Four and half decades after Watergate, Carl Bernstein is still living off of his reporting on that scandal. Bernstein may have been a capable reporter in the 1970s, but his latest rant against President Trump suggests that he is well past his sell-by date.
According to Bernstein, “Trump’s attacks on the American press as ‘enemies of the American people’ are more treacherous than Richard Nixon’s attacks on the press.” The claim is so obviously false that the Washington Post had to change it. Its report on Bernstein’s comment bears the title “Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein: Trump’s attacks on the press are more dangerous than Nixon’s.” (emphasis added)
Let’s stick with what Bernstein actually said. “Treacherous” means “guilty of or involving betrayal or deception” or, as applied to conditions, “hazardous because of presenting hidden or unpredictable dangers.”
When Trump publicly denounces the press, he is not being treacherous. There is no deception or betrayal in Trump’s remarks, and nothing hidden. The president could hardly be more up-front about his view of the press.
Nixon was a different story. The Post’s story about Bernstein’s remarks quotes Nixon as telling his chairman of the joint chiefs of staff:
The press is your enemy. Enemies. Understand that?. . .
Now, never act that way. . .give them a drink, you know, treat them nice, you just love it, you’re trying to be helpful. But don’t help the bastards. Ever. Because they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin.
This strikes as good advice, but it is also treacherous. Nixon’s statement recommends being deceptive in dealing with the press. Trump has been anything but.
I also disagree with the Post’s claim that Trump’s public denunciation of the press is “dangerous.” The president is exercising his free speech right on an important topic — the press. His remarks will generate debate about how the press performs its job. That’s a good thing.
If, in calling the press “enemies the American people,” Trump has gone too far, he will suffer for having done so. If this, or other criticisms, rings true and can be defended, the press will suffer for its excesses, but only in the sense of losing credibility and readers — as it should. Reporters and editorial writers will remain free to say what they want.
What I’m describing is a properly functioning free market place of ideas. Our democracy is predicated on it.
Now, if Trump were to go beyond criticizing the press and interfere unreasonably with its work or attempt to censor or it, we would have a serious problem. Such moves can’t be ruled out with this president (or any modern president, really). But so far, I see no indication of these dangers.
To me, the best analogy to Trump when it comes to the press is Barack Obama. The ex-president publicly criticized the one major media outlet whose reporting he didn’t like — Fox News. Trump, in essence, is criticizing the monolithic major media bloc whose reporting he doesn’t like. Call it “not Fox News.”
The Obama White House does not fare well in this comparison. At times, it interfered with Fox News’ ability to do its job. For example, it kept Fox News off of conference calls dealing with the Benghazi attack, despite (or more likely because of) Fox News being the only outlet that was regularly reporting on the matter. And it left Chris Wallace’s “Fox News Sunday” out of a round of interviews that included CNN, NBC, ABC and CBS for supposedly not being part of a “legitimate” news network.
This conduct, though not the end of the world, was more dangerous than anything the Trump White House has yet done to the press. All it has done so far is trigger a debate about media bias, or maybe change the terms of that debate. Naturally, the press is unhappy about this, but we shouldn’t be.