Matthew Pressman is an assistant professor of journalism at Seton Hall University and author of “On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News.”
Whether working as a diplomatic correspondent for CBS and NBC, hosting “Meet the Press,” or examining the news media from a variety of academic perches, Kalb projected an aura of cool, detached objectivity. Now, at age 88, as he says in his new book, “Enemy of the People,” he has decided to “pull back the green curtain of journalistic ethics” and advocate his personal opinions in public.
The impetus, naturally, was President Trump. It was not Trump’s policy positions that drove Kalb to speak out — he has voted for many Republicans, he says — but his authoritarian instincts. When Trump labeled news outlets “the enemy of the people,” in Kalb’s view, he “crossed a flashing red line.” Trump was attacking the “very foundation of American democracy,” as Kalb repeatedly reminds his readers.
Some might accuse Kalb of overreacting — inflating the danger of the president’s Twitter bombast because it targets his own beloved profession. But Kalb argues that “enemy of the people” is not just another run-of-the-mill insult like “Crooked Hillary” or “Lyin’ Ted” or even “you are fake news.” There is a long and terrifying history of authoritarian leaders (Robespierre, Stalin, Goebbels, Mao) applying the phrase specifically to writers, intellectuals and reporters — often before murdering loads of them. Kalb knows this better than most. He was in Moscow in 1956 (as a State Department staffer) when Nikita Khrushchev delivered his famous speech repudiating Stalin and the phrase “enemy of the people.”
But Kalb, wisely, does not compare Trump to Stalin or Hitler. For him, Trump’s closest historical antecedent is Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who became a national sensation in the early 1950s by alleging (with little to no proof) that communist agents had infested the U.S. government. Kalb devotes nearly half of his book to chronicling McCarthy’s rise and fall, focusing in particular on the role that the renowned broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow — who hired Kalb at CBS — played in exposing the baselessness and viciousness of McCarthy’s accusations.
Kalb provides an engaging recitation of the Murrow vs. McCarthy saga, but it is the standard telling that George Clooney canonized in his 2005 film, “Good Night, and Good Luck” (a telling that exaggerates Murrow’s impact, given that McCarthy was already flailing by the time of Murrow’s big broadcast in April 1954). And as Kalb concedes, the notion of Trump as a latter-day McCarthy “has become a fairly standard comparison.”
Still, Kalb mines some fascinating nuggets from the Trump-McCarthy vein. Just as Trump has called CNN “disgusting,” “sick” and “a disgrace,” despite claiming that he does not watch it, McCarthy blasted the TV networks as “dishonest” and “unmoral” while saying he hadn’t seen Murrow’s program (“I never listen to the extreme left-wing, bleeding heart elements of radio and TV,” McCarthy declared). And Never-Trump Republicans will surely nod along when they read that many GOP politicians disliked McCarthy and felt he had hijacked their party, but dared not speak out against him because “he was simply too popular with rank-and-file party members.”
One key difference between Trump and McCarthy, of course, is in the titles that precede their names: president vs. senator. McCarthy had the power to wreck individual lives, but Trump has the power to wreck American democracy — and that’s precisely what he’s doing, in Kalb’s view. If you accept Kalb’s contention that Trump “must be challenged and either stopped or somehow persuaded to change his ways,” it leads to an obvious question: What is to be done?
Kalb offers few specific prescriptions, but he identifies the two institutions needed to “save the nation” from “a presidential swing toward authoritarianism”: the judiciary and the press (one wonders if, in the wake of the midterm elections, he would add the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives). It’s no coincidence that these are the two institutions that Trump has tried hardest to undermine.
To Trump, the journalists, judges and bureaucrats who try to hold him accountable and preserve democratic norms are “fake news” and “the deep state.” To Kalb, they are heroes. Reading this book may stiffen their resolve.
By Marvin Kalb
Brookings. 174 pp. $21.95