News media will do their job, no matter how low Trump goes to undermine press freedom

WASHINGTON–The Boston Globe editorial board has called on other newspapers’ opinion voices to join it in castigating President Trump for his open war on the American press by calling it “the enemy of the people.”

The Globe’s deputy managing editor for its editorial pages, Margaret Pritchard, has urged them to push back in print against what she has called “a dirty war against the free press.” So far about 70 large and small news outlets have signed on.

So have the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the New England Newspaper and Press Association, according to Pritchard said. “Our words will differ,” she said. “But at least we can agree that such attacks are alarming.”

In the same spirit of a free press, one editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt of The Washington Post, which has been a leading critic of Trump’s anti-press rants, has said his paper will not participate as such in the joint effort.

Likewise, yours truly, whose own criticisms of this president in this regard have generated much reader complaint along with some support, will continue on the same course, as one independent voice speaking only for myself.

It seems to me that joining an organized counteroffensive against Trump will only enable him to further mobilize and incite his loyalists lend credence to his claim that we are “the enemy of the people.” We press critics can proceed on our own in our mission to inform the public of the words and actions of their elected officials.

The Post’s top editor, Martin Baron, who as the Globe editor in its Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston’s toleration of priests’ sexual abuse of young boys, says of the situation: “The way I see it is as we’re not at war with the administration; we see it as we’re doing our jobs.”

The current furor brings to mind a much lower-key conflict between the White House press corps in Richard Nixon’s era prior to the Watergate scandal, when access to the president was controlled and his responses to press inquiries were limited.

The Los Angeles Times’ White House man, the late Stuart Loory, and I organized a meeting of colleagues at a nearby hotel to discuss how the White House press conferences by Nixon could made more fruitful. Ideas included asking that they be held be more regularly and that reporters try asking more follow-up questions to draw out his thinking.

The meeting was chaired by the venerable and fair-minded New Republic magazine correspondent John Osborne. Afterward, he pointedly informed Nixon’s press adviser, Herb Klein, a San Diego newspaper editor himself, of the meeting and its intent, in a spirit of cooperation and good will.

Klein promptly told Osborne that he already knew of the meeting because, having learned of its planning, he had managed to have somebody present to report to him about it. Of course, nothing came of the effort and the press corps, thus unveiled as “conspiring” to act in concert against Nixon, enabled him to disparage it in a manner similar to Trump.

Obviously, the relationship only got much more contentious as the Watergate scandal surfaced and eventually unraveled, leading to Nixon’s resignation in disgrace in 1974.

Today, the story line of another embattled president features not the investigative exploits of two rookie Post reporters but rather of a Justice Department special counsel probing Russian meddling in our election process, leading to Trump’s doorstep.

Accordingly, the press’s responsibility requires a careful and thorough monitoring of that investigation and editorial comment on it.

——

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.