Column: Trump’s Appalling Campaign Against the Media

  • The crowd cheers toward the media in the overflow room before President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a rally at Olentangy Orange High School in Lewis Center, Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

For the Valley News
Tuesday, August 07, 2018

East Montpelier

We’re all familiar with the old gag in which a clueless reporter asks, “Well, aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

All of us have also watched the press pool reporters trying to outshout each other in the White House briefing room. Some of us remember feeling distaste when we saw the fleet of communications vans in Chelsea immediately after the 2001 announcement of the arrests of the Chelsea kids who had murdered two Dartmouth professors in their Etna home. And a few of us have ourselves been irritatingly misunderstood by earnest young members of the Fourth Estate.

All of which is just to point out that many of us harbor an at least slight animus toward journalists who take seriously their jobs of reporting, which involve digging, questioning, ferreting, doubting and trying to elicit unguarded comments from public figures. It aggravates the situation when reporters from away mispronounce the names of our towns — Lebanon is a surprisingly common example — and show no awareness that, in small towns, a lot of folks are related.

The churls among us — or those either grieving or with something to hide — slam their doors in their faces; but most of us respond with guarded openness. They’re just doing what they’re supposed to do: Get at the truth and details of the news.

My own newspaper career was brief and fascinating. Looking for a job as a cub reporter on the old Syracuse Post-Standard, and with William Allen White stars in my eyes, I was instead hired as a copy boy. (The publisher was an Episcopalian, and my father an Episcopal priest; but I’d obviously overestimated the value of the connection.)

Between runs across the street for doughnuts and coffee for the newsroom, tearing damp photo proofs into pieces to be delivered to the appropriate desks, trembling at the roars of Mr. Strom, the state editor, running errands, and on one occasion exchanging the water for green liquid soap in the insufferable crime reporter’s hookah, I had time to experiment with a teletype machine, hang out with the union guys in the linotype room, and marvel at how all that confusion resulted every day in a newspaper that turned up before breakfast on people’s stoops and porches. The long walk home across town at 2 in the morning only added to the romance — which turned out to be short-lived.

But the original attraction lingers, which is why I find the current vocal campaign against the media by our chief executive appalling. Against my background of personal discontent that the word “media” has become, in typical American style, a singular noun of indistinct meaning, the attacks against them (or it) are, to me, attacks against the very roots of our constitutional freedoms.

Recent videos of the president’s campaign rallies (which focus less on the candidates he’s supporting than on his own self-proclaimed triumphs) show him whipping his audiences into frenzies of hatred against felonious immigrants, a crooked ex-first lady, and — most of all — the fake news. Somehow, he’s managed to locate that ember of wariness among us all and fan it into a hot flame among his faithful: folks who for decades, apparently, have felt shut out of political decisions by “elites.”

After facing screaming faces and middle fingers in his own face at a recent rally, CNN’s Jim Acosta, one of the president’s favorite targets (the relationship is mutual), observed that someone’s likely to get hurt. Sadly, he’s probably right.

These are no doubt honest folks who, if they want to know if Friday’s weather will be all right for a picnic, check the available media for an answer. But they, like all of us, are under attack by alien agents operating in social media and — again, like all of us — tend to believe whatever information pops up on their Facebook pages when it confirms what they already believe.

If they are members of the working class, they have seen their buying power erode significantly in the past few years. The reasons are complicated, but the president gives them people to blame — what Al Capp used to call Kigmies, and what he calls “Enemies of the People.”

Those of us who can stand back a little from what’s happening in our body politic can see the obvious: As the Mueller investigation, like a medieval siege machine, slowly approaches the fortress (and its long-hidden tax returns), the tweets and lies proliferate and the campaign rallies become ever more rabid and dangerous. This is hardly the fault of the failing New York Times or the fake Washington Post.

There’s a reason the First Amendment has pride of place among its fellows: Nothing is more important to the life of free people than their sources of information.

If there’s anything to blame for the current sorry reputation of the media among so many citizens, it’s probably poor education. Because it’s not just factual information we need; it’s the ability to think critically about what the various media or the president (for example) are saying, and why. Most journalists go to great lengths to get stuff right — they’ve got to! — but some, lamentably, do not. It takes, as old Yankees said, more’n a spoonful of brains to tell the difference. So here’s a toast to all the honest toilers at the keyboard! Illegitimi non carborundum!

Willem Lange can be reached at​ willem.lange@comcast.net.