Every new president begins his tenure by trying to manage the press. And even though the press is a far different institution than it was when most of our chief executives took office, that hasn’t stopped the current president-elect from doing the same.
Well, good luck, Donald Trump. You will need it.
Since beginning his almost unbelievable odyssey, Trump has received more ink and air time than almost any seeker of world’s most important job before him. Granted, a lot of that oversized attention was negative. But under the old political theory that any publicity is mainly good as long as one’s name is spelled correctly, Trump benefited dramatically. Quite well known before, Trump’s moniker literally has become the proverbial household word.
That hasn’t stopped the Donald from bellyaching about the coverage or using the press (there’s that word again) as a foil whenever he needed to find an excuse for some of the more outrageous things he has said. In fact, blaming and whining about the media for nearly everything they don’t like has become the standard for his supporters and, for that matter, much of the Republican Party.
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In fact, a dinner I attended the other evening included a preponderance of conservatives who seemed at times highly in favor of doing away with at least the journalistic protections of the First Amendment. When I ultimately became openly defensive and spoke out, I received an indulgent look as though to say “poor misguided fellow.”
The other day, Trump took aside the leaders of electronic reporting — both executives and those who are their top air time performers — and let them know what he thought of them off the record. Then he met with New York Times editors and reporters and, despite the newspaper’s status as the GOP bogeyman, provided some interesting tidbits such as changing his mind about prosecuting Hillary Clinton. He earlier that day had canceled the appointment but then changed his mind.
Perhaps he had become aware of the old warning not to get into a spitting match with someone who buys ink by the barrel, an admonition that clearly has far less standing than it did a few years ago, when newspapers still held more sway and were key to political success and historic understanding. Let’s face it. Today, the printed word might as well be Sanskrit.
Whatever Trump’s motives or intentions, they can’t be terribly good for the people’s right to know about their government and how it is performing, or at least not beyond what he believes. His chief spin doctor, Stephen Bannon, by the way, is fresh from running a website that provides a platform for questionable ethnic positions.
Can the former real estate mogul (and I use the word former advisedly seeing that the verdict is still out on that) accomplish what his predecessors back to George Washington haven’t? That is, manage the press to meet his own formula that includes restricted access? After all, he has talked about doing away with the ubiquitous press pool that follows the president everywhere except his bedroom. Or, will he become his own actual press spokesman with his never-ending, early morning Twitter updates?
Only time will tell, but my bet, based on 52 years in this town, is that while he will try valiantly, the forces against him — including the Constitution and the current, confused condition of what Edmund Burke once called the Fourth Estate — will still prevail. He is not the first to try to stanch the free flow of information, the lifeblood of democracy. If nothing else, those who constantly plumb the internet fountain of government activity for hidden treasures will see to that. Hello WikiLeaks et al.
I am also willing to wager that the legitimate electronic arm of the American press has enough muscle to keep the First Amendment promise alive and functioning as it should, even if the usual defender of that freedom, the newspapers, don’t. Having worked alongside of many of those first responders, they are as diligent in their support of freedom as any of their print brethren.
So, suck it up, Donald. Remember that some bias is always present and not entirely bad if there is necessary concern about a clearly bad idea. Some of yours, which you now seem to be adjusting, were horrible during the campaign. If you didn’t like the press coverage of them, at least they spelled your name right.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.