When Donald Trump calls reporters and editors “the most dishonest human beings on earth,” it’s worth remembering that Thomas Jefferson, in his second inaugural address, accused the press of engaging in “falsehood and defamation” while covering his administration.
So presidential hostility toward the press is hardly new. Still, Trump has cultivated a new level of acrimony and seems determined to make the White House-press relationship the most adversarial in well over four decades.
I covered the White House a little bit and directed coverage for two big news organizations over almost 20 years. It’s important to have good reporters chronicle the history that presidents make every day.
But the most important reporting is not done inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s what reporters should remember in the heat of battles over the size of inauguration crowds, belligerent tweets and threats to shut down the White House press room.
It wasn’t the White House press corps that uncovered the Watergate and Iran-contra scandals, or exposed President Bill Clinton’s tryst with Monica Lewinsky.
It’s most important to look for abuses of power by a president who acts like and expresses admiration for authoritarian figures. The conservative policy expert Peter Wehner put that idea into a warning in a New York Times column over the weekend:
“In failing to distinguish between the good of the nation and his own vanity, the danger is that Mr. Trump will fail to see the limits of his authority and will try to use both the bully pulpit and the power of government - the I.R.S., the F.B.I., regulatory agencies and others - to settle personal scores. He’ll do what he needs to in order to get his way.”
That’s the fear articulated chillingly by John Dean, the White House counselor in the Nixon administration, in a must-read interview in the Atlantic last week with McKay Coppins. Dean, who helped reveal the extraordinary abuses of power that led to the Watergate scandal, says that Trump possesses many of Nixon’s worst traits — vengefulness, insecurity and consuming ambition — but with few of Nixon’s strengths, which included a deep knowledge of governance and even reservations about some of his own authoritarian tendencies.
Yet Dean doesn’t think Trump will be held accountable. The checks on a president’s power — the press, the courts, Congress — have been rendered increasingly weak and ineffectual, Dean contends, and the public has become desensitized to political scandal. “The Trump campaign is an interesting measure or how the tolerance has gotten for a public figure’s misbehavior,” Dean told Coppins.
Let’s hope that Dean is wrong about a vigilant press. To prove him so, journalists should worry less about Trump’s tweets or tirades and focus, with fairness and skepticism, on the big stuff.
The big stuff is what makes difficult times interesting for journalists and reminds us why we signed up for the job.
In college, I was a stringer for a wire service and spent several days covering and questioning the great New York Times columnist James Reston, who was there to deliver a series of lectures.
His last night, he turned the tables and asked what I, a 20-year-old, was going to do with my life. Undecided, I replied that I was weighing both journalism and law.
“That’s easy,” he declared, explaining that law was more lucrative, journalism more interesting. “By definition, if you make news you’re interesting,” he said.
The Trump years will give reporters and editors plenty of chances to be interesting. Let’s embrace the opportunity.
Al Hunt, a Bloomberg View columnist, was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.