“Sick people.” “Fake news.” “Crooked.” “Dishonest.” “Trying to take away our history and our heritage.” The current American president, in his public messaging on the matter, is not a fan of the current American press. “I really think they don’t like our country,” Donald Trump explained, at a rally in Phoenix in August; by that point, of course, the elaboration was unnecessary. Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist for The Washington Post, has called Trump’s angry dismissals of the American press, as a whole, “the most sustained attack any president has ever made on the news media.”
The volleys are extreme. They are excerpted, albeit with a distinctly Trumpian flair, from the authoritarian handbook. They may well end in physical violence waged against members of the American media. And though they may be discussed, by the president himself and by many others, as battles in Trump’s “war” on that media, they are not, strictly, that. It takes two to war, after all—and as Sullivan’s boss, Marty Baron, reminded the public on Wednesday, the American press is not engaged in a wide-scale skirmish with the president. Many of them are engaged instead in that most peaceful of things: They’re doing their jobs.
“We’re not at war; we’re at work,” Baron told an audience at the Washington Ideas Forum, sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, of the Post’s treatment of Trump. And it’s work, he noted, that is mandated by the First Amendment. The day after his inauguration, Baron reminded the crowd, Trump had gone to the CIA and delivered a talk that went out of its way to emphasize the martial overtones of the president/press relationship. (“As you know,” the new executive told the gathered intelligence agents, “I have a running war with the media.” He added: “They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”)
But what the president has construed as a war is, in fact, business as usual. The presidency and the press are oppositional by nature, the one with its interest in opacity, the other with its interest in the opposite. Reporting on a leader’s doings is not fighting; it is reporting on a leader’s doings. And this isn’t the first time, Baron pointed out, that journalists have met the business end of presidential ire: The Nixon administration, he noted, as Post reporters were investigating Watergate, used similar (if not similarly aggressive) rhetoric against journalists. And the Nixon-era public, as today, held the press in relatively low esteem. And, yet, the story was broken. The president was held accountable. The job was done.
The difference now, with this particular presidency, is that, through Trump’s rhetoric, the workings of the press—keep asking, keep searching, keep finding—are interpreted as disloyalty. Not merely to the president, but to the country. (“I’m sorry, it’s neither productive nor patriotic,” Kellyanne Conway said in June of the media’s continued reporting on her boss.) This is a time of faction: hyper-partisanship, politics defined by opposition, “some very fine people on both sides.” The rhetoric of war reflects that, when it comes to the American psyche as well as the president’s.
But it is also, like so many other things at the moment, extreme. From the journalist’s point of view, and from the First Amendment’s, to question the president and those in his orbit is deeply patriotic. Curiosity is a public good. A commitment to truth is the highest ideal of a political system that requires shared facts to function. Baron’s conversation was held with Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic, and in the course of their discussion the one editor asked the other about the Post’s new motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Does the line frame the Post and its mission, Goldberg asked, as part of the anti-Trump “resistance”?
Baron’s “no” was emphatic. “We don’t view ourselves as part of the resistance,” he said. The dramatically alliterative motto was in the works before Trump came to office, he noted—a mission statement that came about with input from the Post’s owner of nearly four years, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, and that was meant to highlight journalism as not just a business, but also a civic virtue. So the motto isn’t merely a tagline. It’s a job description. “That is our mission,” Baron said: “to shine a light in dark corners and hold the government accountable.”