PARIS - I was just finishing an upbeat Trump-free report on a May Day drive through deepest France when an AP item from Washington stunned me to silence. The President of the United States, thinking with his thumbs, tweeted this:
“The Fake News is working overtime. Just reported that, despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy & all things else, 91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake). Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?”
And this at a time when trustworthy news organizations face mounting pressure from greedy management, political connivance, fragmentation, and background babble from every direction.
Nothing, I believe, is more dangerous than Donald Trump's insidious yet relentless campaign to strike America blind. His hardcore cheers him on, no matter what, and a broad sector of others, confused or indifferent, enable him by inaction.
Newspapers document lies and flip-flops. The New Yorker and others probe sordid dealings. Television, sometimes even Fox, shines light on loony behavior. Yet those rally T-shirts are still around: “Tree. Rope. Journalists. Some assembly required.”
Trump's tweet, far beyond politics, is a measure of the man, a despotic assault on America's bedrock belief in the people's right to know. The old saw about a last straw breaking the camel's back has never been so apt.
The issue is not credentials. The White House already plays favorites yet still leaks from top. At briefings, Sarah Sanders hints of occasional shame when the bullshit is too malodorous. What's at risk is democracy.
Trump, in that tweet, uses the royal “we.” He is a civil servant on a four-year contract living in public housing. He skirts sedition with legal fig leaves to evade scrutiny, exceed his mandate and endanger the nation by doing what is plainly wrong.
Congress, rather than checking presidential excess, has unbalanced the judiciary, the crucial third branch. That leaves only the Fourth Estate, a grand term rooted in English tradition that is essentially a permanent pack of watchdogs meant to bark and bite.
Much of America's news media does noble service despite it all. But the large part that does not provides “alternative facts.” Using textbook demagogy, Trump lies with the confidence of a man who grasps a basic human failing. People go to extremes not to admit being duped, even to themselves.
This is tough to explain to sane people in the real world who remember what the United States used to be. The French watched, sickened, as Trump told an NRA mob that one guy with a pistol would have stopped coordinated attacks that killed 130 people in Paris in 2015. He pointed a finger to demonstrate, like a demented kid with cap gun.
Abroad, neither friends nor foes trust America. We'll soon know the cost of spiking the Iran deal, Hard-liners in Tehran and Tel Aviv (or, rather, Jerusalem) are already splashing kerosene on smoldering embers. Bibi Netanyahu wants preventive war.
At home, Trump's authoritarian approach emboldens police to overreact. The other day, Ray McGovern, an ex-CIA analyst nearing 80, tried to tell congressmen what he knew firsthand about Gina Haspel and torture. Video shows officers throw him to the ground, his shoulder dislocated, and shout: “Stop resisting.” He wasn't.
That's in the capital, awash in journalists. We hear increasingly less from cities and towns where families shape world views and determine what their kids are taught in school. With slanted and censored reporting, what we don't know is killing us.
In Las Vegas, for instance, Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Independent-Journal to promote his casino interests and narrow views. Bent on tilting U.S. policy towards Israel, he offered to pay for a new embassy in Jerusalem.
Adelson is small-bore compared to Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which dictates scripted simultaneous propaganda to TV and radio stations in 40 percent of American markets. The once-admirable Chicago Tribune empire is now a bad joke known as Tronc.
Look at Colorado. During the 1980s, I co-published the Telluride Mountain Journal, a lively weekly with its own Paris bureau. Okay, me. Two Denver dailies thrived with 700 newsroom people between them, and there were others around the state.
The Rocky Mountain News won four Pulitzers in its last years until E. W. Scripps dumped it in 2009, just short of its 150th anniversary. Journalist and entrepreneur Dean Singleton tried to save the Denver Post and other newspapers elsewhere, but his group filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Alden Global Capital, hedge fund scavengers, took over. Alden controls 56 dailies, including some big ones, and a lot of weeklies.
Margaret Sullivan called the new owners in the Washington Post “one of the most ruthless of the corporate strip-miners seemingly intent on destroying local journalism.” News people ask questions, and they also ought to answer them. Not these guys.
“I tried to talk to someone in Alden's New York headquarters…to ask about the apparently counterproductive strategy of endless cuts but was told no one was there to speak to the news media,” Sullivan wrote. “When I asked to be connected to managing director Heath Freeman's office, the receptionist hung up on me.”
In April, after Alden slashed again and told survivors what not to write, the staff rebelled. Editorial page editor Kenneth Plunkett wrote, in a blast headlined, “As the Vultures Circle”: “We call for action…Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom. If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will.”
Plunkett sketched the broader picture. Political interests buy up “echo-chamber outlets” to report from biased perspectives. That leaves “the hollowed-out shells of newsrooms loyal to traditional journalistic values to find their voice in the maelstrom.”
Soon after, he resigned. So did Dave Krieger, who wrote similarly in Boulder's Daily Camera, another Alden property. Other top editors also left. The company kept on cutting back.
Jason Blevins, who survived a dozen buyouts in 21 years at the Post, summed it up in the High County News. From a newsroom of more than 300 in 1997, the paper has shrunk to 35 reporters and photographers to be what it claims: “the Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire.”
Here are some excerpts; a link is attached below:
“The lofty hope (the Post) espoused — that newspaper reporting can champion truth, meaning and a sense of community — has withered under the watch of Heath Freeman, who is murdering the paper…Freeman doesn't care about video. Or digital news. Or print news. Or news. He wants his newspapers to do one thing: kick out cash. He's cut more than 3,000 jobs from newsrooms across the U.S. It's a short-term play from a wannabe Gordon Gekko…And it's working...Last year Alden reaped $160 million from its newspapers, including $28 million from The Denver Post, according to an independent report.
“Even worse, Freeman is stifling coverage — even censoring his own editors — when we seek to expose how Alden Global is razing local journalism…And that's the real rub here. It's not just that journalists are out of jobs. It's that they are not telling the stories that we all need to hear…”
The best of U.S. newspapers, in contrast, are now better than ever, but they reach only a fringe of voters, few with any illusions about trumpery. Despite its strengths, TV depends on sideshows and sex scandals that drive up ratings. Nonstop ill-informed argument trivializes what matters and overdramatizes what doesn't.
This is fertile ground for manipulation. Trump's base spews venom at any news organization he targets, which includes “the failing New York Times” and The Washington Post to the full alphabet soup of TV news channels.
That trial balloon - “Take away credentials?” - merits a headline in big red letters. It is, again, the last straw on the camel. America needs a solid spine to thwart a creeping coup d'etat.