Some of Donald Trump’s “enemies of the people” are about to hand him another oratorical cudgel to beat them over the head.
In one of the most ill-conceived ideas in the history of journalism, between seventy and, some hope, 100 newspapers on Thursday all will print editorials and opinion columns condemning Trump’s harsh rhetoric against news operations that write stories he doesn’t like.
Since being sworn in, Trump has used the word “fake” more than 40 times, as in “fake news,” “fake stories,” and “fake polls.” He invariably attacks reporters during his political rallies, pointing to them confined in “bullpens” in the auditoriums and subjected to direct verbal abuse from his followers.
That’s ugly, even dangerous stuff, but the Thursday demonstration initiated by the Boston Globe is inappropriate and unwise and will only harden, not change, minds.
Trump’s constant attacks on the media outlets he doesn’t like—that is, any that write stories, even accurate ones, that he considers negative—is indeed a serious threat to everyone’s free speech and to democracy itself. Every dictator in modern history among his first acts tried to silence or discredit the organizations that keep people informed, then built his own propaganda machine.
Newspapers and other news organizations should not ignore the threat, and they do not. Reporters routinely explore the relationship among Trump, the press and the public. Editorial boards and opinion writers regularly take issue with the president and his enablers. Promotion departments run campaigns explaining to people the importance to self-government of a free press. And there’s nothing new to say on that subject by any of those segments of the news media, though it nevertheless must be repeated constantly to maintain any good effect.
But Thursday’s contrived demonstration will confirm in Trump supporters’ minds — and in Trump’s — the false belief in a cabal of corrupt, partisan journalists who live to attack them and their leader, and Thursday’s coordinated condemnation, they will say, proves it.
Marjorie Pritchard, deputy managing editor for the editorial pages of the Globe, points out that the rallying call is for opinion writers, who, the policy of most newspapers requires, operate independently from news reporters and editors.
While that enlightened policy coalesced during the Progressive Era of the early 1900s and existed almost universally during the rest of the 20th Century, very few people outside the industry believed the separation was real. Such divisions would make no sense in other businesses, but it most certainly was real during my 46 years as a newspaper reporter and editor. Unfortunately, the 21st Century’s financial pressures have blurred some of the lines at some organizations, particularly on the broadcast side.
Among the other downsides of the coordinated effort:
• It meets Trump’s outright war against mainstream news outlets with what looks like a responsive declaration of war.”
• It responds to Trump’s waging of outright war again mainstream news outlets with what looks like a responsive declaration of war. Correctly, Executive Editor Martin Baron of the Washington Post said last week, “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work. We’re doing our jobs.”
• But the coordination puts negative pressure on newspapers that aren’t participating, such as the Post, the newspaper Trump attacks most often. And Trump surely will turn the Post’s good judgment into a negative.
• It sets an unfortunate precedent about newspapers’ independence, particularly for people inclined to conspiracy theories about Big Media and its alleged owners. If 70-100 newspapers speak in contrived union, detractors will ask, loudly, how do we know when and if the collaboration ends and independence returns?
The best way to deal with Trump’s attacks is for news outlets to stay cool, find and report the truth, write the most persuasive opinions they can, and let Trump fume and bluster.
Davis Merritt, Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org