If the American historical memory were clearer, Donald Trump’s war on the “media” would have a familiar ring. The term “media” is intrinsically pretentious, implying as it does that reporting is a “mediating” institution essential to public understanding. And so it is; but the more traditional term “press” is more modest – as is “journalism,” which suggests its dailiness, haste and fallibility.
This antagonism is perhaps a necessary feature of free societies and as old as the republic. But with his habitual exaggeration, Trump has upped the ante and describes the “media” as “the enemy of the American people.”
A bit of historical perspective may be helpful. The press wars really began, one may suggest, with the second president, John Adams: a wise and learned man but thin-skinned and resentful of the treatment he received during the emergency provoked by revolutionary bloodshed in Paris. The Federalist Congress, who viewed Jefferson and his partisans as “enemies of the people,” passed a Sedition Act: the first and last gasp in national law of the doctrine of seditious libel. Federalist prosecutors invoked the act to prosecute and jail a few editors.
A bizarre episode of the 1880s spurred further presidential enmity. A noisy band of reporters trailed Grover Cleveland on his honeymoon when he married the 22-year-old daughter of his late law partner. Newshounds perched with their spy-glasses within close range of the marital cottage. Their spying prompted Cleveland’s exasperated observation that “newspaper lying...[is] general and mean...and there never was a country under the sun where it flourished as it does in this.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Undoubtedly the most colorful variation in more than two centuries of “media” wars, however, was reserved for more recent times. Richard Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew won fame in the early 1970s as a heckler of the press. (This was before Agnew was ousted for bribery.)
Agnew’s target was “instant analysis,” the practice of following presidential television addresses with commentary – a legitimate journalistic function, but a form of exposure Nixon wished to discredit. His problem was his dubious pledge in the election of 1968 to “end” the Vietnam war, accompanied by a sly hint that he had a plan to do so. In fact, he had no such plan and as he dallied in search of one he prolonged the bloodshed with a larger loss of American life than Lyndon Johnson suffered before him. Agnew’s oratory was calculated to spread a fog over brute facts.
As Nixon’s anti-press gladiator, Agnew was hardly a glittering intellect. But his ghostwriter, William Safire , fashioned for him an arsenal of amusing words and phrases. Anti-war students became “tomentose individuals” (ie, hairy or shaggy); and they and other critics, especially TV pundits like the magisterial Eric Sevareid, became “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
It was all very silly and very entertaining and the usual customers of presidential bluff loved it, then as now. By comparison, Donald Trump and blowhards like Steven Bannon are rhetorical pikers. Their feeble insults make the Buchananisms of the Sixties sound weighty enough, by comparison, to qualify for Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Even in their banality, however, Trump’s remarks threaten discredit to essential institutions because the American public is less savvy about such mischief than in the great age of newspapers.
Public discussion has vanished into the obscure realm of “social media” and cable television where in the name of “news” trivialities are gnawed like doggy bones day and night. In this world of digital shadows the enduring needs of the constitutional system need to be protected, although with cautionary reminders that even at its best reporting is an imperfect craft and needs regular adjustment and correction.
Meanwhile, however, the supreme irony of the moment is that Donald Trump, who mangles more truth every day than all the errant reporters combined should preach and prate about “false news” and “alternative fact.”
Physician, heal yourself!
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill, winner of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, is a regular contributor.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this column attributed Agnew’s phrases to speechwriter Pat Buchanan. Speechwriter William Safire wrote the “nattering nabobs of negativism.”