In February, the president declared that people like me were the “enemy of the American people.” Not just me, of course, but the major mainstream media overall, or the “fake news media” as he likes to call us.
Those of us who work as journalists had already endured many months of disparagement over the course of a vitriolic and volatile presidential campaign — and then, for good measure, we were subjected to more of that during the transition.
We were called “scum,” “disgusting,” “garbage,” “the most dishonest human beings on earth,” “the lowest form of humanity,” and “the lowest form of life.”
Those denunciations of the press provoked thousands of people to send nasty, bigoted, misogynistic and threatening emails and tweets to journalists, some of whom then required extra security.
At rallies, thousands heard the media demonized, effectively granting permission for reporters to be verbally harassed, which they were.
By the time of the inauguration, I thought the language for attacking, discrediting, marginalizing, delegitimizing, and even dehumanizing the American press had been exhausted. But these days you just can’t predict. And the vocabulary of vilification was subsequently stretched even further.
And so the citizens of this country were told that we who work in this profession were enemies of the American people.
When the president made that statement, I had some immediate thoughts.
Like so many of my professional colleagues, I thought first of the journalists who had risked their lives to inform the American public, journalists who were eyewitnesses to the world’s most dangerous conflicts.
I thought of the journalists who didn’t just risk their lives but lost them.
Most immediately, I thought of May 9, 2003, when I, as editor of The Boston Globe, had to inform our newsroom of the death of Elizabeth Neuffer. She was 46.
Elizabeth had died covering the war in Iraq. Her driver was moving at a high speed, a necessity when there was heightened risk of abductions. The driver lost control. Elizabeth was killed. So was her translator, Waleed Khalifa Hassan Al Dulaimi, 31.
As a journalist, she had been fearless in investigating war crimes and human rights abuses. Her Globe reporting overseas led to a much-honored book, “The Key to My Neighbor’s House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda.”
As one human rights activist said at the time: “She had literally knocked on the doors of a couple of indicted war criminals that people had said couldn’t be found. They were there. Elizabeth found them.”
She also covered the first Gulf War, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
Retired Army Major General William Nash came to know Elizabeth while he was commander of US Army forces in Bosnia. After her death, he said: “She educated me, both in her writings and in her questions, as to the issues of human rights and war crimes in the Bosnia war.”
She left behind her brother as well as her longtime companion, Peter Canellos, then the Globe’s Washington bureau chief.
On October 1 of that year, I, along with other journalists and some officials of the George W. Bush administration, gathered at Gathland State Park in Maryland. There, four journalists became the first to be honored at a national monument since it was dedicated in 1896 to the writers and artists who covered the Civil War. Civil War battlefields are nearby.
Four reporters were honored: Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal, Michael Kelly of The Washington Post and the Atlantic Monthly, David Bloom of NBC News, and Elizabeth.
Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan, his throat cut by a senior al-Qaeda operative and his body dismembered. The others died that spring covering the conflict in Iraq.
I was invited to speak at the ceremony on behalf of Elizabeth and journalists like her.
“They remind us of our mission as journalists,” I said, “and American democracy is nothing without them. For all the burdens they bear, the risks they take, and for all the difficulties they face overseas, they give us in return the ingredients that sustain a free society.
“Their coffins may not be draped in the American flag, but they are draped in America’s highest ideals.
“We owe it to ourselves as journalists, and we owe it to Elizabeth, to state, clearly and without fear of boasting, that such work, her work – the reporter gathering information with determination and honesty and empathy, the hard and often unpopular business of truth-telling – is not just a job, but a vital and virtuous enterprise.”
And today let me add: Elizabeth and the other journalists honored that day were no enemies of the American people.
Nor were the many other American journalists who have died covering conflicts overseas.
Nor are the journalists who cover your local and state government – the police, the school board, the city council and county commission, the mayor, the governor, the legislature, the courts. They spend hours attending tedious meetings you won’t – and poring over documents dense enough to cure insomnia — to let you know what is happening in your state and your community.
Nor are the journalists who work tirelessly to cover our national government – the policymakers and politicians, including the individual who holds the most powerful position in this country and the world.
I recently met the owner and publisher of the newspaper in Benson, Minnesota, population 3,240. His name is Reed Anfinson, and he told me about covering a recent Benson City Council meeting.
A conference call was conducted with a consultant in Minneapolis, 120 miles away. The city manager introduced the people in the room: council members, mayor, city staff. “And then,” Reed said, “looking across four empty rows of chairs, he said, ‘And the newspaper representing the people of Benson.’ ”
Reed, owner and publisher, was also the reporter there that day, keeping tabs on local government.
Now, that story is not uncommon in thousands of small towns. But it’s also not wildly far off from what happens in government meetings and court proceedings that take place in bigger towns and cities, where often only one reporter shows up in a room routinely empty of ordinary citizens.
Who tracks our government closely but for the press? And even that now is in doubt.
In many states, the largest newspaper may have only one person covering the entirety of state government – the governor, both houses of the legislature, numerous state agencies. The most recent data I’ve seen showed that 27 states had no reporters in Washington covering their congressional delegations.
The labor of the journalists who do this sort of work is in service of their fellow Americans. In service of every citizen’s right and duty to understand the community and country we inhabit and to understand the broader world over which our nation wields profound influence, even in matters of life and death.
By the way, that October, 2003, ceremony in honor of journalists killed covering war was supposed to revive use of the National War Correspondents Memorial. The monument was built by George Alfred Townsend, the youngest correspondent to cover the Civil War, the first conflict to be covered extensively by independent reporters.
Finally, journalists were to be honored once again.
In preparation for this talk, I checked to see if anyone followed through on that noble idea of regularly honoring journalists who served their country by keeping its citizens informed, losing their lives as eyewitnesses at scenes of war.
The answer is no. Those four war correspondents were the last to be honored. No names have been added to the monument.
Why do I tell you this story? Because, as we can conclude from the names that remain unetched on that national monument, the contributions of journalists so routinely go unrecorded, unremembered, unappreciated.
That should not continue. And journalists like myself who have the honor of calling hard-working, talented, dedicated, and brave journalists their colleagues have an obligation to speak up on their behalf.
The president ultimately modified his comments about “enemies of the American people” to say that not all of us were, that there are some “great reporters” and to profess his affection for the First Amendment.
But it is hard, if not impossible, to rescind a message so searing, one so clearly intended to savage those in the press who weren’t seeking his favor, weren’t carrying his water, and might well contradict him.
And the president’s tactic appears to have been effective with his base. Republican voters agree by a stunning 81% to 17% that certain news organizations are “the enemy of the American people,” according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. Fortunately, most Americans disagree – 58% — vs. 39% who agree. Democratic voters are in overwhelming disagreement. Independent voters disagree by 60% to 38%.
And, fortunately, 89% of American voters still believe it is “very important” or “somewhat important” for the news media to hold public officials accountable.
We can be grateful for that. Because that’s what we fully intend to do.
One thing that particularly troubles me these days is the picture that’s been painted of who the mainstream press is. We’re portrayed as an out-of-touch elite, disconnected from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans.
That is a caricature. Caricatures like it have a long history in populist movements.
In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, an economist born and raised in Venezuela and now living in Madrid identified demonization as essential to populism – the sort that the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez represented in his country and the sort that we see in our own country today.
“Populism,” wrote Andrés Miguel Rondón, “can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy.”
A few months ago, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank performed a service in writing about some of the people who populate our newsroom at The Washington Post.
First, he mentioned Thomas Gibbons-Neff, who deployed twice as a Marine to Afghanistan. The second time, as a 22-year-old corporal, he led an eight-man infantry team into combat. One of his best friends later died in combat. He went to Georgetown University on the GI Bill. He joined The Post two years ago and covers the Pentagon.
Dana also cited Lori Montgomery, our deputy national editor. She was raised on a dairy farm in western Pennsylvania. Her brother still runs the farm.
And he mentioned Jose DelReal, a political reporter. He was born in central California to immigrant farmhands from Mexico. His mother worked as a maid, his father as a cook and dishwasher. He graduated from Harvard.
Dan Eggen, a political editor, is the son of a Lutheran minister from small-town Minnesota.
I would also mention Tracy Grant, a deputy managing editor who oversees our hiring and career development. She is the daughter of Irish immigrants who came to Chicago with only $200. Her father worked first as a hotel waiter, then as a day laborer laying bricks and worrying that temperatures would plunge and deprive him of work, then took a job filling cans in a soda factory, and then finally got a union job as a helper on a beer truck.
As Tracy told me the other day, “It was as blue-collar as blue-collar could be (literally, I would iron his blue shirts).
“He was an incredibly smart man, who read voraciously and would have loved college if he had had a chance to go.
“I think a lot about my mom and dad when I read some of the stories about families in middle America. My parents made a life for themselves and their daughters against odds that many people are facing today. But the jobs that my dad did are largely jobs that are going away.
“I got to go to college because of an immigrant’s determination and an economy that valued hard work. But I am never far removed from the days when the weather might be too cold for him to bring home a paycheck. It engenders an empathy I wouldn’t trade for anything and for which I will be eternally grateful to my parents.”
We continue to hire with the objective of bringing on board talented individuals with varied life experiences.
A recent hire of ours joined the Marines after graduating from Notre Dame and then served as an infantry officer, deploying twice to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. He then decided to attend Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.
Another recent hire is the oldest of 11 kids, was homeschooled, and graduated from Wheaton College, which is rooted in evangelical Christianity.
These people who work for us are not elitists — no matter which multimillionaire or multibillionaire currently in government would like to stick them with that label.
They bring the lessons of their lives to our newsroom, where they find meaning in the work.
One of our religion reporters, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, also a Wheaton graduate, wrote recently about what drew her to journalism. Her commentary came immediately after a presidential campaign that became fertile ground for conspiracy theories, one of which motivated an armed gunman to walk into a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor and fire a few shots.
“As a reporter who also happens to be a Christian,” she wrote, “I believe that truth exists and can be ascertained, even if imperfectly and the fact that we understand it imperfectly heightens our duty to pursue it diligently.
“And I believe journalism is one of the best practical pursuits of truth in earthly life, one that allows us to reveal and explain the truth to others. Many religions seek a truth that is beyond the scope of journalism, yet if people of faith no longer accept the veracity of factual truth, then they threaten to undermine their own pursuit of ultimate questions.”
I am proud that those who populate our newsroom have lived varied lives, are informed by different experiences, and bring distinct perspectives.
We must do even better at diversifying our newsrooms.
The late journalist Gwen Ifill once said: “We have stories to tell, but many in our audience have stopped listening because they can tell that we’re not talking about them.”
This is true of too many people: African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, middle Americans, working-class Americans. I could go on.
We have a diverse and complex country. It is a challenge to reflect the perspectives of all its people. But we who run newsrooms have an obligation to work at it.
Whatever our backgrounds, there is much that unites us as journalists. Based on 40 years in the profession, here is what I would list as the beliefs we share:
We believe in free expression. We believe that includes a free, vigorous, and independent press. We believe the press should hold powerful institutions and powerful individuals accountable, no one more so than the president of the United States.
We believe wrongdoing and abuse of power should be exposed. We believe in open, honest, and honorable government that respects and upholds democratic – small d – norms.
We believe in civil rights. And we believe in civility.
We believe in acceptance for all people. And we believe all people deserve dignity and respect.
We believe in a societal obligation to help the least fortunate among us.
We believe evidence and expertise and experience should be highly valued, not ignored or dismissed or denied.
We believe there is such a thing as fact. We believe there is such a thing as truth. And we don’t take well to being lied to.
The seeds of conflict with politicians – not just those today, but in any era – can be found in those beliefs.
Conflict between the press and the presidency is not new to this administration. An adversarial relationship has been a constant from one administration to the next.
One of my predecessors as executive editor of The Washington Post, Len Downie, released a report more than three years ago on behalf of the Committee to Protect Journalists. It excoriated then-President Obama for an erosion of press freedoms and government transparency.
The language of the report may surprise you. It begins like this:
“In the Obama administration’s Washington, government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press. Those suspected of discussing with reporters anything that the government has classified as secret are subject to investigation, including lie-detector tests and scrutiny of their telephone and e-mail records. An ‘Insider Threat Program’ being implemented in every government department requires all federal employees to help prevent unauthorized disclosures of information by monitoring the behavior of their colleagues.”
It continued: “Despite President Barack Obama’s repeated promise that his administration would be the most open and transparent in American history, reporters and government transparency advocates said they are disappointed by its performance in improving access to the information they need.”
And the report quoted David Sanger, a veteran Washington correspondent for The New York Times, as declaring: “This is the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.”
A look back at the Clinton administration also offers lessons.
When Donald Trump, in the final weeks of his campaign, was under siege from nearly a dozen women accusing him of having sexually forced himself on them, he pronounced it “the single greatest pile-on in history.”
Well, maybe not. Anyone with a good and honest memory will recall the pounding that Bill Clinton took for his affairs. They were intensely covered for years, dating to the beginning of his presidential campaign.
As Trump sought to fend off charges from his accusers, Politico’s Jack Shafer helpfully reminded readers of the January-February 1998 period when Clinton was accused of having an affair with a White House intern but forcefully denied it.
“We don’t find a press feeding frenzy,” Shafer wrote. “No, it was more like a bloody bacchanalia, as reporters filed their teeth down to dagger points and tore through Clinton’s lies and obfuscations until he wearily conceded the affair that August.”
“Why,” Shafer asked, “didn’t the press just take Clinton at his word that he didn’t consort with the young intern? Why did reporters pile on? For one thing, his denial was not consistent with the available evidence pointing to an affair, and if there’s one thing reporters can’t stand it’s being lied to.”
Today, we have an administration that claims to be especially persecuted by the press. The president’s chief strategist has called us the “opposition party.” The president himself, shortly after inauguration, visited the CIA and chose the occasion to assert that he had a “running war with the media.”
The president may be at war. But The Washington Post is not. We’re at work. We’re just trying to do our jobs – the very job envisioned by this nation’s founders who saw the press as a check on the potential abuse of power.
And our independence from the administration is not a hostile act. It’s a moral duty – and a realization of what the nation’s founders envisioned when they wrote the First Amendment.
It’s easy to appreciate why the administration would like to position the press as its political opponent.
As journalist John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker, “the aim is to portray the media as a political adversary rather than an independent monitor, so that when damaging stories appear the Administration can dismiss them.”
The biggest conflicts with this administration – the ones that have the president calling us enemies of the people – have to do with basic facts.
But when we as journalists are confronted with a torrent of falsehoods, we have an absolute obligation to point them out – and call them what they are – no matter how creative the administration is in the name-calling it directs at us.
No matter whether they label us “fake news” or the “opposition party” or “garbage” or “bad people” or “enemies of the American people.” No matter whether the president threatens to sue us or to exclude us.
We should not be intimidated. The fundamental task of journalism is to tell the facts as they really are, no matter what.
I mentioned toward the start of my talk the memorial to journalists killed doing their jobs in conflict zones. One of them was Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter brutally executed by al-Qaeda in Pakistan.
This past February, his colleague at the Journal, Bret Stephens, gave a lecture named in Daniel Pearl’s honor at UCLA. It was a brilliant speech.
Bret Stephens is a conservative columnist. As a true journalist, he is committed to facts. And he used the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture to talk about the need to remain faithful to our profession’s fact-telling mission during this administration.
I am going to read at some length from his speech here because he said it so much better than I possibly can.
“When you work at The Wall Street Journal,” Bret Stephens said, “the coins of the realm are truth and trust – the latter flowing exclusively from the former. When you read a story in the Journal, you do so with the assurance that immense reportorial and editorial effort has been expended to ensure that what you read is factual.
“Not probably factual. Not partially factual. Not alternatively factual. I mean fundamentally, comprehensively and exclusively factual. And therefore trustworthy.
“This is how we operate. This is how Danny operated. This is how he died, losing his life in an effort to nail down the story.”
He continued: “We honor the responsibility to separate truth from falsehood, which is never more important than when powerful people insist that falsehoods are truths, or that there is no such thing as truth to begin with.
“So that’s the business we’re in. The business of journalism.”
And he concluded: “We each have our obligations to see what’s in front of one’s nose, whether we’re reporters, columnists, or anything else. This is the essence of intellectual integrity.
“Not to look around, or beyond, or away from the facts, but to look straight at them, to recognize and call them for what they are, nothing more or less. To see things as they are before we re-interpret them into what we’d like them to be . . . To hold fast to a set of intellectual standards and moral convictions that won’t waver amid changes of political fashion or tides of unfavorable opinion. To speak the truth irrespective of what it means for our popularity or influence.
“The legacy of Danny Pearl is that he died for this,” Bret Stephens said. “We are being asked to do much less. We have no excuse not to do it.”
Truth and falsehood are neither conservative nor liberal, neither Republican nor Democrat.
So when Donald Trump, well before his candidacy, publicly doubted that President Obama was born in the United States, he was promoting a falsehood. Evidence showed Obama was born here. And finally, late in the presidential campaign, Trump had to acknowledge that.
When Donald Trump, as a candidate, asserted that he saw television footage of thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the fall of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, that was false. There is no such footage and no newspaper coverage, and no evidence anything like that occurred.
The day after the inauguration, when the White House press secretary, acting on the president’s instructions, declared “this was the largest audience to ever witness the inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” that was false. And National Park Service photographs proved it.
When, as a new president, Trump claimed that 3-5 million people voted illegally – and that, without that fraud, he would have won the popular vote – that was false. Neither he nor anyone has been able to produce evidence of any pattern of fraud.
When the new president said that there were buses carrying people from Massachusetts to New Hampshire to vote illegally during the general election, that was false. There is no evidence of that whatsoever.
When the president declared that his predecessor had wiretapped Trump Tower before the election, engaging in “McCarthyism” and behavior that was equivalent to “Nixon/Watergate,” he had a duty – just as any of us would – to produce evidence. He never did. And, judging from the sworn congressional testimony of the FBI director and the National Security Agency chief, he never will. Because, from everything we know, the allegation was false.
The president’s press secretary scolded the press for repeatedly insisting that the president provide evidence to back up an extraordinary accusation against President Obama. But the press was obligated to do that.
Since when has it been a sin for journalists to demand evidence when someone alleges grave wrongdoing, even a crime?
There is a lot of head-scratching material these days in the interactions between the press and the presidency.
In February, when the president spoke to the Conservative Political Action Conference, he singled out for criticism a story that happened to be one of ours. It was our disclosure that General Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, had not told the truth when he insisted that he had not held pre-inauguration discussions with Russian officials about sanctions against that country.
In fact, he had held such discussions, we reported. He had not told the truth to the American people. He also had not told the truth to the vice president, who, based on Flynn’s assurances, publicly dismissed any notion that someone in the administration had discussed sanctions with Russia prior to Trump becoming president.
We attributed our story to nine sources, and we cited intelligence intercepts.
And yet the president said, “There’re no nine people. I don’t believe there was one or two people. Nine people. And I said, ‘Give me a break.’ … They make up sources. They’re very dishonest people.”
That was a perplexing statement. Because the president had just fired General Flynn on grounds that he had not told the vice president the truth about his conversations with the Russians. His press secretary said at the time, “The president was very concerned that Gen. Flynn had misled the vice president and others.” He cited an “evolving and eroding level of trust” with the national security adviser.
If the press secretary is to be believed, then what we reported could not have been made up. In fact, it was true. Which means we really did have sources. Of course, we did.
On top of that, the president pointed to our story and others in his call for a leak investigation. He repeated that call prior to hearings that featured the FBI director and NSA chief disputing the president’s allegations that President Obama had ordered Trump Tower wiretapped.
Even as that hearing was getting under way, Trump tweeted: “The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!”
So, here’s a question: If the president really believes we had no sources for our story, then what exactly does he think needs investigating? By his own reasoning, there would have been no leak.
This is head-spinning stuff. And it explains why the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal published an editorial in March entitled “A President’s Credibility,” pointing to what it described as the president’s “seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods.”
The president also has been selective in his denunciations of the press. He hasn’t condemned all uses of anonymous sources, nor all purported leaks of classified information.
In support of the accusation that Obama had ordered surveillance of Trump Tower, the president’s team pointed to news reports that relied on anonymous sources. If true, those stories would have represented a leak of classified information.
You didn’t hear the president attack those leaks. He didn’t call for a leak investigation. Nor did he assert in that instance that the use of anonymous sources meant there were no real sources.
There are two possible reasons the president didn’t call for a leak investigation on those occasions: One, he never genuinely believed those stories to be true, so no leak investigation would have been warranted; or two, he isn’t concerned about leaks of classified information as long as they help him politically.
George Will, a conservative columnist for The Washington Post, last January offered this biting assessment of the White House’s relationship with facts: “What is most alarming about the president and his accomplices in the dissemination of factoids is not that they do not know this or that. And it is not that they do not know what they do not know. Rather, it is that they do not know what it is to know something.”
Who could have imagined that we would now see the word “epistemology” mentioned so often? Epistemology concerns how we know what we know.
David Roberts of Vox has pointed to the emergence of what he calls “tribal epistemology.”
“Information,” he wrote, “is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. ‘Good for our side’ and ‘true’ begin to blur into one.”
In polarization between right and left, the great casualty has been the distinction between true and false.
Instead of concocting an imaginary “enemy of the American people,” we would be better served by confronting the profound threat to civil society of having falsehoods and crazy conspiracy theories accepted as truth.
Citizens can and should debate how to interpret events. We will form different opinions on how to address the world’s many challenges. But how does democracy survive when people cannot agree on a core set of facts, when we cannot agree on what happened even yesterday?
Contrary to how the press is so often portrayed — with “fake news” being the latest favorite epithet — unearthing facts is what quality journalists have done for decades. And that has served the public interest.
Unearthing facts is what reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull and photographer Michel du Cille of The Washington Post did in 2007 when they exposed the mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, sparking public outrage and leading to overdue reforms.
That’s what the Los Angeles Times did in 2010 when it dug up pervasive corruption in the California city of Bell, where officials had used the city’s accounts as their personal piggybank. Convictions and reforms followed.
That’s what the Las Vegas Sun did in 2008 when it exposed the high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip, where safety regulations were not rigorously enforced. Workers today are better protected as a result.
That’s what the Times-Picayune of New Orleans and the Biloxi-Gulfport Sun-Herald did in 2005 when they provided nonstop coverage of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina — even as their own homes and workplaces were threatened. Their work proved to be a lifeline for the people of their communities.
And unearthing facts is what the Boston Globe did in 2002 when it exposed a decades-long policy and practice of concealing clerical sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The voices of sex-abuse survivors were finally heard. A powerful institution was held to account. Reforms followed. And children were made more safe.
Who would have done this work but for journalists?
Enemies of the American people? I don’t think so.