Media columnist David Zurawik says that Trump's war on the press is no worse than Obama's. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)
I've been debating this column in my head for weeks, because with some folks it seems as if there is only one allowable position when it comes to President Donald Trump: He's the most dangerous president ever, and nothing good can come of his tenure.
If you want to go that route, go ahead. I am not attempting to defend Trump.
What I am deeply concerned about is the way the media have been covering him and, in some cases, feeding that worst-ever narrative. Trump is being treated unfairly in some parts of the mainstream media, and unless we deal with it honestly and openly, we are the ones who will wind up losing credibility even as we point our fingers at Trump for his lies.
What tipped the balance on writing this column was the over-the-top reaction to Sean Spicer, Trump's press secretary, excluding some reporters from an informal, off-camera briefing Feb. 24 called a gaggle.
The word "unprecedented" was used along with the idea that Trump had gone where no modern president ever has by allowing his press secretary to exclude The New York Times, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, BuzzFeed and others from the session.
Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, set the tone, writing: "Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties,"
"The decision struck veteran White House journalists as unprecedented in the modern era," correspondents Dylan Byers, Sara Murray and Kevin Liptak wrote in a reaction piece at CNN Money.
Even my own paper joined the chorus in the wake of Spicer's gaggle.
Let’s stop the Hitler, Nazi talk and other forms of extreme speech seeping into the mainstream on cable TV. Keep marginalized voices at the margins.
"Donald Trump isn't the first president to criticize the coverage of his administration," an editorial in The Baltimore Sun said. "But he has escalated the conflict to a level not previously witnessed in the modern era through his administration's words and deeds. ... Even by Trumpian standards … the White House antagonism toward the news media has been extraordinary."
I predicted the nasty nature of this battle in December on a year-end special hosted by Megyn Kelly titled "The Media and Trump." I said that Trump was not only going to try and bypass the mainstream media in reaching Americans via digital platforms like Twitter and Facebook, he was also going to kick top press dogs like The New York Times in the teeth as he passed by.
I said it was going to be ugly, and I deplore the fact that it now is every bit as nasty as I thought. I hate hearing Trump say such things as the press is the "enemy of the people," because I know many among the 63 million who voted for him are going to believe what he says. And that's going to make for more polarization in a nation that already feels more like a collection of enemy camps than anything resembling E Pluribus Unum. I hate seeing Trump play us against each other this way.
But as someone who fervently embraces legacy values, I also believe that you try to the tell the truth even if it favors someone you don't especially like. Actually, if you know you don't like someone, I believe you should go out of your way to make sure you are being fair to them.
Too many in the mainstream press are responding to the big, bold, in-your-face actions of the White House with over-the top rhetoric, historical ignorance, an utter lack of proportionality and, in some cases, just plain bias. Some nights on cable TV feel more like a feeding frenzy than journalists covering a new administration.
And, in fairness to Trump, his administration has not escalated the conflict with the press to a new level. It has not yet come close to doing what President Obama's administration did in making the act of reporting itself criminal behavior in a case that started in 2009 under the Espionage Act of 1917.
At the heart of the case is James Rosen, chief Washington correspondent for Fox News, publishing information about North Korea that he received from a State Department employee.
In obtaining a subpoena to access Rosen's phone and computer records, the Justice Department labeled him "an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator." It also described him as a flight risk.
Branding a reporter that way in court documents had never been done by the government. Since the case was widely reported, I am surprised an act that really was unprecedented was overlooked by so many pundits in making their worst-ever analyses.
When Andy Lack took over as chairman of NBC News and MSNBC in 2015, he promised the cable channel would move from left-wing ideology to journalism. He is delivering on that promise, and it's one of the happier stories in TV journalism these days.
Or, how about the Obama administration excluding Fox News from a round of interviews in 2009 with Kenneth Feinberg, then a Treasury Department official?
At the time, Feinberg was the administration official responsible for deciding the highly controversial issue of compensation for executives of companies being bailed out by the federal government after the economy nearly crashed. Access to him was a very big deal.
Emails later obtained by Judicial Watch about the matter included this one from Obama press secretary Josh Earnest to a Treasury Department spokesperson, saying, "We've demonstrated our willingness and ability to exclude Fox News from significant interviews…"
The Treasury Department exclusion was part of a larger war that the Obama administration declared on Fox in October 2009 when Stephanie Cutter, White House communications director, went on CNN to denounce Fox as a "wing of the Republican Party" and say that the White House was going to stop treating them as a "news network." Administration heavy hitters David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett and Rahm Emanuel reinforced the message on other cable and network talk shows in subsequent days.
It was a public admission that the White House was punishing Fox for its negative coverage — the very thing some of the nation's leading editors labeled "unprecedented" when they believed it was happening to them with Spicer's gaggle.
I was in the middle of that battle as the only mainstream media critic to initially stand with Fox on the principle that the Executive Branch does not get to unilaterally decide what constitutes a real news network. So, please, don't tell me about how unprecedented Trump's actions against the press are.
But just in case you agree with Cutter that Fox isn't a real news outlet and, therefore, what happened to it is not the same as what's happening with Trump, check out what Obama's administration did to James Risen, an investigative reporter at The New York Times.
The Obama Justice Department spent seven years in court trying to force Risen to reveal his sources in its criminal investigation of a leak. Team Obama took the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
Seven years with the threat of jail hanging over your head seems a lot worse than being excluded from an informal briefing with the press secretary on a Friday afternoon — especially when the content of that briefing would be available from pool reporters. But I lost count of all the cable heads saying in their best ominous voices last weekend how "chilling" Trump's action was.
Risen, a Puilitzer Prize winner, doesn't need me to make his case. Read his Times article published Dec. 30, 2016, under the headline: "If Donald Trump targets journalists, thank Obama."
Or, how about George W. Bush, who suddenly found himself aflame with First Amendment fervor this week in talking about the need for a free press? Bush's Justice Department helped put Judith Miller, then a New York Times reporter, in jail for three months for refusing to testify about her sources in the criminal leak case on the outing of Valerie Plame as a C.I.A. agent.
And it's not just the narrative of Trump as worst enemy of the press. Trump is also charged in some quarters with being the biggest liar ever — or, at least, a kind of liar never before seen in the White House.
We have more media outlets than ever, yet we're still getting most of our presidential election information from cable TV and ideologically super-charged performers like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly of Fox News.
Host Brian Stelter offered a variation of this claim on CNN's "Reliable Sources" Dec. 4, and I responded to him by saying for all the frequency and casualness of Trump lies, he has done nothing to approach Lyndon Johnson and his lies about the war in Vietnam. How many Americans and Vietnamese died because of the lies told by Johnson and his press secretaries?
In the face of all the big-scare columns being written about how Trump is Hitler, this column is a modest one asking only for balance, accuracy and honesty in covering this highly unconventional and controversial president.
I have harshly denounced Trump for everything from his statements on Mexican immigrants to his boasts of sexual assault in the "Access Hollywood" tape. And I think he deserved every word I wrote.
I also think he warrants the kind of high-powered investigative reporting that The Washington Post and The New York Times are delivering, particularly on his administration's ties to Russia. This is the kind of work great journalism has always done.
But let's be careful when invoking the historical record in trying to try to make a "worst ever" case against Trump. Let's cover him the old fashioned way. Let's try to get the facts right and then stick to them.