The Republic is unhinged.
We are divided as a nation as we’ve not been since the beginning of the Civil War. We’ve divided into two camps – at least – of individuals who believe in the absolute rightness of their cause and the absolute evil of the opposition.
We’ve forgotten that United We Stand and Divided We Fall. We’ve abandoned the principle that I hold dear: we may disagree with what you say but will defend to death your right to say it.
Hatred and anger have overtaken the national debate. The intense light of the television camera has furthered the divide, creating rhetoric aimed at reinforcing our own prejudices.
In our divided past, we looked to people like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and others for guidance and words to heal and bring us together. But our current president, Donald Trump, is such a polarizing force of nature that to mention his name either provokes waves of hysteria aimed at ending his presidential existence or chants of determined worship.
The president has done nothing to bridge the divide. His own staff is frustrated in their inability to get his message out – with the president’s constant abrasive tweets disabling them in their efforts to send a clear message.
Indeed, he has declared war on the press. While he may have legitimate concerns with the accuracy of some stories, he has chosen the path of tyranny by disparaging the very institution that got him into office – the free press. It was, after all, free media provided by news outlets all across the country that gave him the attention that helped drive his early numbers – from an outsider to the favorite and the ultimate winner of the presidency.
His response is to call anyone besides Fox the “enemy of the people,” and as recently as last weekend declare that the agenda of the free press isn’t the agenda of America. “We the people” seems to mean little to a man who tweets manipulated videos of him smacking down, WWE-style, a CNN reporter.
In order to deal with a president who actively tries to undermine the fourth estate, some journalists believe we need to concentrate on doing the job the best we can. “The president needs an enemy so don’t give him a fight,” some have quipped. Others believe by responding to the president’s threats, we run the risk of becoming the story and take away from the critical checking of presidential policy needed to hold the executive branch accountable to the people.
Both attitudes, of course, have merit. But the president, six months into his administration, has shown no signs of letting off the throttle when it comes to press bashing. Our “business as usual model” – while logical – won’t work when business isn’t usual. And it’s too late to say we don’t want to be part of the story – he has made us part of the story.
So, what to do? Protests and storming out of the press room have all been discussed – mostly by people outside of the room – but I do not think either are viable options. The president would love if no one covered his administration so he could say whatever he wanted, without question.
By saying nothing and doing nothing, our audience will surely come to believe we are worth nothing.
Still, we can’t play by the old rules either. Doing so puts us at risk of being complicit in the president’s bad behavior – the press equivalent of appeasement. By saying nothing and doing nothing, our audience will surely come to believe we are worth nothing.
Last week Playboy had enough with the press bashing, and I said so in a daily briefing that I believe was called for and put on camera merely to embarrass CNN specifically. Former presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer admitted our current president has stepped over the line by calling the press the enemy of the people but said I went too far by calling him out on it.
I disagree. Sam Donaldson, Helen Thomas, Dan Rather and others were far more confrontational than I’ve ever been. I only fired up once in six months. Donaldson, on the other hand, called his biography Hold On, Mr. President.
While I do not argue for daily confrontation, I do believe we have to step up and push back when the situation warrants such a move. We must walk a fine line because we all really want to cover the issues of the day rather than being the issue of the day. But as long as the president is content on undermining us and making it difficult to do our job, as long as we sit idly by and our audience becomes increasingly convinced that our silence either is actively deceiving the American people or admitting guilt, we are going to have a hard time.
The question is: where do we go and how do we implement a strategy that works? Major Garrett of CBS doesn’t seem to think it will get better any time soon, and neither does Chuck Todd of Meet the Press. Todd said one of the positive aspects of my stance in the briefing room was that it “humanized the press.” His concerns about demonizing the press by the president are on target and should be examined by members of the press daily.
We must walk a fine line because we all really want to cover the issues of the day rather than *being* the issue of the day.
We cannot be robots. We also cannot be slaves to the television camera. I agree that we must have cameras in the briefing room as often as possible in order to put the president on the record in a manner that cannot be debated or denied. But press secretary Sean Spicer is correct as well when he suggests more in-depth conversations can occur when people are not posing for a camera. I contend the White House does a great deal of that posturing, but he will believe it is us.
Where this leads us in these uncharted waters is anyone’s guess. It is proper for the president to try and put a best foot forward with his staff. Similarly, it is proper for us as reporters to question them. It is proper for the president to get upset when we do not play error free baseball – just as we will do the same to him.
It is at that grinding junction where the friction is the highest. With his actions, the president has chosen to further inflame the situation. We have to find a way back through the divide in a manner which gives respect to all of the foundations of government and the republic… including the free press.
Only through education and civility can we proceed without destroying the unique experiment of our country.
Once we get our own house in order by dealing with problems of foreign intervention in our government, healthcare, budget issues, foreign relations with hostile nations and the fiction of a child slavery ring on Mars, it will be much easier. But I believe, like Garett and others, that it may be get worse before it gets better.