August 2, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Time for the Media to Take a Side
You can’t stay neutral when people want to kill you.
When it comes to the investigation into the Kremlin’s cyber-attack on the US, and the Trump campaign’s alleged complicity in the crime, we can see an appreciable pattern.
For long periods of time, the Washington press corps picks over the details of this leak and that, while President Donald Trump punctuates the tedium with explosive self-incriminating tweets. Meanwhile, benchmarks are sunk deep in the earth by Robert Mueller, the most significant of which came when the special counsel indicted a dozen Russian military agents on charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States.
But, for the most part, the press corps has treated the investigation much like it would any scandal—as if it’s of partisan interest, meaning it might embarrass, wound or even take down the president and his party, but not something in the interest of national security, popular sovereignty, representative democracy and self-government, which is to say, in the interest of the principles on which this country was founded.
In short, the press corps hasn’t quite taken Mueller’s probe seriously, and because it treats it more like a scandal than a national crisis on par with September 11, the press remains vulnerable to what Jay Rosen calls a “hate movement against journalists.”
This happened last night during a Trump rally in Florida.
That movement “is essential to Trump’s political style, and urges [supporters] to recognize it as [as a movement]. … He believes all this anger benefits him politically, probably by energizing and consolidating the base heading into the midterms.”
I’m not sure hatred of CNN or the Times is going to do much good in November. It takes boogeymen like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton to get Trump mooks to vote. But I do think at this rate someone is going to get hurt, or even killed, and that the press corps can mitigate the odds of future violence. How? By taking sides.
Taking sides is the last thing professional journalists want to do, because taking sides is anathema to their core belief in impartiality. But I’m not talking about taking sides in the conventional Republican-versus-Democratic sense. I’m talking about taking sides in a context in which a president might have conspired with the enemy to win the presidency in order to destabilize an already unstable international order.
I keep returning to Dana Milbank’s Oct. 24, 2016, column in which the Post columnist presciently cautioned the news media against operating as if everything’s normal. Indeed, he warned, if it does, the press corps is going to make things worse.
In an ordinary presidential campaign, press neutrality is essential. But in Trump we have somebody who has threatened democracy by talking about banning an entire religion from entering the country; forcing Muslims in America to register with authorities; rewriting press laws and prosecuting his critics and political opponents; blacklisting news organizations he doesn’t like; ordering the military to do illegal things such as torture and targeting innocents; and much more. In this case, attempting neutrality legitimized the illegitimate. (My italics.)
Back then, the president’s complicity was more of a hunch. Now we have months of evidence, thus far unconnected, that can be put together to create the basis of an indictment of a sitting president. (Whether indictment is possible is another matter.)
Meanwhile, the national security establishment is virtually screaming at the news media to take information warfare more seriously. Last month, Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, compared what’s happening now with what happened before Al Qaeda flew airliners into the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
Last week, The Daily Beast reported the first assault of the midterm season when it revealed Russian hackers tried to access US Sen. Claire McCaskill’s computers. (Yes, she’s a Democrat up for reelection.) We know Russian hackers infiltrated the power grid. Yesterday, Facebook revealed the existence of an active “influence campaign that was potentially built to disrupt the midterm elections,” according to the Times.
So it’s not like the press doesn’t have a sound basis for taking the side of democracy. But more importantly, as far as the health and safety of reporters is concerned, you can’t stay neutral when people want to kill you. You can’t stay impartial when the president brands you the enemy of the people. That time has long since past.
Journalists are now partial. Will they admit it?
Let’s hope so, for their sake, and ours.
You might have missed it this morning but the president actually tweeted what could amount to evidence of obstruction of justice. He said US Attorney General Jeff Sessions should end the Mueller probe. Quite literally, this is obstruction:
An important note to readers
As you know, the Editorial Board is committed to revealing the simplicity and complexity of American politics. Every single day. That seems to be something people like. This humble enterprise has attracted more than 600 subscribers in four months.
But commitment doesn’t come cheap. I need your help. I’m going to ask that you chip in $5 a month to keep this operation going. I’m not asking for much, but I am asking that you commit. There are no ads. There are no sponsors. This is for you, only.
Today, I flipped the switch. If you like what you see, please subscribe today!
Onward! —John Stoehr