Witcover: News media will do their job, no matter how low Trump goes to undermine press freedom
By Jules Witcover
Aug 17, 2018 at 6:00 AM
A month after five died in a targeted attack on the Capital Gazette newsroom, thousands gathered to celebrate the free press and honor first responders. (Jay Reed video)
The Boston Globe editorial board called on other newspapers' opinion voices to join it in castigating President Trump for his open war on the American press by calling journalism "the enemy of the people."
The Globe's deputy managing editor for its editorial pages, Margaret Pritchard, has urged them to push back in print against what she has called "a dirty war against the free press." Several hundred large and small news outlets — including The Baltimore Sun — signed on, along with the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the New England Newspaper and Press Association
"Our words will differ," Ms. Pritchard said. "But at least we can agree that such attacks are alarming."
In the same spirit of a free press, one editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt of The Washington Post, which has been a leading critic of Trump's anti-press rants, said his paper will not participate as such in the joint effort.
Likewise, yours truly, whose own criticisms of this president in this regard have generated much reader complaint along with some support, will continue on the same course, as one independent voice speaking only for myself.
It seems to me that joining an organized counteroffensive against Trump will only enable him to further mobilize and incite his loyalists lend credence to his claim that we are "the enemy of the people." We press critics can proceed on our own in our mission to inform the public of the words and actions of their elected officials.
The Post's top editor, Martin Baron, who as the Globe editor in its Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston'stoleration of priests' sexual abuse of young boys, says of the situation: "The way I see it is as we're not at war with the administration; we see it as we're doing our jobs."
The current furor brings to mind a much lower-key conflict between the White House press corps in Richard Nixon's era prior to the Watergate scandal, when access to the president was controlled and his responses to press inquiries were limited.
The Los Angeles Times' White House man, the late Stuart Loory, and I organized a meeting of colleagues at a nearby hotel to discuss how the White House press conferences by Nixon could made more fruitful. Ideas included asking that they be held more regularly and that reporters try asking more follow-up questions to draw out his thinking.
The meeting was chaired by the venerable and fair-minded New Republic magazine correspondent John Osborne. Afterward, he pointedly informed Nixon's press adviser, Herb Klein, a San Diego newspaper editor himself, of the meeting and its intent, in a spirit of cooperation and good will.
Klein promptly told Osborne that he already knew of the meeting because, having learned of its planning, he had managed to have somebody present to report to him about it. Of course, nothing came of the effort and the press corps, thus unveiled as "conspiring" to act in concert against Nixon, enabled him to disparage it in a manner similar to Mr. Trump.
Obviously, the relationship only got much more contentious as the Watergate scandal surfaced and eventually unraveled, leading to Nixon's resignation in disgrace in 1974.
Today, the story line of another embattled president features not the investigative exploits of two rookie Post reporters but rather of a Justice Department special counsel probing Russian meddling in our election process, leading to Mr. Trump's doorstep.
Accordingly, the press's responsibility requires a careful and thorough monitoring of that investigation and editorial comment on it.
In my opinion, members of the media need not be organized into any collective voice to do the job or to magnify the message. If each editorial writer and commentator independently does the job as warranted by what this president says and does, no editorial group-think will be required that might smack of a kind of "collusion" of its own.
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 email@example.com.