Marvin Kalb

Marvin Kalb on Current Challenges to the Freedom of the Press

On March 30, 2017, Marvin Kalb, former Shorenstein Center director, delivered commentary on the threats to U.S. democracy posed by the Trump administration. The talk was sponsored by the Press Freedom Committee of the National Press Club Journalism Institute.


Thank you, Mike, and thank you, Barbara Cochran and Julie Schoo, of the Journalism Institute of the National Press Club for giving me this opportunity to express my thoughts—mine, no one else’s—about President Donald Trump’s troubling, and at times frightening, relations with the American press.

I have been in this business of journalism now for more than 60 years, most of the time doing straight news, not commentary.  But what you will hear tonight is commentary, certain no doubt to offend some of you, while prompting others to nod in agreement.

I believe that after a few rapid-fire months in office it’s fair to say that President Trump has launched a style of governance, utterly unfamiliar to the American experience.  Experts in politics, diplomacy and journalism have been left shaking their heads in dismay and bewilderment, unable in their wanderings through American history to come up with a parallel.  What we have now could be called creeping authoritarianism.  It may yet fail, and there have been some indications (most recently on health care) that it will fail; but we cannot dismiss the possibility that it may, at some point, actually succeed.  And, if it does succeed, this glorious experiment in American democracy will have failed.

Nowhere, it seems, is this new style of un-American governance more pronounced than in President Trump’s dealings with the press.  His angry attacks, his “running war” with the media, as it’s called, have raised more than a few eyebrows.  The press, overall, he says, is a “disgrace.”  Reporters are “very dishonest people.”  Their coverage he describes as an “outrage.”  The New York Times is a “failing newspaper.”  CNN—“terrible.”  Buzzfeed, one of the relatively new websites, he dismisses as “garbage.”  When a story is critical of him or his policies, he calls it “fake news,” often written in his tweets with capital letters.  When public opinion polls produce numbers that violate his rosy image of himself, they are described as “fake polls.”

Stephen Bannon, his Darth Vader shadow, gleefully reminds reporters that their coverage of the 2016 presidential race was so awful they ought to feel “embarrassed and humiliated and keep [their] mouths shut and just listen for a while.”  He, whose experience in journalism extends no further than a few years at Breitbart News.  For him, the press is nothing more, nothing less, than the “opposition party.”

But perhaps most important to any understanding of the president’s judgment of the press was his recent comment that they are all “enemies of the American people,” a comment that shocked not only the reporters but also anyone with an even passing familiarity with recent world history.

Josef Stalin often used that loaded expression when he arrested and killed enemies of his people in the old Soviet Union, then governed by communists.

Mao Zedong liked to divide the Chinese people into two groups: one group, that favors his communist rule; and the other group that opposes his rule, he denounced as “enemies of the people.”

Adolf Hitler loved Henrik Ibsen’s play, “Enemy of the People,” and his Nazi cohorts denounced Jewish critics of his regime as “enemies of the people,” and 6-million of them were murdered during World War Two.

When the president used this phrase, did he know the history of its use by these 20th century killers?  Or did the phrase just pop into his mind as an appropriate description of the American press?  We are not apt to get an answer to these questions from his spokesman Sean Spicer.

But others did have an answer.  Former President George W. Bush, still a Republican last I heard, when asked whether he considers the media to be “enemies of the American people,” he replied that the media is “indispensable to democracy.”  With Trump obviously very much on his mind, Bush continued, “power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive, and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power.”

Senator John McCain, the Republican who ran and lost his race for the presidency in 2008, was even more blunt.  “When you look at history,” he said, “the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press.”  He then rushed to add, “I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator.  I’m just saying we need to learn the lessons of history.”  The Senator from Arizona, once a prisoner of war in Vietnam, obviously feels that he has learned the lessons of history.  “We need a free press.  It’s vital,” he said, choosing his words carefully.  “If you want to preserve democracy, as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press.  Without it, I’m afraid, we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time.  That’s how dictators get started.”

It is important to note that at the recent Gridiron dinner Vice President Mike Pence told reporters that he, and the president, he added, both support the first amendment.  How nice!  There was a sprinkling of applause in the ballroom, but a few of the reporters noted privately that there was no retraction of the president’s comment about the press being “enemies of the people;” nor was there an explanation of how reporters can enjoy both the benefits of the first amendment and at the same time be “enemies of the American people.”  Maybe, in retrospect, what the Vice-President said was better than nothing.

What we know, so far, is that Donald Trump is a self-absorbed, impulsive, ego-driven, former tv-reality president, narcissistic in a big way, obsessed with cable news (for him, the fount of all knowledge, past and present), an outsider, a real estate magnate, who never, before now, held political office, never served in the military, and yet managed, in a totally unpredictable presidential campaign, the closest to political madness in recent history, to diminish and then demolish 16 other GOP candidates, and finally, against all odds, slip past his democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, and end up sitting in the Oval Office, where, as president, he is the only one in the US whose finger is on the nuclear button.

Trump is, some say, a damaged president, but still, arguably, the most powerful politician in the country, perhaps the world, and that is why his approach to governance, to democracy and to a free press, is so crucially important.

In my view, a free press, which is what we still have, is the best guarantor of a free and open society.  That should be obvious to any politician, as the sun at high noon…which, by the way, might explain why, after his health care defeat, the first thing he did was telephone not Fox News or Breitbart but a Washington Post reporter to put his spin on his defeat.  Not his fault, he said; it was the fault of the Democrats.  And a few days later, it was the fault of the right wing of the Republican Party.  It’s always somebody else’s fault, never his.

But when President Trump makes it a habit of belittling and humiliating the mainstream press, he is doing more than playing to his gallery of supporters, for whom journalism in any case is a kind of social disease, tolerated but not appreciated; he is also trying, in my judgment, to emasculate, to destroy, the 4th branch of government, as it was once called, and to rob it of the legitimacy it used to enjoy among many Americans.

And why would the president do this?  Is his purpose simply to score a point in his never-ending battle for public approval?  Yes and no, I think.  For a president with the lowest public approval rating of any at this stage of his tenure, every point matters, of course.  But there is a larger purpose, and it is consistent with his tilt towards authoritarianism.  If he can persuade enough people that what they read in their newspapers, watch on television or listen to on radio, is all “fake,” all “lies,” not worthy of a second thought, “horrible,” garbage,” as he put it, then he feels he can govern as he wishes, without any institutional red lights flashing in his eyes—for example, without the judiciary imposing any legal constraints on his Oval Office proclamations about immigration, and without the media raising any embarrassing questions about his latest tweets, or his family business operations (which, by the way, scream out for a diligent investigation), or his strange willingness to look the other way when a Russian autocrat like Putin engages in aggressive action.  It’s interesting, really–President Trump has been openly critical of the Germans, the French, the Iranians, the Chinese, his predecessor, Barack Obama, but never the Russian autocrat, Putin.  Why?  Trump provides no real answers to the Russia questions, and Congress, though it’s trying, has failed so far to come up with a meaningful explanation.

When reporters ask other questions—such as, why he has not released his income tax returns, as he promised he would do during the campaign and as all other recent presidents have done, he resorts, for an excuse, to a mysterious and apparently never ending audit.

Thanks to Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, a few details from his 2005 return have now been revealed to the public, but we still know comparatively little.

In the Mafia handbook, there is an old saying about “follow the money.”  Clearly the president feels that if we were to follow it too far–to Trump Tower, or to some mysterious address in Moscow, or a bank in Cyprus, for example–we may all learn too much.  And that he clearly does not want.

Trump makes fun of reporters for asking questions about his tax returns.  The public, he says, doesn’t really care about them.  And, in this respect, maybe he is right.  And if he is right, who can blame him for feeling that, as president, he can consider himself to be above the law, and act accordingly.

In 1974, another president, Richard Nixon by name, might have thought he stood above the law too, only to be forced to resign days ahead of almost certain impeachment by an angry, disappointed Congress.  As former President Bush warned, power can become “addictive” and “corrosive.”  It can be “abused.”

Let us hope that this president comes to understand, as quickly as possible, that there is a vast difference between campaigning, when winning an election defines success, and governing, when balancing competing interests at home and abroad defines success.  At this point in his presidency, though, the evidence strongly suggests that Trump, by his actions and statements, has begun to undercut and thus to jeopardize the very foundations of American democracy.

If there is an explanation for this sudden and disturbing flipflop in American politics, it may lie (and this is the charitable explanation) in the way Trump and his colleagues view media coverage of the presidential campaign that brought them to power.  Kellyanne Conway, the president’s ubiquitous spokesperson, who has a ready explanation for anything, literally anything, Trump has ever said or done, claims that her boss, during the campaign, was the most “vilified and attacked politician” ever, subject to blistering, “negative coverage.”  The press, she says, “suspended the objective standards of journalism,” putting “their fingers on the scales” to favor Hillary Clinton.  They were “unfair,” she concludes, using one of the president’s favorite words.  What was he to do except fight back, in his way?

A humble word of dissent is now in order.  When Trump described the Mexicans as “rapists,” the press reported his comment, accurately.  When Trump was caught on tape using what he later called “locker room talk” about a woman’s private parts, the press reported it, accurately.  When Trump, as president, boasted that more people showed up at his inauguration than did at Barack Obama’s, the press reported it, accurately, before adding that the president was dead wrong on his facts.  He also said the sun was shining when, in fact, it had begun to rain.  This president does have a habit of vastly exaggerating everything, even to the extent of absolute fantasy, stuff no one can believe.  “Innocent hyperbole,” he calls it.

If your media world consists, for the most part, of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin and Breitbart, which Stephen Bannon once ran, and if you rarely read a book, you may very well indulge in a form of make-believe, which may be comforting for a child but can be a very dangerous toy for a sitting president.

For example, you may conclude that Sweden was attacked by terrorists, when it wasn’t, or that former President Obama wiretapped your phones (Trump charged in a tweet: “This is Nixon/Watergate.  Bad, or sick guy”); after Sweden and Obama, you may then rush to your twitter account, and inform the world—you may do this, even though there is not a shred of evidence connecting these dreary fantasies to the real world.  We seem to be living in Trump’s post-fact world.

And yet, despite all this, press coverage of President Trump, while far from ideal, has been, for the most part, balanced and accurate.  If, as Kellyanne Conway said, the coverage has been unfair, then the fault, dear Brutus, lies with the president, with his words, his actions, his policies, and not with the press, for reporting them.

When confronted with a mistake or a lie, of which there have been many in this administration, rather than admit the lie, Trump usually doubles-down.  Facts and polls that are unflattering are obviously “fake.”  In other words, in Trump’s judgment, news can only be regarded as truthful and reliable if it describes him in glowing terms.  Over the years, many autocrats have felt essentially the same way.

A Trump surrogate, Scottie Nell Hughes, explained that the “American people” have now developed their own way of knowing whether a fact is true or not.  “Unfortunately,” she said, “there’s no such thing anymore as facts,” thus contradicting the wisdom of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan that we can all have our own opinions, but we cannot have our own facts.  This White House assumes, in other words, that the American people no longer care if the president lies.  They will pick and choose whatever “alternative facts” conform to their already locked-in political views.  “Alternative facts,” by the way, is a Conway concoction.

The big question of our time, in my opinion, is whether the media, in its daily tussle with an impatient, powerful president has the spunk, the stuff, and the public support to stand up and say, Mr. President, this far and no further.  If the media, for whatever reason, fails to meet this challenge, then democracy, as we have known it, will slowly die.  Weaken the press, and you weaken freedom; weaken freedom, and you weaken democracy, and open the door to an American authoritarianism—and maybe more.  In this downward spiral from democracy to authoritarianism, Congress can be crucially important; so too the judiciary; but it starts with the press—with the daily headline, or broadcast bulletin.  That is where the political wars are now fought—and won or lost.

In recent decades, the press has become increasingly influential in presidential campaigns, in legislative battles, in covering wars—so much so that a politician must deal with the press if he has any hope of advancing his agenda.  Trump is no exception.  He would have been wise to make nice to the press, but I fear he may not be capable of that.

Recently, a Post columnist speculated that Trump would not survive four years in the White House.  She thinks he will leave after two.  Howard Stern, the shock jock, has interviewed Trump many times, knows him quite well.  Stern says he advised his friend not to run for the presidency.  “This is something that is going to be very detrimental to his mental health,” Stern said.  “He (Trump) wants to be liked, he wants to be loved, he wants people to cheer for him.”  Stern added, after noting that criticism of the president has been mounting steadily, “I don’t think this is going to be a healthy experience for him.”

Since Trump’s inauguration, many speculative stories have appeared, suggesting that his reported narcissism, defined as an excessive love of oneself, may complicate his decision-making process and ultimately force a confrontation between the White House and Congress.

What is fascinating about Trump is that he always places himself in the center of every story.  He especially loves television, which is natural since he was once a tv-reality star.  During the campaign, he dominated television.  According to the respected Tyndall Report, the three tv news networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—helped elect Trump, giving him 1,144 minutes of free tv coverage, compared to 506 free minutes for Clinton, more than double the time.  On cable news, even more so, with Trump the candidate seen and heard anywhere and at any time.  The upshot—cable news made more money in 2016 than ever before.  Trump was treated as the star of American television.  He was often his own tv producer, deciding when and how he would appear, and the networks almost always obliged.

A remarkable irony is that the more Trump disparages the press, the more money the press makes.  In recent months, subscriptions for the so-called “failing New York Times” have skyrocketed; same for the Washington Post, Politico, the New Yorker and the Atlantic magazines.  Trump remains a big story, even as he roars against the press.  With his roars, he would like to topple the press; but so far he has only made them richer.

The president seems to want and need enemies, someone or some group to blame if and when his presidency runs into serious trouble, as it almost certainly will.

Trump seems to represent a populist rebellion against the entire establishment, including the press, here and around the world.  Bannon, up to now anyway, has been able to whisper sweet nothings into the president’s ear.  He defines the aim of the Trump presidency as “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” meaning, I think, deconstructing or transforming the government, as we have known it, into a white, nationalist nation, driven by an America First ideology, locked in an existential struggle with a radical Islamic fanaticism.  In this struggle, oddly, Russia is seen by Trump and Bannon as an ally.  If their concept of a free press is demolished in this apocalyptic confrontation, they would shed no tears.

For reporters, Trump is a great news story, but very difficult to cover.  They have discovered that they have to get up early and stay up late.  They have to watch what Trump watches on cable news, from dawn to midnight and beyond—that is his world, his reality.  He operates mostly by instinct, not the soundest way of deciding war and peace issues.  Careful notes must be taken of his fusillade of tweets–they provide insights into his thinking.

Trump is erratic.  He hates the press, and yet cannot live without it.  It is his oxygen; it is what keeps him alive, emotionally and politically.

It may be too dramatic to say that American democracy rests in the hands of a free, though at the moment, uncertain press.  But I believe it does.  I also believe that the press will ultimately prevail in this dangerous, running war the president launched.

I come to a close on this note of moderate optimism.  Reporters, by their work, bring the neighborhood and the world to us.  They deserve our praise and admiration.  We depend on them. Young women cover wars in the Middle East, and often they are stringers working without life insurance, open to being kidnapped or killed.  That is courage.

Resourceful organizations, such as the Pulitzer Center, where I currently hang my hat, help fill the hole left by budgetary shortfalls.  The Center gives money to reporters to cover stories all over the world.  The Shorenstein Center at Harvard gives hefty annual prizes to investigative reporters, who spend months covering official corruption and governmental malfeasance.  Journalism is an honorable and rewarding craft, and must be so recognized.  Every day, it seems, foundations are giving more money to news organizations to cover the news, fact-based news—it’s that vital.

One day, Donald Trump will be gone, but the United States will still be here, a free nation.  The free press will still be here too, the essential pillar of our democracy, carved into the First Amendment to the US Constitution, as valid today as it was yesterday or the day before.  A free press, if supported by the public, can still perform miracles, and it does so every day, Trump or no Trump.