Depending on your perspective, one of President Trump’s real talents, or one of his most baleful traits, is his knack for the zinger label, pinned on a political or institutional foe. “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “The Swamp” — the labels often stick . . . and sting.
In commentary about the media that is sometimes withering and sometimes unhinged, the president uses the term “the enemy of the people.” The epithet has gotten under the skin of many journalists. Some of them worry aloud about being targeted for retribution, a concern that is overwrought as applied to Trump partisans generally, but that cannot be dismissed out of hand — Cesar Sayoc’s attempted pipe-bomb rampage against Trump critics, like James Hodgkinson’s gunfire spree against Republican congressmen, reminds us that no one has the market cornered on evil and dementia.
But who exactly is “the enemy of the people”? Trump maintains that he is not referring to the entire press, only to “fake news” coverage by mainstream-media outlets. Is such line-drawing appropriate? Even if the public at large may validly make such distinctions, should they be drawn by a president of the United States, or does that specter imperil constitutional free-press protections?
The Pretense of Objectivity
Before Trump zapped our politics with his lightning rod, it was a commonplace in conservative circles to complain about that most pernicious practice of the political press: the pretense of objectivity. No, we did not begrudge the New York Times and Washington Post their editorial pages, nor resent opinion pieces and programs clearly advertised as such. Our objection was to patently biased news coverage that was presented as if it were dispassionate, just-the-facts-ma’am reporting. The bias is seen and unseen, but pervasive. It is found in the reporting itself. It is intimated in the description of sources (e.g., conservatives always described as “conservative”; left-wing sources — the ACLU, SPLC, CAIR, etc. — described as civil-rights groups with no partisan agenda). Most important, it is concealed in editorial decisions about what gets covered and what does not, camouflaged by the thread that gets emphasis and the “lede” that gets buried.
To people who follow the news closely, it is patently obvious that the mainstream media — specifically, the news divisions of the broadcast networks and many major national newspapers, magazines, and websites — tote water for the Democratic party and progressive causes in general. Again, they are perfectly within their rights to do this. The problem is: They pretend they are not doing it. And it is a profound problem. By reporting this way, the media inculcate in the public the assumption that there is no other side of the story. The Left’s Weltanschauung is not presented merely as a worldview; it is portrayed as objective, inarguable fact, and any other way of looking at things is subversive, cynical, or psychotic.
Because this situation is so corruptive, conservatives and other fair-minded commentators have complained about it for decades. It is why National Review has been “standing athwart history” since 1955.
Yet, something strange has happened since mid 2015, when Donald Trump bounded into the political arena. Ever since he started using the phrases “fake news” and “the enemy of the people,” it has become more controversial to state the obvious: viz., the mainstream press is partisan. And ironically, this has happened even though the “Democracy Dies in Darkness” press has become more unabashedly partisan since Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton, and especially since his election.
What Is an “Enemy”?
I don’t particularly like the term “the enemy of the people.” I don’t take it very seriously. Nietzsche was right that we are hard-wired to exaggerate when speaking about what ails us. That goes double for political discourse. To limn one’s political opposition as “the enemy” is common. It has been throughout history, and I’m sure I’ve done it myself. No more thought goes into it than into a sportscaster’s use of “warrior” to laud some running back who just gained 100 grueling yards. It’s just rhetoric. When we resort to it, we’re not intentionally trivializing the danger posed by actual enemies or diminishing the courage of real warriors.
Still, the older one gets, the easier it is to see why referring to partisan opponents as “enemies” is unhelpful. Over time, political coalitions shift. Notions about friend and foe change. To coexist and govern, we have to compromise, and casual condemnations of our opposite number as “the enemy” make compromise harder. When I was a prosecutor, I had genial relations with most of my defense-lawyer adversaries. We fought hard but saw that letting it get too sharp-elbowed, too personal, could rupture the working relationships needed to get through the case . . . and the next one. The stakes were high, but it was markedly less polarized than politics has become.
All that said, it is hysterical to claim that the chirpy use of “enemy” in the partisan-political context really means enemy just because Trump is the one doing the chirping.
This president runs hot and cold in a nanosecond, so it’s probably a fool’s errand to analyze his rhetoric too closely — one minute you’re “rocket man,” the barbaric dictator; the next minute, you’re the “funny guy” with the “great personality” who really “loves his people, not that I’m surprised by that.” Topsy-turvy, to be sure, but Trump’s mercurial outbursts, his cavalier resort to words like “enemy” — words other presidents have been circumspect about — does not mean he perceives no difference between Jim Acosta and Osama bin Laden.
So . . . what does the president mean by “the enemy of the people”? More specifically, to whom is he referring? Well, there was an interesting exchange about that last weekend, during Trump’s sit-down interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Fox News contributor. I’m also a big Chris Wallace fan because he plays it straight in an era in which it is increasingly hard to get the straight news many of us crave. That said, I respectfully disagree with what unfolded as his view of the news media as a unified institution — a proposition the newsman presented as a fact the president should not dispute.
Media as Monolith
In the discussion, Trump several times tried to clarify that when he refers to “the enemy of the people,” he is not speaking of all journalists; he is referring to a large subset of journalists that he calls “the Fake News.” According to the president, these are the mainstream-media outlets that align with Democrats and treat him as a partisan opponent, resulting in dishonest and inaccurate coverage of his presidency.
Now, you can agree or disagree with him on that, but he is entitled to his opinion. To my mind, there has been plenty of dishonest and inaccurate coverage of Trump. To be sure, there has also been plenty of honest and accurate coverage of the president saying things that are dishonest or inaccurate. Nevertheless, the sheer contempt in which this president is held by journalists is manifest. Even for those of us old enough to remember the coverage of Nixon and Reagan (as well as the Bushes), it is something to behold.
For one thing, the effort to delegitimize Trump’s presidency by claiming that he “colluded” in the Kremlin’s 2016 election-meddling has been tireless, and apparently effective. The effort was fueled by selective intelligence leaks and the modern media melding of opinion journalism with news reporting. After over two years of digging, investigators have lodged no collusion allegation; to the contrary, the indictments that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has filed tend to undermine any theory of a Trump–Russia criminal conspiracy. Yet the president remains under suspicion and the media routinely insinuate that Mueller’s mere issuance of indictments validates that suspicion — even though the indictments have nothing to do with Trump. As Power Line’s John Hinderaker relates, recent polling by The Economist and YouGov found that nearly half of American women (48 percent) and fully two-thirds of Democrats (67 percent) actually believe that “Russia tampered with the vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected President” — notwithstanding that investigators have never even suspected Russia of tampering with vote tallies, for Trump or anyone else. (The investigation involves allegations that Russia hacked Democratic email accounts.)
During the interview, despite Trump’s attempts to clarify that he did not mean all journalists were “the enemy of the people,” Wallace insisted that the term had to be understood as a reference to the entire news media. That would render it factually false, since even Trump admits that not all news media are “fake news.”
The two men sparred over this, neither making headway with the other. It was a curious exchange. Wallace is a smart fellow, so his definition of “the enemy of the people” is worth considering; but isn’t it for Trump to say what Trump meant by Trump’s use of a phrase? More to the point, Wallace’s view is just that, a view. And his confident statement of it notwithstanding, it is hardly incontestable.
As Wallace framed the matter, there is only one press, all the journalists are part of it, and no distinctions may be drawn. “We are all together . . . we are in solidarity, sir,” he told the president, adding that, for these purposes, there is no difference between CNN, the New York Times, and Fox. Even though Wallace acknowledged that some coverage of Trump is “biased,” he maintained that the press is a monolith; therefore, the argument went, to condemn a subset of journalists is to condemn the whole of journalism.
This is a thoughtful take on the press as an institution, offered by one of its most eminent members. But it is a conviction that even journalists do not unanimously share. Fox and its main competitors, CNN and MSNBC, constantly accuse each other of failing to meet the objectivity and accuracy standards required for reporting to be deemed legitimate journalism. Indeed, Fox’s motto — “We Report, You Decide” — is a not-so-subtle declaration of independence from the guild’s norm of purposefully shaping how consumers think about the news, rather than just accurately informing them about the news.
This is not to say Wallace does not have sound reasons for eschewing Trump’s attempt to break “fake news” off from legitimate journalism. While he did not air them fully (it was, after all, an interview of the president), I imagine he worries that the “enemy of the people” formulation is a case of Trump wrongly conflating opposition to Trump with opposition to America. Perhaps the issue is not so much the drawing of distinctions between worthy and unworthy journalism, but rather that the president of the United States should not be doing the drawing. The president, clearly, is not just anyone. He is the highest official of a government that is constitutionally obligated to respect freedom of the press, to refrain from threatening it. If people hear an analyst decrying media bias, that is one thing; if they hear the president decrying “the media,” they may not grasp that he intends to rebuke only a subset of the media. They may not be so sure that the rebuke is good-faith criticism, as opposed to despotic intimidation. They may conclude that free-press principles are imperiled.
These certainly would be valid concerns. But their validity does not mean they necessarily outweigh Trump’s concerns that media partisanship and biased reporting distort the public’s understanding of important issues (and the validity of those concerns does not rise or fall on whether Trump’s is highly self-interested). If a large faction of the press is in the tank for Democrats, and is more effective than overt Democrats at driving a political agenda that portends great harm to the country, why shouldn’t the president say so? As long as he confines himself to expressing his views, neither taking nor threatening action under color of executive authority, the ability of journalists to say what they wish and cover him as they see fit is not hampered. All presidents, after all, inevitably grouse about press coverage. (That said, I’ve been critical of the president’s penchant to express his opinions about pending criminal cases. I do not believe presidential commentary about the media poses similarly vexing problems, but many journalists would surely disagree.)
The fact that Trump’s bombast makes many of us wince — “enemy” — is a style point. If you don’t like it, do a better job running against him next time. After all, when vivid language is directed at conservatives, rather than at themselves, journalists are quick to tell us that life and progress in a free society require thick-skinned toleration of objectionable language and transgressive gestures. What’s sauce for the goose . . .
Before President Trump started using the phrase “the enemy of the people,” fair-minded people acknowledged media bias. Conservatives complained bitterly about it. These were not attacks on journalism; they were cris de coeur for real journalism. The president’s “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” epithets are best understood as a reiteration of these longstanding complaints in the barbed Trump style. This is no small thing. While the complaints are getting more of an airing than they have in the past, the president’s manner is off-putting to many people who were once sympathetic to the point he is making.
The mainstream press, meanwhile, is becoming more unabashedly hostile. At least that means there is more transparency, but is that a good thing? I don’t know. It would be good to be rid of the pretense of objectivity. But there are many reporters who do not pretend to be objective; they actually are objective, even if they have strong political views, even if they dislike the president for reasons of substance or style. We need those pros. We need to appreciate what they do, not reject real news because it may be news we don’t want to hear.
I do not lose much sleep over a president’s lashing out at what he perceives as, and what often truly is, biased reporting. This is not Turkey; a president would be impeached before a journalist spends an hour in prison for unflattering coverage. And I don’t worry much about whether criticism of a readily identifiable portion of the media harms the entire media as an institution. If journalists are worried about that, they should police their profession better. Jim Acosta hurts journalism more than he hurts Trump, and if the president is really as awful as many journalists contend, then simply asking his administration straightforward questions, rather than posing as “The Resistance,” should expose that.
Still, there is no denying that to retain liberty and govern itself, a free society needs a free press. There is no shortage of journalistic malpractice, but we are fortunate to live in a time when there is more free press than there has ever been. We don’t have to love the press, or insulate it from censure. We do have to commit to keeping it free.