Leave it to Ben Bradlee to set things straight. The then- executive editor of The Post appeared on “The Dick Cavett Show” back in March 1973 and talked about the Pentagon Papers. They contained the secret history of America’s involvement in Vietnam and were first published by the New York Times and then The Post, against the vehement opposition of the Nixon administration. For a while, the government tried to suppress the news. Now, under a different president, it is trying to do it again.
On Cavett’s show, Bradlee had to defend The Post’s decision. He did it by turning things upside down. This was not a matter of the First Amendment or the abstraction called freedom of the press, Bradlee explained — “not the right, exclusively, of a few people who have chosen journalism as a career. That isn’t what the hell it’s about,” he went on. “It’s about your right to read, your right to be informed.”
Bradlee was on the mark. President Trump is not in a fight with CNN as depicted in the ludicrous video he tweeted Sunday in which he wrestles the cable news network — or with the Times or The Post. This is not a struggle between the White House and some corporate behemoths, but a continuing, persistent and hugely unprecedented attempt by the government to limit and control what you can see or read. It’s not about us. It’s about you.
When the White House bans TV cameras from the briefing room, as it has done repeatedly recently, it is not news organizations who are deprived, it is the viewer. CNN or NBC or any other news organization is going to make the same amount of money whether or not it has pictures of deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders answering questions. Outside of her immediate family, no one is tuning in just to see her.
As is often the case with demagogues, Trump is supported or defended by those for whom he has the most contempt. He worships cash, thinking that to be rich is to be smart. He has stocked his Cabinet with dull multimillionaires, yet he poses as the champion of the common man. He wants to rid the country of the proclaimed curse of Obamacare, but he has nothing better to replace it with — and, truly, he doesn’t care. His abiding goal is to erase Barack Obama’s legacy. He is animated by grievance — recall the 2011 White House correspondents’ dinner, when Obama deftly skewered Trump for his mendacious support of the birther movement. That, not the health of the un-rich, is what matters.
Trump is not an existential threat to the mainstream media. He has, in fact, helped us thrive. Circulation is up. Eyeballs are popping. He is political pornography — gripping, exciting, lewd, fascinating. He devours adjectives so that, soon, we run out of them. The bizarre becomes ordinary. But he has done his damage. He has normalized contempt for the news media, framing it as a daily tussle between him, the tribune of the people, and us, vile overeducated snobs.
But that’s not the correct formulation. Bradlee had it right — it’s more about readers than about writers. And yet America’s political class, especially the Republican Party, steps back from this fray, retreating to a neutral corner. Trump’s daily attacks on the news media get almost no pushback from his fellow Republicans. Even that astonishingly tasteless attack on Mika Brzezinski — calling her “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” and then, from the man with the Naugahyde tan and the Halloween hair, a crack about plastic surgery. In general, this got only the weariest of reprimands from Republicans. Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.) tweeted his disapproval. Sen. James Lankford (Okla.) also did not like it. There were tweets and more tweets. This from the world’s greatest deliberative body.
On Sept. 3, 1998, Sen. Joseph Lieberman used a Senate speech to reprimand his fellow Democrat, President Bill Clinton, for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Once he did so, other Democrats followed suit and a kind of moral line was reaffirmed. This is precisely what the current congressional GOP has failed to do. It stands aside while Trump lies not about a particular story but about the very legitimacy of the press, as if these politicians have no stake in either the truth or getting it to the people they represent. They both encourage and abet Trump’s us-against-them line of attack, not realizing or acknowledging that the “them” is not the media but the American people they serve.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.
Read more on this topic:
Paul Waldman: The problem with ‘But Trump’s base loves it!’
Colbert I. King: Why Trump wants a war on the media
Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough: Donald Trump is not well
Kathleen Parker: Is this it for Trump?
Alexandra Petri: After the president’s tweet, I must withdraw my support for everything but his agenda