Donald Trump, who has the presidency and very deep pockets with which to take on the old geezer.

The adage also applies to other media -- radio, television and the Internet -- to monitor, criticize or even attack public and private citizens and their views. Mr. Trump so far has been an equal-opportunity basher of those media as well, although he pointedly has prominent allies and defenders, from radio's Rush Limbaugh to the Fox News cable TV network and the Breitbart News website.

The new president seems to take particular glee in mocking reporters at his large public rallies and occasional news conferences, while also enjoying a running repartee with certain of them, either verbally or via Twitter. Other politicians regularly avoid banter with them; Mr. Trump revels in it, except when he's peppered with questions such as when he will release his income-tax returns.

Seizing every opportunity presented to show his contempt, Mr. Trump this year declared he would not attend the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington, which most but not all past American presidents have attended at least once during their tenure.

It is held in a large downtown hotel and for many years had been a friendly, formally attired affair with at least one headline entertainer and brief closing presidential remarks conveying a respectful adversarial relationship, and often a toast to the president. I well remember the first few I attended with President Dwight Eisenhower in attendance, and enjoying the musical offerings of the likes of a young Barbra Streisand and the Tijuana Brass, among others.

For many years, the dinners were not televised and definitely played second fiddle to the smaller and more exclusive annual Gridiron Dinner, at which Washington bureau chiefs and other self-selected icons gathered in white tie and tails to see and be seen. The correspondents' affair was more casual. Eventually, hosts vied to bag the hottest political properties of the year, and the best-looking.

In 1986, a young Baltimore Sun colleague, Mike Kelly, escorted the beauteous Fawn Hall of the Ronald Reagan White House to our table. She was famed for sneaking classified papers out of the residence in her undies and declaring about the Iran-Contra scandal that "sometimes you have to go above the law." Kelly on another occasion brought as his guest another beauty, Donna Rice, who had been caught up in the Gary Hart presidential campaign scandal.

Meanwhile, prominent comedians took the dais and gently chided or mimicked the presidential guest, all in mutual good cheer. This year, though, Mr. Trump's ungracious response to the invitation persuaded the dinner's organizers to present a polite and entirely appropriate rejoinder to him.

In a pair of pep talks to the gathered newsroom working stiffs, two of their most respected as well as celebrated Washington press corps colleagues, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post investigative reporters who broke the Watergate scandal, pointedly addressed Mr. Trump in absentia.

Mr. Woodward informed him that "the media is not fake news. Our job is to put the best obtainable version of the truth out there, period." Mr. Bernstein agreed, adding that in investigating, "Yes, follow the money, but follow also the lies," of which Mr.  Trump has been a prolific producer.

The Watergate sleuths were roundly applauded, this time for speaking truth to the White House resident power, who that night was again attacking the free press at a rally in Harrisburg, Pa.

This year's dinner was not as glamorous as many predecessors, but it probably turned out to be its most significant. It squarely confronted Mr. Trump's assault on the integrity of the news business, even as its reporters strive to offer the best obtainable truthful version of his factually impaired presidency.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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