Fine, Just Fine! Everything Is Fine!

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By today, August 16, the number of participating newspapers and magazines editorializing about the importance of a free press has grown to more than 300. The New York Times collected links to many of them at the end of their own editorial. Whether this loosely co-ordinated effort will accomplish anything has been questioned, as well as directly criticized – notably by Jack Shafer of Politico: “But this Globe-sponsored coordinated editorial response is sure to backfire: It will provide Trump with circumstantial evidence of the existence of a national press cabal that has been convened solely to oppose him.”

But this effort is not particularly anti-Trump, although Trump has broken all bounds of precedent in lying: he lies about everything, so flagrantly and so often, that no one believes him about anything, anyway. This is going to lead to a major catastrophe of national scope in the future when trustworthy leadership will be essential but unavailable, Trump having squandered the credibility he would need to survive a crisis. Trump thinks like a small-time real estate huckster where the consequences of antisocial conduct, especially lying but also habitually stiffing creditors and repeatedly declaring bankruptcy, have limited effect. Trump is a man in way over his head, denying he is drowning rather than trying to swim. The unanswered question is how much of the country and the world he can take down with him.

The main role of the free press is as a reality check: The press has no power other than to report the truth, because reality always wins. Slow, very slowly, the idea began to take hold around the First World War that controlling the flow of information to the masses could alter reality itself, thereby ushering in what came to be called “totalitarianism.” The totalitarians concluded that if the people could be isolated like prisoners in cells, they would have no choice but to think as they were told. These methods were first developed in the Soviet Union under Vladimir Lenin and then perfected under Joseph Stalin, soon copied in Italy by Benito Mussolini and in Germany by Adolf Hitler. By 1939, the Second World War began as a conflict between the totalitarian powers on one side and everybody else on the other side. The Soviet Union switched sides after being invaded by Germany in 1941, preserving its totalitarian empire into the 1980s and, in its successor Russia, to the present day.

Journalist George Seldes, reporting on Lenin and Mussolini, managed to get himself thrown out of both Russia and Italy – despite, ironically, Mussolini having worked for Seldes in his own brief foray into journalism before changing his career path to fascist dictator. Seldes crusaded from 1940 to 1950 against the tobacco industry with dozens of articles exposing that the government knew smoking kills people since the late 1930s, but covered up the danger to protect powerful commercial interests – with the acquiescence of the mainstream media of the day because of dependence upon tobacco advertising revenue.

"Rhode Island: A State for Sale" by Lincoln Steffens in McClure's Magazine, Feb 1905

“Rhode Island: A State for Sale” by Lincoln Steffens in McClure’s Magazine, Feb 1905

The role of the American free press is hardly new. Since the late 1800s, the “muckrakers” anticipated what we would today call “investigative journalism,” calling out entrenched interests who were harming the public; President Theodore Roosevelt made the term famous in a 1906 speech where he said that “the men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society.” Only a year earlier, Lincoln Steffens said in the February 1905 issue of McClure’s Magazine that Rhode Island was “a state for sale.” Political reporter Scott Mackay, asked to speculate how Steffens would view our state over a century later, answered, “He’d say, ‘It’s not for sale, but maybe it’s for rent.’”

Some presidential lies have had devastating consequences. President Lyndon Johnson presented the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident as an unprovoked attack on US Navy warships “on the high seas,” leading to Congress voting to authorize the Vietnam War. In fact, as became clear through reporting by journalist I.F. Stone and others, the attacks may never have even occurred at all and the ships were, at the time, inside North Vietnamese territorial waters. Still worse, Johnson concealed from the American people and from Congress that the US Navy had been secretly participating in co-ordinated attacks with South Vietnam on the North Vietnamese coast, a clear provocation.

Eventually, the entire Vietnam War was shown to have been a patchwork of lies in The Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Defense Department study completed in 1969 after two years of work: the government knew that the war could not be won but continued committing and even expanding American involvement with the loss of over one million lives on both sides, of whom more than 58,000 were Americans. The public leak of the study in 1971 by The New York Times “demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.” Incidents of misconduct during the war were also exposed by the press, notably the My Lai massacre in which a breakdown of discipline and command resulted in the unjustified killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians – men, women, children, and even infants.

The turning point for loss of trust in the government was, in retrospect, the Watergate scandal where officials working in the White House under Republican President Richard Nixon conducted an illegal, secret raid to bug the headquarters of the Democrats, and dogged reporting, especially by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, led to a Congressional investigation that found evidence the White House not only initiated the illegal project but also arranged to pay “hush money” to keep the burglars quiet. Understanding that he was about to be impeached and removed from office, Nixon resigned the presidency – the first and still only time that ever happened in American history.

Trump’s attacks on the free press, therefore, must be seen in the context of trying to free himself of the constraints that eventually brought down his predecessors Lyndon Johnson, who was so unpopular due to the Vietnam War that he withdrew from running for re-election, and Richard Nixon, who was so implicated in criminal conduct that he was forced to resign in disgrace. The worrisome difference is that Trump has a better chance than they did of getting away with it, as social media such as Twitter offers him access to the public unmediated by experienced and knowledgeable journalists and as traditional media companies struggle in a changing marketplace of collapsing advertising revenues – and skyrocketing cost of newsprint due to Trump’s trade wars, causing layoffs and newspaper closings.

But we’re still here, so please keep reading.


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