A spectre is haunting journalism—the spectre of solidarity.
For ages the idea of reporters banding together against a common adversary has seemed thoroughly alien to the character of American journalists. We’re back-stabbing, iconoclastic individualists. No wonder Daniel J. Leab’s 1970 history of the Newspaper Guild was called A Union of Individuals.
Could the Age of Trump finally change all of that? Can—and should—journalists join with reporters from other news organizations to meet the journalistic threats posed by Trump? Or to use the phrase of political activism, should reporters “resist”?
I’ve deep-dived into the subject, interviewing news executives on the front lines of the latest confrontations as well as the closest I could find to experts in journalism solidarity. I’ve encountered a range of perspectives, from dour to downright depressing. There’s a long history of attacks on the press that cried out for collective action, especially during the dark days of McCarthyism during the 1950s. Yet the experiences of the past are instructive—even heartening. They provide a road map of sorts for the rocky terrain that lies ahead.
The media’s conflict with our current president has been well-chronicled. During the election campaign, the Trump campaign revoked the credentials of a range of news organizations whose reports displeased him, including Politico, Univision, the Des Moines Register, The Daily Beast and The New York Times. At a chaotic press conference on January 11, Trump called CNN “fake news,” refused to take a question from its reporter Jim Acosta, and blasted BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage.” Media columnist Jim Rutenberg lamented in the Times that a “united front would have given the reporters stronger footing” and suggested that the journalists who got their questions answered “could be next. They’re going to have to decide how much they want to abide by Mr. Trump’s decision to selectively quarantine colleagues whose coverage he does not like.”
After the inauguration, the White House went into full media-baiting mode, with press secretary Sean Spicer attacking journalists and playing favorites at press briefings, and Trump doing the same at his press conferences. On February 17, Trump called the news media the “enemy of the people.” A week later, Spicer excluded several outlets from a White House press “gaggle.” The Associated Press and Time refused to participate; The Wall Street Journal did, but said it was unaware of the exclusions and announced that it “will not participate in such closed briefings in the future.” The word “solidarity” crept into accounts of the incident.
Was that the dawning of a new Age of Journalistic Solidarity? Don’t count on it. “Trump has an attitude toward the media that he’s had for decades and he’s not going to change. And the media is not going to change either,” says Marvin Kalb, whose tough CBS News reports landed him on Richard Nixon’s enemies list. “There are on that field of combat, clearly, two armies ready to go to war, and it’s not ‘may the best man win’ at all.” The question, Kalb says, is “can the country survive? In what way?”
John Avlon, editor of The Daily Beast, is more hopeful, as is BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith, who recalled the time in 2009 when the Obama administration briefly cold-shouldered Fox News, refusing to include the network in interviews with Kenneth Feinberg, who’d been appointed special master for executive compensation at bailed-out banks. A unified stand by the White House press corps put a stop to that, with Jake Tapper, then of ABC, sticking up for a “sister organization.”
There were scattered gestures of solidarity during the 2016 elections. Amalie Nash, who was editor of the Des Moines Register during the campaign, told me that Register reporters did receive support and help from other journalists when they were frozen out by Trump, but it “didn’t coalesce into ‘Let the Register in’ or ‘Let us all in.’” Nash is not sure if a concerted effort might have helped—or done little more than fuel anti-press hostility.
Kalb, however, dismisses the very notion of journalistic solidarity. “The expectation that the media could come together and somehow coordinate their activities is a pipe dream,” Kalb told me. “It didn’t happen 20-30 years ago when we didn’t have an Internet and we didn’t have talk television in the way that it is today, and it could not possibly happen now. So it seems to me that any effort that could be made to pull the New York Times together with BuzzFeed or CNN, or CNN together with the Washington Post is simply not going to work … I can’t imagine a coordinated media response to anything, even a weather report.”
And yet the degree of menace journalists face from Trump goes beyond merely being deprived access to the gaggle. There is a dark side to Trump’s war against the media, a kind of dirty war being fought by his true believers against the press, mainly in the anonymous shadowlands of the Internet. Cross Trump and it can mean that you are the target of a full-blown smear campaign. That was the fate of Michelle Fields, a reporter who was the subject of a flurry of publicity when Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was accused of grabbing her at a campaign rally. Her employer, the avidly pro-Trump Breitbart.com, abandoned her. Trump tweeted in support of Lewandowski and the affair quickly faded. But Trump supporters weren’t done with her.
The assault began when her book Barons of the Beltway was published in June 2016. Trump’s most ferocious supporters falsely accused her of plagiarism. The claim went viral and the book’s Amazon rankings sank into the high six digits by year end.
Fields, after initially agreeing to be interviewed for this article, later changed her mind, ceased responding to emails and declined to even comment on the plagiarism accusation. In a way, her silence is understandable. Refusing to give “oxygen” is one time-tested method of dealing with false accusations. But Trump trolls were doing more than just posting nastygrams about Fields. They were causing real damage to her book sales and, perhaps, her reputation. One approach, which apparently was not even attempted, was a show of support by other journalists. Despite all the attention she had received during the campaign, the smears against her were never covered in the media, never rebutted or contradicted.
The debate now, in journalism and out, is over how worried the media should be. Is Trump essentially just a thin-skinned name-caller? Or is he laying the groundwork for something far darker? Edward Alwood, author of Dark Days in the Newsroom, a look at the treatment of the press by Senator Joseph McCarthy, fears the latter.
“It’s very similar except today it’s more potent,” says Alwood, a former CNN correspondent. “McCarthy very much understood how the news apparatus works. He certainly understood deadlines,” an observation frequently made about Trump as well. It disturbs him that “Trump’s—I call them radical supporters—take cues from him about whom to attack.” Alwood points out that “in the McCarthy era, what were they going to do, mail letters to the person? Or boycott their organization? But these people today are finding email addresses and even home addresses, and attacking them through emails and at home. . . You get Trump attacking a journalist, and then his supporters taking it on themselves to rectify the situation. That’s very scary.”
Trump’s performance since the inauguration shows that attacks on the media will be a feature of his presidency, as will another press-relations method employed by Joe McCarthy, “divide and conquer.” Though denying accreditation to the Des Moines Register, he granted an interview to the newspaper’s political columnist Kathie Obradovich after he liked a column she had written.
Such methods “put the media in an interesting conundrum,” says Nash, because though we’re “in it for the greater good, we’re also very competitive. So Trump says, ‘I’ll speak to you exclusively but I’m not talking to these people because they’re on my list of people I’m not talking to.’ Or he’s having a press conference and everyone says ‘No we’re not covering this until everyone has access to it,’ and suddenly he singles out a reporter and says ‘Well I’ll fit you in.’ It’s really hard for that person to say, ‘No, I’m standing here with my colleagues.’”
History suggests that solidarity will be considerably easier to talk about than to actually apply. Organizations like the Committee to Project Journalists have a role to play, of course. Carlos Lauria, CPJ’s Americas coordinator, told me that his group has written to vice president Mike Pence, which resulted in a “positive discussion with aides to the vice president” that he hopes will continue. But the onus is on journalists in the field.
BuzzFeed, for instance, emerged as an object of media virtue-signaling after publishing the Trump-Russia dossier. Chip Berlet, a longtime freelance political reporter, believes that journalists are repeating the mistakes of the past by falling over themselves to shun BuzzFeed. “Denouncing people to your flank to justify your own credentials” is, he says, a “tactic which is old and proven disastrous. That never ends well, as the knife keeps cutting the sausage.”
Berlet sees BuzzFeed filling the same role as the old muckrakers George Seldes and I.F. Stone. Berlet was friendly with both men, Seldes especially, and is convinced that Seldes would have done precisely the same as BuzzFeed if he were alive today. That’s what muckrakers did—they published material, very much like the Trump dossier, which was widely known among the elite and which the public had a right to know. Like BuzzFeed, they were marginalized by the mainstream media. (It’s worth noting here that CJR was among the few prominent journalism voices to stand up publicly for BuzzFeed and its decision, at least in the days immediately following the dossier’s publication.) Obviously media organizations don’t have to publish raw documents if they choose not to. But they are shooting themselves in the foot by attacking those who do.
As I discovered back in the 1980s, when I was briefly a union activist at Dow Jones, news people are simply not into the “injury to one is an injury to all” brand of solidarity. Journalists are never going to adopt that credo. But if we stop worrying so much about access, and push back against the tactics of Trump and his supporters, we’re not just being altruistic. If we stand with reporters who are attacked—physically or on the Internet—by Trump acolytes, we’re not taking sides against the administration. We’re not adopting the “resistance” tactics of activists, nor should we. We’re just doing our jobs. By helping each other, we’re helping ourselves.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Edward Alwood.