Let me begin with a word of thanks to Stephen K. Bannon, the chief White House strategist. With a single interview, he dispelled any illusions that normal or productive relations with the media will even be possible under the Trump administration.
True, the new president’s modern predecessors in both parties all tangled with the media. And the claim that traditional news outlets are “liberal” has long been a marker of conservative faith.
But where other chief executives saw the Fourth Estate as a legitimate institution to be dealt with (and, where possible, manipulated), Trump sees reporting purely in terms of his own power. “I want you to quote this,” Bannon told The New York Times. “The media here is the opposition party.”
Bannon went further still. In his ideal world, the media would remain silent, which is pretty much its posture under autocratic regimes.
“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” Bannon said.
We talk, you listen. Not exactly a Jeffersonian attitude toward public conversation in a free republic.
A few clarifications are in order. “The media” is a vague term that can refer to everything from print newspapers to traditional television news to radio, cable, blogs and tweets. Within the “old” media, there is a world of difference between opinion writers, of whom I am one, and my colleagues on the reporting side who work very hard every day to tell readers what is going on, “without fear or favor” to invoke the Times’ classic slogan. I point this out even though I’d insist that opinion writers have as much of an obligation to fact as anyone else, and also that our work is enhanced by good reporting.
From the point of view of readers and viewers, the world is messier than it was, say, 40 years ago, because television outlets regularly offer panels of commentators mixing reporters, columnists and political consultants. Citizens can be forgiven for not knowing anymore who is who.
My worries are not about the opinion world. It will thrive under Trump, assuming we all maintain our liberties. What concerns me is that Trump, Bannon, press secretary Sean Spicer and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway will have some success in fuzzing up distinctions that are vital to open debate.
The obvious one has already been exposed with Conway’s memorable coinage, “alternative facts.” No, facts are facts are facts. Alternative facts are lies, untruths or distortions. Three to 5 million illegal votes were not cast in 2016, no matter how often Trump says it, and it is a scandal that taxpayer money may be wasted to investigate this phantom charge. The photographs of inauguration crowd sizes cannot be doctored, no matter how often Trump calls over to the National Park Service to ask for new angles.
When confronted with untruths, all journalists have one and only one choice: to call them what they are. They cannot, without misleading the public, pretend that there are two sides to a purely factual question. Further, they need to avoid vague language about facts being “in dispute” when there is absolutely no question about what the facts really are. Partisans might well emphasize some facts over others. But facts themselves aren’t partisan.
This, in turn, means that reporters may indeed seem “oppositional” when they confront an administration that, day after day, shows so little regard for fact or truth. But this is not the media’s problem. It’s Trump’s.
Even trickier is the bizarre way the administration has been doing business. Because Trump repeated to ABC News’ David Muir on Wednesday his claim that he’d find a way for Mexico to pay for his border wall, the administration scrambled to back him up. Spicer told reporters the next day that it would be financed by a 20 percent tax on Mexican imports – and then backed away from the idea partly because it was quickly pointed out that the tax would be paid by Americans, not Mexicans.
When the policymaking process veers wildly from point to point because it is driven by in-the-moment presidential impulses, not careful analysis, the country is in trouble. This, too, is something down-the-middle journalists will have to describe and analyze dispassionately.
Calmly pointing out the obvious may be the most damaging thing my reporting colleagues do to the Trump administration. Doing so won’t make them partisans or oppositionists, no matter what Bannon & Co. say. They’ll be patriots, and they’ll be doing their jobs.
E.J. Dionne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.