Sanford J. Ungar, a veteran journalist and president emeritus of Goucher College, is distinguished scholar in residence at Georgetown University and a Lumina Foundation fellow. He teaches seminars on free speech at Harvard University and Georgetown.
Stephen K. Bannon, the White House strategist, roving provocateur and now foreign policy guru for President Trump, stirred up a hornet’s nest recently when he called the national media “the opposition party.”
Mainstream media organizations howled in protest at Bannon’s mischaracterization of their role and pledged anew their dedication to fairness, truth and accuracy. As they should.
But I suggest they also take a deep breath — and eagerly embrace Bannon’s (and subsequently Trump’s) description of the media’s mandate in these deeply troubled times for American democracy. Not the “party” part, of course. But being an independent “opposition” — an outside check on abuses of power by government and by other public and private institutions — is exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind for the feisty, boisterous scribes and pamphleteers of their time. It’s just what the media should do, and what the country needs, today.
Surely Bannon is aware of the rich history behind the concept of the media as opposition: Journalist Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of the great philosopher of the American Revolution, was such a vociferous critic of figures including George Washington that he was jailed under the Alien and Sedition Acts. Abraham Lincoln was denounced as a “tyrant” by the media of his time for the way he centralized power and suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War.
For an extended period in the mid-20th century, some theorists extolled the potential of the press to serve as a “fourth branch of government,” albeit an unofficial one, working in concert with the legislative, executive and judicial branches to advance a post-World War II agenda around which there seemed to be a national consensus. One consequence was to ignore or help cover up questionable practices of presidents and other high officials.
But even then, the U.S. Information Agency was sending American journalists and scholars around the world to help developing countries learn how to nurture and protect independent and, yes, opposition media.
Perhaps that overseas experience helped debunk the dewy-eyed patriotic notion that we were all one big happy family working together in concert. Indeed, in some of the most memorable crises of recent times, the media moved into the vanguard of reform. During the civil rights movement, for example, it was courageous editors, reporters and photographers, particularly in the South, not mainstream elected officials of either major party, who perceived the growing unrest and impelled the revision of unjust laws and social practices.
Likewise, in the case of the long, withering war in Vietnam, America’s formal political institutions failed miserably to reflect the degree of dissent over a dramatically unsuccessful policy. Even the few members of Congress who began to speak out against the war generally voted for massive appropriations to keep it going.
Famously, President John F. Kennedy asked the New York Times to withdraw David Halberstam from Saigon, where Halberstam and other independent-minded war correspondents were raising difficult questions about the quagmire. Ultimately, it was the people of all ages protesting in the streets of U.S. cities (counted more accurately by the media than by the government) and hard-driving journalists, not politicians, who brought about a shift in policy.
The unauthorized publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 did not end the war, as Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the documents, thought it might, but finally made it more respectable for reluctant critics to go public with their misgivings. Solidarity among various journalistic organizations outweighed competitive instincts, making it feasible to beat back the government’s efforts to persuade the Supreme Court to suspend the revelations.
Certainly there were moments when the Nixon administration treated journalists as the true opposition, and realistically so. When Times reporter Earl Caldwell managed to report from the inside about the activities of the Black Panther Party, Nixon’s Justice Department sought to compel him to testify before a federal grand jury and reveal his sources; he was willing to face jail time rather than do so.
It took intrepid young reporters from The Post to convince the public, not to mention Democratic members of Congress, that the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in 1972 was more than a “third-rate burglary.” The rest is history.
And so it goes. Awkward as it may be, at the moment, for the media to accept the mantle of “the opposition” that Bannon has conferred upon them, that is surely how events will play out. Having helped Trump climb to power by paying so much attention to him in the early days of his candidacy, they will by no means now be intimidated and keep their mouths shut, as Bannon has suggested.
Perceiving American journalists — the real ones, that is, who reject “alternative facts” and tell the carefully researched truth in the face of power — as the only genuine protection against autocracy and tyranny is exactly right. Long live the real opposition.