Let it be said that when it comes to catastrophic presidencies George W. Bush set the bar high. For a start, he blew up the Middle East on falsified intelligence, elevated Iran to a regional power, allowed the U.S. to become an intrusive surveillance state with the impunity of communist East Germany, and allowed Wall Street to design the collapse of the world economy.
Given the chance, Donald Trump could easily top that performance and, on the basis of his gothic inaugural address and erratic behavior since then, he might actually succeed.
The disasters of the Bush years are prologue to the urgent and severe test we face now: whether journalism, our democracy’s last line of defense against abuses of power is up to the job. In the case of Bush, journalism was fatally gullible when it needed to be vigilant, pliant when it needed to be ineluctable. The press, and specifically our most serious metropolitan dailies, failed to expose what amounted to a secret conspiracy in the White House to take the nation to war, the worst foreign policy fiasco since Vietnam.
The scandal of the Iraq war was also a scandal of journalistic scrutiny and diligence, or lack thereof.
For example, it took the Washington Post seven years, well after the event, to reveal in a series of investigative reports how far Vice President Dick Cheney had dominated and corrupted the process of policy making by “sexing up” intelligence, something Bush himself only realized when it was already too late.
This is not to say that conspiracies deep inside government are easy to crack. The people conducting them work within a regime that gives them institutional cover in the name of national security. Anyone threatening that regime risks brutal reprisal, as Cheney demonstrated when a former ambassador, Joe Wilson, exposed as a lie the claim that Saddam Hussein had acquired nuclear material from Niger. As a result, Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was deliberately outed as a CIA agent, ending her career.
Cheney and neo-con zealots like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz employed a technique with reporters that goes back to the intrigues of medieval courts: present falsehoods as fact in the guise of offering privileged access. Fatally, the New York Times swallowed another bogus piece of “intelligence” about Saddam’s nuclear arsenal that didn’t actually exist, involving aluminum tubes, and the paper ended up as a virtual co-conspirator in justifying the war. The Dixie Chicks showed more integrity.
It’s a very different Times now—and a very different media ecology. Dean Baquet, the executive editor, and Joseph Kahn, the managing editor, have said that the paper’s transition from print to digital publishing called for a “smaller and more focused newsroom.” But at the same time they are investing $5 million in the specific mission of covering the Trump administration, resources that few other news organizations can deploy.
You might well argue whether we can really believe in the journalistic acuity of the news organizations that so spectacularly underestimated the Trump phenomenon. August editorial boards, once they began to feel queasy, sent some of their best writers into Appalachia to locate the source of the grievances that Trump was channeling. The pieces that followed read like nineteenth century dispatches sent in cleft sticks from the deepest recesses of the Congo—it was noted, with undisguised astonishment, that along the back country roads there was a church every five miles, and that there were high schools where teachers still discouraged pupils from advancing to college because college campuses were in the hands of secular libertines.
In any event, it is obvious now that the old ways of covering Washington are no longer adequate or, in many ways, even relevant. There is a new gang in town with its own covert programs to press forward. The integrity and credibility of the White House are being questioned as never before. As Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times: “Mr Trump…is in a different category of dishonesty from the villains of yesteryear, such as Dick Cheney…the lies are so frequent and so flagrant that they are undeniable.”
The lies are also unavoidable and could distract from the business being conducted behind them. Most immediately, it will be challenging for reporters to detect and reveal how an entirely new kind and level of vested influence will flow between the executive and legislative branches.
This influence has arrived in the cabinet and at the head of departments in the persons of former corporate and banking executives with no previous experience of public office. (Only 55 percent of all cabinet level appointments have government experience compared to 96 percent of the George W. Bush choices.) They include no fewer than six alumni of Goldman Sachs. And then there is Carl Icahn, a voracious corporate raider who has created nothing in a long lifetime except a personal fortune, who is now an advisor on—of all things—deregulation! Collectively these people represent an unprecedented assault on public policy without in the past having displayed any of the ethical instincts that are normally expected of those holding public office.
Given how formidable this concentration of power is, the old vocational niches of newsrooms need to be abandoned. A more effective use of the reporting talent would be to break away from the over-reliance on access —based political reporting. By definition this is spoon-fed journalism, merely relaying an administration’s spin, only the “news” that they want you to know. Real news is always what somebody somewhere doesn’t want you to know. Reporters working within their specialist silos tend to become captives of the fields they cover, as we saw in the run-up to the Iraq war. White House correspondents, for example, become very attached to their turf, but their accreditation relies on their respect for briefing rules that, in essence will now be dictated by a president with no respect for independent journalism. We have already seen how Press briefings conducted by the hapless Sean Spicer can turn into displays of testiness rather than explanations of policy.
Accredited correspondents in news-rich places like the departments of state, defense and justice have to navigate between observing the rules on which confidential briefings are based and remaining open to sources that flout those rules. In the most contentious cases they can find themselves having to protect the anonymity of sources and whistleblowers against serious legal threats.
This is not a suddenly novel problem ushered in by Trump. Politicians of any stripe who run large departments quickly develop zero tolerance toward whistleblowers. Dana Priest, a Washington Post reporter with a string of consequential investigations to her credit, has said, “Obama’s attorney general repeatedly allowed the F.B.I. to use intrusive measures against reporters more often than any time in recent memory. The moral obstacles have been cleared for Trump’s attorney general to go even further.”
The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has spoken in soul-searching personal terms of how easily the Washington press corps was bamboozled by Trump theatrics and failed to dig deeper: “We’ll have to figure out new ways of doing things while focusing on journalism, not stenography.”
Kristof’s own editors have agonized over their degree of readiness—agonized too much, it could be argued, beginning with their late recognition that when Trump was lying, as he was every day, they might actually use the word lie in a story and a headline. Then there is the case of the “Russian dossier” that had been known about by many newsrooms for months (including The Daily Beast) but was very hard to source and verify. Liz Spayd, The Times’s public editor, chided her paper for being too timid in its handling of this story.
“There is an unsettling theme that runs through The Times’s publishing decisions. In each instance, it was the actions of government officials that triggered newsroom decisions—not additional reporting or insight gained by journalists,” Spayd wrote.
And don’t expect any insight from the major TV networks. The formulaic 30-second stand-up delivered from the White House lawn gives the impression of reporting when it is nothing more than a headline. Anchors spend little time doing actual reporting and when they do they have too little time to explore issues: The Tyndall Report that monitors network news programs found that in the 2008 election the three main networks devoted a total of three hours and 40 minutes to coverage of election issues in the whole year; in 20016 it fell to just 36 minutes. And yet in 2016 hours of prime time were given to unfiltered Trump verbiage.
Television journalism doesn’t deal in the big picture scoops. It was Dana Priest who, finally, worked independently of specialist reporters to bust open the fake intelligence and black ops of the Bush White House. Her reinvigorated paper is now pouring more resources into investigative teams who are similarly free to choose their targets without being hobbled by regular beats.
But the citadels of secrecy in our national security state as it has now evolved will always have far greater defenses against scrutiny than either congress or the press can penetrate. The rare and really big busts made on behalf of the public interest have usually been the work of disaffected insiders, and came cheap to the newspapers that published them.
Something equal to the release of 720,000 secret documents from the state and defense departments by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden’s amazing data dump is well beyond the stuff of normal journalistic scoops—as were the Pentagon Papers in the time of Vietnam. The Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post assigned their own reporters and resources to sift, check and clear the material—to make sure, for example, that lives were not endangered by the revelations—but the coups were not initiated by them and required no months of expensive investigative reporting.
Only Snowden and Chelsea Manning could unbury this treasure and how many more like them are going to risk similar exposure now in a political atmosphere of rabid so-called patriotism? Cheney’s bare-fisted personal reprisals will seem almost gentlemanly against Trump’s vicious reflexes.
Journalistic vigilance can only function freely on the precarious defense of the need to know, while the concept of our right to know is continually being litigated. Since 9/11 that tension has greatly increased, as the interests of the national security state have become far more assertive. That is not going to change. Indeed, with the arrival of Trump in the White House, it is clear that the basic concept of a right to know will always be subverted by his own interests and secrets—like his tax returns.
Richard Nixon was not exposed and brought down because the systems to check presidential malfeasance worked. They didn’t. Journalism worked where the other institutions did not. In the first year or so of Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting they—and their newspaper—were way out on their own. Other lofty editorial voices accused them of running a vendetta without any basis in truth. These days around half the country would have refused to believe anything they wrote while having total faith in Breitbart’s garbage.
And so we enter the unknown, with trepidation. Reporters face a wall of accumulating lies. Trump sits in the White House tweeting with the imperiousness of Charles Foster Kane and the paranoia of Captain Queeg. His real direction and purpose are hard to fathom—and perhaps that is the idea. He and his flacks present a false choice, between his Orwellian version of truth and that pursued by the people he called “among the most dishonest people on earth”
Stephen K. Bannon made clear that he is the doctrinal enforcer behind the White House’s assault on the press in a rant this week, saying that they should be humiliated by their failure to foresee the outcome of the election:
“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”
In one respect Bannon was more right than he probably realized. He complained that the media had become “the opposition party.” That is the point. As the modern Western democracies evolved the first principle of journalism was that it should be, whatever the party or regime in power, the permanent non-political opposition, the guarantor of the public interest. Not to understand that—indeed, to resent it—is the mark of the demagogue.
George Orwell’s masterpiece 1984 is enjoying a new lease of life, sales are soaring. But Orwell described a tyranny based on what he knew, a society like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia combined in which the state could eliminate its critics as “non-persons.” Orwell never saw a democracy as endangered as ours—although the idea of “alternative facts” could have come straight from his novel. But the other George Orwell, the journalist, would not have had any patience with the modish concept of post-truth politics. When it came to the integrity of language he was out there in the front line trenches and this concept would have seemed too defeatist to him.
Orwell considered language to be the host of truth and language, he argued, could—with hard work—be purged of debasement: “Our civilization is decadent” he wrote, “and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse” He disagreed, arguing that the process was reversible, and in his essay Politics and the English Language he went on to suggest how that could be done with specific examples:
“Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder sound respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Trump and his gang have taken this technique to a new level, creating a parallel universe of lies delivered with angry conviction. Trump’s demagogic inclinations will now be even more empowered by office. This is the way despotism begins, and it would be foolish to expect from this White House any outcome that is not indicated by the character of the man.