Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

January 28/29, 2017

 

I first came to Washington as a reporter in 1965, just as President Lyndon Johnson was drastically escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In the years that followed, Americans turned violently against that war; Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. President Richard Nixon was forced to resign over the crimes of Watergate. President Jimmy Carter’s presidency fell victim to the hostage crisis with Iran; President Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution propelled the country significantly to the right; President H,W, Bush went to war with Iraq to save Kuwait. Bill Clinton’s political successes were overshadowed by his personal behavior for which Republicans launched impeachment proceedings, By any historical measure, these were consequential times.

That said, nothing in my experience has so shaken up Washington as the election of President Donald J. Trump. The city and its establishment have never seen anything like it. And in many minds, it is an open question as to how or if America’s widely admired and envied institutions are going to survive him.

Even before his inauguration Trump had already taken on the $70-80 billion a year intelligence community- and - most of the main stream news media not owned by Rupert Murdoch. (It was not by chance that on the first official White House news briefing this past Monday which by long tradition has started with a question by the venerable Associated Press, three of the first four questioners worked for Murdoch papers or networks.)

In the grand scheme of things, the order of questioners at White House briefings is small potatoes. But Trump’s almost daily denunciation of the news media and those who don’t report what he wants to hear is not. The institution of a free press is a lynch-pin of American democracy. And calling journalists “the most dishonest human beings on earth” undermines democracy itself. The good news is that after months of enduring his insults – and his perpetual lying – the news media are beginning to fight back. In doing so, they are not simply exercising their First Amendment rights – they are effectively fighting for the very credibility of this country.

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The newly assertive news media showed its spine following Trump’s first presidential visit to the Central Intelligence Agency. On the front page of the New York Times, the headline read “Slamming Media, Trump Advances Two Falsehoods.” The report begins, ”President Trump used his first full day in office on Saturday to unleash a remarkably bitter attack on the news media falsely accusing journalists of both inventing a rift between him and intelligence agencies and deliberately understating the size of his inauguration crowd.”

 In the face of Trump’s accusation that the news media had manufactured his feud with the CIA, the Times reports, “Mr. Trump ignored his own repeated public statements criticizing the intelligence community, a group he compared to Nazis, just over a week ago…..and he said up to 1.5 million people had attended his inauguration, a claim that photographs disproved.”

The Washington Post carried a similar front page report on Trump’s trip to the CIA although it focused more on another aspect of that day’s news, Evidently Mr, Trump was in a foul mood because of the great success of the Women’s March on Washington. (I am pleased to say that my wife, my two adult daughters, my son-in-law and a grandson participated in the march. They were greatly inspired and thought it life-changing for many participants, We shall see.)

Trump was livid because the Women’s March in Washington, nationally and internationally, greatly eclipsed his inauguration numbers. The Post reported, “Shortly thereafter, press secretary Sean Spicer addressed the media for the first time from the White House where he yelled at the assembled press corps and charged it with ‘deliberately false reporting’ of Trump’s inauguration crowd. Trump claimed that the crowd stretched down the Mall to the Washington Monument. It did not” Nor was it, as Spicer asserted, “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration. Period.”

So, time to turn to the femme fatale of the Trump Administration, senior advisor Kellyanne Conway, to apply her charms to the Sunday talk shows. Rather than address this series of Trump’s lies she tried a different tack. She explained them away by calling them “alternative facts.” But NBC”s Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, was not buying. In his words, “alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.”

Yet at the beginning of the week at a White House reception for Republican and Democratic leaders, President Trump still could not contain himself. He can’t stand it that even though he won the election through the Electoral College, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million ballots. So there he was again, implying publicly that she did this because 3 to 5 million people who were not legal voters had committed massive voter fraud - even though there is not a shred of evidence to support this claim.

Why does this matter? As Times media critic Jim Rutenberg wrote this week, “one of the United States most valuable assets, battered as it may be (is) its credibility. The country’s sentimental reverence for truth and its jealously guarded press freedoms, have been as important to its global standing as the strength of its military.”

I can attest to that. During the Cold War, I often worked in Russia, China, Eastern Europe, and communist controlled satellites in Asia and Africa. One of the most glaring weaknesses of these totalitarian states, is that what their official organs said or published was universally disbelieved - even if occasionally what they said might even have been true. And while many Russians, for example, were brainwashed to accept the official propaganda line –  over time more than a few did not believe the Soviet daily Pravda and turned to Voice of America or Radio Free Europe to get the real story. This was not an unimportant factor in the end of Soviet communism and the collapse of the USSR. As it says in the Bible’s New Testament, and reportedly on a plaque at the CIA, “The truth will set you free.”



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