In praise of an adversarial press-government relationship

Donald Trump clearly has a strong dislike for much of the press, except for the alt-right extremists. This is not surprising. Trump is an incredibly thin-skinned and petty man who cannot stand any criticism from any quarter and during the campaign he received quite a lot of negative coverage. That much of it was generated by his own words and actions does not seem to matter to him. He seems to want and need fawning adulation all the time.

Now that he is going to be president he seem to have decided, as he usually does, that his enemies must be punished and he has targeted the press. There are stories that he is planning to evict the White House press corps from its current location inside the building and move them further away. It looks like press conferences are likely to be few and far between, something that tends to happen during the later periods of administrations. Trump officials are referring to the press as “the opposition party”.

There has been a lot of pearl clutching among media commentators about Trump’s war on the press but I for one think it is a good thing. I have long decried the cozy relationship between the press and government, where the reporters are friends with the people they cover, go to their parties, visit each other’s homes, and the like. I warned of this back when president Obama was inaugurated. The visible apex of this huge iceberg of corruption is the annual glitzy White House Correspondent Association dinner, which has now become a star-studded gala with so-called reporters fawning over celebrities and politicians.

Reporters claim that this closeness grants them access to those figures and enables them to get news but the reality is that becoming friends with the subject invariably leads to corruption because when journalists are dependent on powerful sources for their news, they are effectively owned by their sources. One telling sign are the many occasions when high-level sources have deliberately lied to reporters in order to advance an agenda. Normally when a confidential source deliberately misleads a reporter, the rules for confidentiality are no longer operative and the reporter can ‘burn’ the source by revealing his or her name as the liar. But when the source is powerful, the reporters have refrained from doing that for fear of cutting off future access. The reporter thus allows that official to continue lying and effectively becomes a mouthpiece for the official.

As the new reality sinks in that Trump does not see the press as friends, some in the media are urging reporters to change their tactics to accommodate this new adversarial role, saying that they will fight back against Trump’s attempts to prevent them from getting any information by finding other sources of information and cooperating amongst themselves more to make sure that important issues get covered. Margaret Sullivan says, “Journalists are in for the fight of their lives. And they are going to have to be better than ever before, just to do their jobs. They will need to work together, be prepared for legal persecution, toughen up for punishing attacks and figure out new ways to uncover and present the truth.” Jack Shafer recommends that, “Instead of relying exclusively on the traditional skills of political reporting, the carriers of press cards ought to start thinking of covering Trump’s Washington like a war zone, where conflict follows conflict, where the fog prevents the collection of reliable information directly from the combatants, where the assignment is a matter of life or death.”

But this should have been their attitude all along.

The legendary independent journalist I. F. Stone well understood this dynamic and the secret of his success was that he refused to play that game. He was determined to be an outcast. As he said:

It’s just wonderful to be a pariah. I really owe my success to being a pariah. It is so good not to be invited to respectable dinner parties. People used to say to me, ‘Izzy, why don’t you go down and see the Secretary of State and put him straight.’ Well, you know, you’re not supposed to see the Secretary of State. He won’t pay any attention to you anyway. He’ll hold your hand, he’ll commit you morally for listening. To be a pariah is to be left alone to see things your own way, as truthfully as you can. Not because you’re brighter than anybody else is — or your own truth so valuable. But because, like a painter or a writer or an artist, all you have to contribute is the purification of your own vision, and add that to the sum total of other visions. To be regarded as nonrespectable, to be a pariah, to be an outsider, this is really the way to do it. To sit in your tub and not want anything. As soon as you want something, they’ve got you!

What Izzy Stone did was old fashioned reporting, seeking out lower-level people, the Chelsea Mannings and the Edward Snowdens and other whistleblowers, the career professionals who are often honest and decent people who care about the truth and good government. They were less likely to lie to him because they did not gain anything by doing so and were able to give him actual documents. He also had a sharp eye for important facts hidden in dense government reports and the ability to spot connections between seemingly disparate events and build up the story.

Stone described his personal journalistic credo as follows.

To write the truth as I see it; to defend the weak against the strong; to fight for justice; and to seek, as best I can, to bring healing perspectives to bear on the terrible hates and fears of mankind, in the hope of someday bringing about one world, in which men will enjoy the differences of the human garden instead of killing each other over them.

But that kind of journalism is hard work and takes courage and intelligence. It is much easier to get an interview with someone important and then tell the public what they were told, to be effectively stenographers. If we are now witnessing the end of that corrupt form of journalism, then Trump is doing us all a favor by antagonizing the press. The First Amendment is there for a reason, to prevent the intimidation of journalists who report the truth. Its freedoms should be exploited to the fullest.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Trump officials are referring to the press as “the opposition party”.

    Well, most of the Democrats seem incapable of/unwilling to fill that niche…

  2. tbtabby says

    Take a good, long look, Drumpfheads. This is your tough guy who’s going to “drain the swamp” and take down the establishment….and he can’t even stand up to questioning from America’s toothless, sycophantic mainstream media. Way to go, boys.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    Journalists are in for the fight of their lives. And they are going to have to be better than ever before, just to do their jobs.

    Trump gets attacked for his complete lack of self-awareness… and then someone says something like this. Did journalists not get the memo that they are right up there with estate agents, politicians and paedophiles in terms of how much the public respects and has sympathy for them? Oh, journalists are going to have to toughen up and start actually working? Really?

  4. Dunc says

    Did journalists not get the memo that they are right up there with estate agents, politicians and paedophiles in terms of how much the public respects and has sympathy for them?

    It wasn’t widely reported. 😉

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