WASHINGTON | President Donald Trump’s animosity toward the press may be softening somewhat as he bumps up against the reality that we in print used to remind politicians of every once in awhile: It doesn’t pay to get into peeing match with someone who buys his ink by the barrel.
Today’s electronic version of the Fourth Estate has taken over that same power as Americans have turned toward new technologies in the consumption of their daily news diet. So, the other day, our supreme leader, who has made a habit of portraying the media as a threat to society, had lunch with the glamor pusses of the television industry – the guys we used to deride as the “rip and readers” of the “this just in” class.
For the unwashed, this refers to men and women from local to national TV and radio desks who used to pass on to viewers and listeners what they had just dragged off the national wires. That still goes on to some degree, but now those who occupy the highly sought-after desks for morning and evening bulletins of the moment receive them from a producer speaking into their ear plugs or by reading them off a camera teleprompter.
Their reward for good diction, good looks and a sense of drama: big bucks and the celebrity of movie stars. Oh yeah! And access to guys like The Donald. The luncheon, according to reports, went well and even included some jocular moments and a longer stay than planned. Donald, it seems, didn’t even touch his crab salad during the 90 minutes.
One must realize that these superstars aren’t the frontline guys and gals who are assigned a few seconds each day to ask the tough questions to the president and his minions. They may or may not have cut their teeth on confrontational reporting, but they are now mainly spreading the expensive seconds and minutes around – often in increments of nanoseconds that include an introduction and a thank you – to those in the proverbial trenches. The reward for these secondary men and women for being able to take a punch is mainly that of a title like White House correspondent and a hefty salary.
Despite the celebrity-on-celebrity nature of the luncheon, one could hope it may be a start to improved relations between Trump and those who are recognized by the Constitution as the official watchdogs of government.
There comes a time in the tenure of every president when he realizes things will go much more smoothly without the impediment of journalism’s constant presence. Franklin Roosevelt’s animosity toward publishers grew to the point that his columnist wife suggested he appeal directly to those who form and report the news. A daily columnist herself, Mrs. Roosevelt took on the chore with liberal columnist Heywood Broun, and they founded the American Newspaper Guild to improve pay and other conditions for those who wrote and edited the more than 2,000 daily and hundreds of weekly newspapers at the time.
Few, however, have condemned the institution as defiantly as the current occupant of the Oval Office. How easy it is to blame the guardians. Perhaps he should listen to his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, who reminded a nationwide television audience in no uncertain terms recently of the importance of a free and independent press, even though he himself has been beaten around the head and shoulders by that same press.
But whining about how one is treated is never a good idea for the men and women who still labor in the news business, electronic or print. The public isn’t interested. We should not be intimidated but go quietly about the job of being as fair and accurate and balanced and complete in our task as is possible. Above all, we should keep in mind we are never infallible. Remember, in public affairs reporting, it is only a short distance between being leaked to and leaked on. You have to treat your sources accordingly.
Donald Trump has his own obligations in this necessarily adversarial relationship. Paramount is not to yell fire in a crowded theater.
The Washington Post’s rejoinder that “Democracy Dies in Darkness” says it well as the Scripps Howard pledge I was proud to work under for 55 years: “Give light and the people will find their own way.”
The writer is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.