Trump’s SOTU speech was a cynical exercise in pretend bipartisanship

Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi in happier times. 2017 photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Was President Trump’s bipartisan outreach in his State of the Union address Tuesday night a cynical attempt to recast himself as something he fundamentally is not? Or was it an even more cynical attempt to be seen as bipartisan while winking and nodding to his hardcore supporters? As Lily Tomlin once observed, “No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.” I thought it was clear that Trump was pursuing the latter course. So take this as my attempt to stay ahead of the Tomlin curve.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Advertisements

A malign force from Nixon to Trump: Revisiting the Roger Stone biopic

Roger Stone. Illustration (cc) by DonkeyHotey.

In rewatching the Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone” this week, I was reminded of how crucial Stone was to the entire Trump political enterprise — starting in the late 1980s, when Trump visited New Hampshire at Stone’s instigation.

“The Trump candidacy was a pure Roger Stone production,” says Jeffrey Toobin, who wrote a profile of Stone for The New Yorker and is one of the principal talking heads in the 2017 film, directed by Dylan Bank and Daniel DiMauro.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Media roundup: Sulzberger sends a message; tech and layoffs; and the return of Woodward and Bernstein

The patriarch: Adolph Ochs

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A.G. Sulzberger passed the audition.

Two Fridays ago the 37-year-old New York Times publisher met with President Trump at the White House for what he thought was an off-the-record discussion. Trump, as is his wont, later tweeted out his own dubious version of what had happened. “Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, ‘Enemy of the People,’” the president wrote. “Sad!”

Which created a dilemma for Sulzberger. Should he act as though their off-the-record agreement was still in effect? Or should he push back at what he regarded as the president’s false characterization of their conversation? He chose the latter.

“I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous,” Sulzberger said in a statement he issued this past Sunday, which the Times itself reported on. “I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people,’ I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”

Sulzberger’s reaction set exactly the right tone. By disclosing what he had said but not what Trump had said, he took the high road. But the Times also reported that Sulzberger and editorial-page editor James Bennet, who was also at the meeting, took “extensive notes” — a clear warning to Trump in the event that he decides to extend his Twitter war with the paper.

Sulzberger became publisher on Jan. 1. He was the latest member of Sulzberger-Ochs family to ascend to the top of the masthead, an unbroken chain that extends back to Adolph Ochs’ purchase of the Times in 1896. His father and predecessor, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., presided over the paper to mixed reviews. As Ken Auletta put it in a tough New Yorker profile in 2005, “Although he occupies perhaps the most august position in the nation’s press establishment, he seems to lack the weighty seriousness of his predecessors.”

A.G., by contrast, has struck observers as both serious and wise beyond his years. “The publisher of the Times sits in direct contrast to the president of the United States: demure, private, vegetarian, self-effacing, and reliant on proving himself through hard work rather than trading on his famous surname,” according to The Washington Post.

The lead author of the Times’ celebrated 2014 innovation report, A.G. is perhaps the ideal publisher to continue the paper’s metamorphosis into a primarily digital news organization. And unlike virtually all of his predecessors, he has a significant background in journalism, having worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal, The Oregonian, and the Times itself.

The Times is far from perfect. Though its coverage of the Trump White House has been admirably tough, the paper still lapses — as I wrote last January — into episodes of normalizing this abnormal president and of succumbing too readily to the temptations of access journalism. For instance, a substance-free story about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner that appeared over the weekend was widely derided, with New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen writing that “it feels like a report smuggled out of the summer castle after the ladies in waiting started talking.”

But the continued health of the Times is crucial to democracy. So far, A.G. Sulzberger seems like the right person at the right time to stand up to the Trump White House as well as for journalistic values.

Squint really hard and you can almost see a silver lining

A report issued Monday by the Pew Research Center documents the horrifying drop in newsroom employment over the past 10 years, with newspapers having by far the worst of it. The number of full-time newspaper journalists fell from 71,000 in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017, a decline of 45 percent. A modest increase in the number of journalists at digital-only outlets did not come close to making up the difference.

I’m not going to try to sugarcoat what’s happening. And we should always keep in mind that greedy corporate owners like Digital First and tronc are at least as responsible for the drop as the collapse of newspaper advertising. But I do want to offer a small countervailing data point: Because of technology, reporters today are far more efficient and can produce more useful work in the same amount of time than was previously possible.

A couple of examples from my own career will suffice. When I was a community newspaper reporter in the 1980s, I had to drive to Beacon Hill for campaign-finance reports. Once I had them, my options were to take notes by hand or, if I had enough quarters, make copies, assuming the copy machine was working. (And imagine if you worked in Western Massachusetts rather than 12 miles from Boston, as I did.) Now you can just look them up. Later, as the media columnist for The Boston Phoenix, I once spent an entire afternoon searching through unindexed microfilm for a half-remembered article that I wanted to write about. Today, I would have it in a few minutes.

Again, I’m not trying to argue that the collapse of newsrooms doesn’t matter. It matters a lot, and of course there’s no substitute for having actual human beings to sit through municipal meetings and develop sources. What I am saying is that the effects of this collapse would be even worse without the digital tools that have become available over the past 20 years.

Woodward and Bernstein back on the beat

How cosmically appropriate is it that just as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and related issues nears its conclusion (or not), the two legendary Washington Post reporters who did more than anyone to bring down the Nixon presidency are back on the beat?

Carl Bernstein was one of three CNN reporters whose byline appeared on a devastating report that, according to former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, the then-candidate knew in advance about a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower at which Russians had promised to reveal “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And this week we learned that Bob Woodward is wrapping up a book called “Fear: Trump in the White House,” scheduled to be released on Sept. 11.

As I always tell my students: Everything — everything — can be traced back to Richard Nixon.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Trump’s attacks on the ‘Fake Washington Post’ show how he’s different from Nixon

Illustration (cc) 2012 by AK Rockefeller.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A little less than two years ago, as Donald Trump was moving ever closer to wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos made a rather remarkable promise. “I have a lot of very sensitive and vulnerable body parts,” he said in a public conversation with the paper’s executive editor, Marty Baron. “If need be, they can all go through the wringer rather than do the wrong thing.”

At the time, Trump was attacking the Post and Amazon, the retail behemoth that Bezos had founded, by threatening to launch an antitrust investigation and end Amazon’s (nonexistent) tax breaks. So Bezos’ promise carried with it a very specific meaning, especially for those steeped in Watergate lore. When Post reporter Carl Bernstein asked one of Richard Nixon’s thugs, John Mitchell, to comment on a particularly damaging story, Mitchell famously responded: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” And here was Bezos, all those years later, pledging to stand tall in the face of threats from the powerful — as tall as Katharine Graham had in the 1970s. It was a promise that is now being put to the test.

President Trump, of course, has attacked the “fake news” media relentlessly. Last week, he turned his attention, as he sometimes does, to the Post.

In a subsequent tweet, Trump claimed that Bezos should be required to register the Post as a “lobbyist” for Amazon. He also referred to the paper as the “Fake Washington Post.” For those of us who are connoisseurs of such things, that’s a major improvement over his previous derogatory nickname, the “Amazon Washington Post,” though still not quite a match for the truly inspired “Failing New York Times.”

Of course, it’s easy to mock Trump. But his attacks on the Post go beyond buffoonery — they potentially represent real trouble. Imagine what would happen if the Trump administration launched an investigation into Amazon with the intent of harming the Post. The supine Republican Congress wouldn’t do anything but vaguely express concern. The Fox News-led right-wing media would bray for the Post’s demise.

And yet Trump isn’t Nixon. I don’t mean Trump isn’t as bad as Nixon; give him time, and he could prove to be worse. I mean that, stylistically, they are very different people with diametrically opposite ways of looking at the world. Nixon, for all his faults, fundamentally understood the legitimacy of the institutions he was seeking to undermine. He acted in secret, and the actions he considered taking against the Post — hitting the paper with a criminal complaint in order to undermine its public stock offering, challenging the licenses of the TV stations it held — would have hurt the Post in real, measurable ways.

By contrast, it’s hard to know how seriously to take Trump’s threats, based as they are on falsehoods so blatant that they can only be called lies. Amazon is not costing the post office money; it’s actually a boon. The Post is not a lobbyist for Amazon; Bezos has allowed the paper to operate independently, keeping his distance from both the news operation and the editorial pages. Trump is right about Amazon’s harming brick-and-mortar retailers, but it has paid state and local taxes just like any other company for some years now.

Also in contrast to Nixon’s skullduggery, Trump voices his threats in public. And that’s the key to what is really going on. Trump understands that in the current media environment, he doesn’t have to harm the business prospects of his enemies in the press (although Gabriel Sherman, writing in Vanity Fair, reports that he might try to go after the Post). He merely has to delegitimize them in the eyes of the 35 to 40 percent of the public that continues to support him. The Post, the Times, and other news organizations are benefiting from the “Trump effect,” as anti-Trump audiences are rewarding them not just with clicks but with paid subscriptions. Trump doesn’t care as long as he is able to convince his followers that he and his sycophants at Fox News and Breibart are the source of all the reality that they need.

In the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, at a time when it looked like Trump was going to lose, Bezos spoke out against Trump for suggesting he wouldn’t respect the results of the election unless he won. “One of the things that makes this country so amazing is that we are allowed to criticize and scrutinize our elected leaders,” Bezos said. “There are other countries where if you criticize the elected leader you might go to jail. Or worse, you may just disappear.”

In fact, Trump is making his enemies in the media disappear — not to all of us, and certainly not to the majority who are appalled by his presidency. But he is making the mainstream media disappear to his followers and replacing them with himself as the ultimate arbiter of reality. The Fake Washington Post and the Failing New York Times aren’t going anywhere. For the Trump minority, though, they have ceased to exist.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

In ‘The Post,’ Spielberg offers a hopeful message for our Trumpian times

Spielberg’s Nixon is the proto-Trump. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Movies about historical events are often meant to tell us more about the present than the past, especially in the hands of an overly earnest director like Steven Spielberg. His 2012 film “Lincoln,” for instance, depicted a president who didn’t let his high principles get in the way of some down-and-dirty dealmaking with recalcitrant members of Congress. You know, just like Obama should have been doing.

Spielberg’s latest, “The Post,” is more deft and subtle than “Lincoln.” Still, it serves as much as a commentary on current-day events as it does as a drama about the press and the Pentagon Papers. Then as now, The New York Times and The Washington Post were competing to expose high-level government wrongdoing. Then as now, their nemesis was a vindictive president who hated the press. The message, at least for the anti-Trump audience that is most likely to be enthralled by “The Post,” is that journalism will save us. Help is on the way.

The Pentagon Papers were the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. The documents showed that President Lyndon Johnson and other administration officials were aware that the war was going badly even as they publicly professed optimism — and thus allowed American soldiers to be killed for what they knew was a lost cause. This was especially galling to Richard Nixon, who was president in 1971, when the documents were leaked, and who was prosecuting the war with cruel gusto. The Times got and published the papers first, and Times partisans are grousing that Spielberg should have made a movie about that instead. For instance, Roy Harris wrote for Poynter that “the overall story of the Pentagon Papers as journalism seems somehow twisted by the Post-centric focus of the movie.”

Critics are missing the point. The Times gets its full due in “The Post” for breaking the story. But Post executive editor Ben Bradlee’s fierce attempt to play catch-up, and publisher Katharine Graham’s courageous decision to publish the documents against the advice of her lawyers and advisers, was a signal moment in American journalism, establishing the Post as the near-equal of the mighty Times.

The script for “The Post” reads like it was ripped from the pages of Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History,” and from David Halberstam’s magnum opus about The Washington Post and several other media institutions, “The Powers That Be.” The Post of 1971 was a financially marginal regional paper with more in common with The Boston Globe or The Philadelphia Inquirer than with the Times. Graham decided to raise much-needed cash by reorganizing the paper as a publicly traded company. The crisis over the Pentagon Papers blew up at exactly the same moment, putting the Post in real danger: if it published the documents and was found to have broken the law, its initial public offering could go down the tubes and the company could go out of business.

Graham made her decision after being called away from a social event, a sequence that is depicted faithfully in the movie. “Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish,’” Graham wrote in “Personal History.” And she quotes Bradlee as saying later:

That was a key moment in the life of this paper. It was just sort of the graduation of the Post into the highest ranks. One of our unspoken goals was to get the world to refer to the Post and The New York Times in the same breath, which they previously hadn’t done. After the Pentagon Papers, they did.

The U.S. Supreme Court ended up vindicating both the Times and the Post by ruling, 6-3, that the Nixon administration’s attempts to prevent publication were an unconstitutional abridgement of the First Amendment. As my WGBH News fellow contributor Harvey Silverglate wrote in The Boston Phoenix some years ago, that didn’t stop Nixon from attempting to prosecute the newspapers under the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I that is still with us. But Nixon’s efforts went nowhere.

“The Post” is not an eat-your-broccoli movie. It’s highly entertaining. Tom Hanks is terrific as Bradlee, and Meryl Streep turns in an accurate Graham, though it sometimes feels more like an elaborate impersonation than a fully realized role.

Streep’s Graham is the center of a subplot that, again, has as much to do with 2018 as it does with 1971. Although Graham had been leading the Post since 1963, when her husband, Phil Graham, shot himself in an apparent suicide, in “The Post” we see her grow and, finally, embrace her leadership role in a way that she hadn’t before. It’s a tale of female empowerment that is especially relevant right now. As my Northeastern colleague Meg Heckman wrote for USA Today:

In a refreshing departure from the shallow, oversexualized way Hollywood typically depicts women in journalism, Meryl Streep portrays Graham as a serious newspaperwoman navigating complex social and political challenges. Her role should be a blueprint for a new kind of popular culture, one that helps repair a climate where, as the #MeToo movement has revealed, media companies routinely get away with allowing sexual harassment and assault to fester.

One of my favorite characters in “The Post” is Nixon himself, whom we see back-to through a White House window, talking on the phone and threatening his enemies in the press. (We hear actual tapes of the Trickster.) And that brings me back to what “The Post” is really about.

In Donald Trump we have a president who hates the media and threatens his enemies like none since Nixon. Like Nixon, Trump is being investigated on multiple fronts — by House and Senate committees, by a special counsel, and by The New York Times and The Washington Post. Spielberg, in effect, is offering us a soothing message: Our institutions work. Look at what happened the last time.

But the past is not always prologue. The world of the 1970s was one without Fox, without alternative facts, and without a president who denounced press coverage he didn’t like as “fake news.” This time around, not only is it unclear whether the truth will be revealed — it’s even more unclear whether it will even matter.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Clinton’s comeback is like nothing since Richard Nixon’s

comparing-hillary-clinton-to-nixon-may-actually-work-in-her-favor
Public domain photos via Business Insider.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Hillary Clinton had seemed like the inevitable Democratic nominee for so long—not just in the current campaign, but eight years ago as well—that she tends not to get the credit she’s due for what is by any measure a remarkable accomplishment.

And it’s not just that she’s the first woman to become the presumptive nominee of a major party, though that is legitimately a big deal. She also staged a comeback unlike any in recent political history. Since her enemies like to compare her to Richard Nixon, she ought to get the benefit of that comparison as well—as she does in a piece by Peter Beinart at the Atlantic, who writes:

In purely political terms, Clinton’s victory—after losing the Democratic nomination in 2008—constitutes the greatest comeback by a presidential candidate since Richard Nixon won the Republican nomination in 1968, after losing the presidential election of 1960.

Clinton’s fall from grace eight years ago was more devastating than we might remember, Beinart argues, noting that major party figures such as Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy, and Chuck Schumer were so appalled at the prospect of a Clinton campaign that they urged Barack Obama (some openly, some privately) to run against her. Civil-rights leader John Lewis even unendorsed her and switched to Obama.

“Over the past 30 years, no American political figure has absorbed as many blows as Clinton,” Beinart writes. “And none has responded with more tenacity and grit.”

That theme is also reflected in Amy Chozick’s “how she won” story in the New York Times: “She may not be the orator President Obama is, or the retail politician her husband was. But Mrs. Clinton’s steely fortitude in this campaign has plainly inspired older women, black voters and many others who see in her perseverance a kind of mirror to their own struggles.”

Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, Karen Tumulty reminds us of Clinton’s shortcomings as a politician: “Not one for mega-rallies, she prefers small, scripted settings where she can discuss the policy intricacies of heroin addiction, mental health treatment, college debt or gun control—all the while keeping her campaign press corps at arm’s length. There have also been times when her tone-deafness could be spectacular.”

Thanks to the Associated Press’s questionable decision to proclaim Clinton the presumptive nominee on Monday evening (see this Facebook post by Bill Mitchell of Poynter), today’s headlines are anticlimactic. The print edition of the Times leads with “Clinton Claims the Democratic Nomination,” which feels like an update of Tuesday’s awkward banner: “Clinton Reaches Historic Mark, A.P. Says.” Today’s Post offers “Clinton celebrates victory,” and it’s less than a full page across. On Monday the Post went six columns with “Clinton reaches magic number for historic nomination.”

As of Wednesday morning, Bernie Sanders is vowing to stay in the race even though Clinton has now won a majority of pledged delegates as well as superdelegates, and has received nearly 3.7 million more votes. Media and political voices are strongly suggesting Sanders’s refusal to concede might change over the next few days as reality sinks in for him and his supporters.

But after reading this piece in Politico by Edward-Isaac Dovere and Gabriel Debenedetti, I’m not so sure. According to their reporting, Sanders is the chief hothead in his own campaign, continually overruling his advisers in favor of more aggression. “More than any of them,” they write, “Sanders is himself filled with resentment, on edge, feeling like he gets no respect—all while holding on in his head to the enticing but remote chance that Clinton may be indicted before the convention.”

So much for party unity. Then again, the self-styled democratic socialist has only been a Democrat for a few months.

Finally, Tuesday may have been Hillary Clinton’s day, but the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, came close to dominating it, as he does in practically every news cycle.

This time it wasn’t a matter of the cable networks giving him more attention than he deserved. Instead, there was actual news, as Republicans staged a collective freakout over Trump’s racist statements about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, as Matt Viser reports in the Boston Globe; House Speaker Paul Ryan denounced Trump’s comments as “racist” while sticking by his endorsement (“Everywhere Paul Ryan turns, there’s the smell of Trump” is the headline on Dana Milbank’s Washington Post column); and Trump himself issued a nonapology in the afternoon while delivering a rare prepared speech at night in which he viciously attacked Clinton but avoided his usual excesses.

At this point, conservatives are hopelessly divided over how they should respond to the demagogue at the top of the GOP ticket. A Wall Street Journal editorial criticizes conservatives for pressuring Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to abandon Trump, while Jonah Goldberg of National Review, a leading anti-Trump conservative journal, blasts Ryan for not being tough enough: “Because Trump did nothing to earn Ryan’s endorsement, the presumptive nominee may conclude that he needn’t negotiate with the GOP establishment; he can just count on its eventual submission.”

Meanwhile, at the Weekly Standard—whose editor, Bill Kristol, has been unsuccessfully trying to convince a conservative to mount an independent campaign—Jay Cost pens an open letter to Mitt Romney begging the former Massachusetts governor to run. Cost begins:

I write to you not as a fellow conservative, not as a fellow partisan, but as a citizen of our republic. You have served your nation admirably for many years and by any ordinary standard are entitled to a happy retirement. But these are extraordinary times, and your nation still has need of your service. I respectfully implore you to run for president as an independent candidate in 2016.

It’s not likely to happen. Even if a significant number of voters could be persuaded to support an independent, it may be too late for such a candidate to get on the ballot in enough states for it to matter. (I should note that the Libertarian ticket of former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld is in fact on the ballot in all 50 states.)

Still, Cost’s desperate plea is a sign of the straits in which the Republicans find themselves with Trump at the top of the ticket.

Someone pointed out the other day that the Iowa caucuses were just four months ago, whereas we still have five months to go before the November election. If you’re sick of this campaign, you’re far from alone. Unfortunately, we’ve just gotten started.

Trump channels his inner Nixon in attacks on the press

NIXONcampaigns
Now more than ever: Nixon campaigning in Philadelphia in 1968. Photo (cc) via Wikipedia.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

More than 40 years after he resigned as president, Richard Nixon remains the lodestar for political skullduggery. And so it was when Donald Trump threatened to retaliate against Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos in response to news that the Post is siccing 20 reporters on Trump to look into every aspect of his life and career.

Details about the Post’s Trump project, which will include a book, emanated from the lips of Post associate editor Bob Woodward, a twist that made it all the more cosmically significant. For it was Woodward, along with fellow Post reporter Carl Bernstein, who helped end Nixon’s presidency in 1974—but not before the Post had endured some fearsome attacks from the Nixon White House that threatened not just the newspaper but the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press.

As you may have heard, Bezos’s day job is running Amazon, the online retailing behemoth that he founded. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, told Fox News host Sean Hannity that Amazon has “a huge antitrust problem” and “is getting away with murder, tax-wise.” He added that Bezos is “using the Washington Post for power so that the politicians in Washington don’t tax Amazon like they should be taxed.”

Never mind that there is zero evidence for Trump’s accusation. His implied threat was utterly Nixonian in its stark assertion that he’d use the powers of government to harm Bezos in retaliation for journalism that he doesn’t like.

The roots of Nixon’s hatred for the Post extend back to the 1950s. David Halberstam, in his book The Powers That Be, wrote that it began over the cartoonist Herbert Block. Herblock, as he was known, regularly portrayed Nixon as a malign figure with a perpetual five-o’clock shadow, and his work was syndicated in hundreds of papers around the country. According to Halberstam, Herblock’s cartoons “became part of Nixon’s permanent dossier, reflecting all the public doubts and questions about him.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s, though, that Nixon attempted to translate that anger into action. In 1971, the Post joined the New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War, which showed that American officials had continued the fighting out of political cowardice for years after concluding that it was unwinnable.

According to then-publisher Katharine Graham in her autobiography, Personal History, the Nixon White House issued “a not very veiled threat” that the paper might face a criminal prosecution if it didn’t turn over its copy of the Pentagon Papers to the government. At the time, the Post was on the verge of becoming a publicly traded company, and it would have been devastating to the paper’s plan to raise money from the stock market if it had been convicted of a crime. And as my fellow WGBH News contributor Harvey Silverglate wrote for the Phoenix newspapers some years back, the Nixon administration actually considered prosecuting the Times and the Post even after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the papers’ right to publish.

Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate scandal brought about perhaps the most infamous threat ever made against a newspaper. When Bernstein asked Nixon henchman John Mitchell to comment on a particularly damaging story, Mitchell responded: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” More substantively, Nixon allies arose from the swamp to challenge the Post’s ownership of two television stations in Florida—challenges that faded away once Nixon had resigned from office.

“Henry Kissinger told me he felt that Nixon had always hated the Post,” Graham wrote, quoting Kissinger as saying of Nixon: “He was convinced that the Post had it in for him.” As Graham described it, the Post’s reporting on Nixon during the Watergate years became an existential crisis. If the paper hadn’t been able to prove Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-in and related crimes and thus force Nixon from office, the Post itself would have been destroyed.

Although the showdown between Nixon and the Post is the most dramatic example of the government’s attempting to destroy its journalistic adversaries, it is not the only one.

In the early days of World War II, after Colonel Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune reported that the United States may have cracked Japanese codes, President Franklin Roosevelt considered trying McCormick for treason, which could have resulted in the death penalty. FDR was talked out of it only because his advisers convinced him that such a drastic measure would only serve to alert the Japanese.

More recently, President George W. Bush’s Justice Department raised the possibility that the New York Times and the Washington Post could be prosecuted under espionage laws for reporting on a National Security Agency surveillance program (the Times) and on the rendition of terrorism suspects to countries that engage in torture (the Post).

And, of course, there is President Barack Obama’s relentless pursuit of government officials who leak information to the media—a pursuit that has ensnared a number of journalists, including James Risen of the New York Times. Risen fought the government for seven years so that he wouldn’t have to reveal the identity of the sources who had told him how the CIA had sought to wreak havoc with Iran’s nuclear program. Last year Risen called the Obama administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”

But note that Roosevelt’s, Bush’s, and Obama’s attacks on the press were grounded in legitimate concerns about national security, misguided though Bush may have been and Obama may be. (It’s hard to argue with FDR’s fury at McCormick, whose actions would not be protected by even the most expansive reading of the First Amendment.)

By contrast, Trump, like Nixon during Watergate, would go after the press purely for personal reasons—not by denouncing the media (or, rather, not just by denouncing the media) but by abusing his powers as president. Bring negative information to light about Nixon and you might lose your television stations. Report harshly on Trump and your tax status might be threatened—and you may even face an antitrust suit.

This is the way authoritarians reinforce their power—through fear and intimidation, the rule of law be damned. Despite all the benefit he has received in the form of free media, Trump hates the press. He has threatened to rewrite the libel laws, and now he’s threatened the owner of one of our great newspapers.

Trump is a menace on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. But we can add this: Like Nixon, he is a threat to the First Amendment, our most important tool in holding the government accountable to the governed.

The case against Henry Kissinger—and why it still matters

Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger at the Atlantic Council Distinguished Leadership Awards 2013. Photo (cc) by the Atlantic Council.
Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger at the Atlantic Council Distinguished Leadership Awards in 2013. Photo (cc) by the Atlantic Council.

Henry Kissinger is back in the news thanks to Bernie Sanders, who went after Hillary Clinton at Thursday night’s debate for taking Kissinger’s advice. “I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend,” Sanders said, to which Clinton replied: “I listen to a wide variety of voices that have expertise in various areas.” (I am not doing the full exchange justice. Click here for the debate transcript and search for “Kissinger.”)

In following the debate on Twitter, I was surprised at the extent to which people seemed bemused that Sanders would bring up someone who hasn’t served in public office for 40 years. Yet Sanders’s critique certainly struck me as relevant. To this day, many observers refer to Kissinger as a war criminal for his actions as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state. And, frankly, the case against him is strong, particularly with regard to the Nixon administration’s secret war in Cambodia and its role in the overthrow and assassination of Chile’s elected socialist president, Salvador Allende.

In 2001 the late journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote a 40,000-word, two-part article for Harper’s that was later published as a book called The Trial of Henry Kissinger. I wrote about Hitchens’s polemic for The Boston Phoenix, summarizing Hitchens’s evidence in some detail and comparing it to what other Kissinger biographers had found. My conclusion: a bit simplistic but compelling nevertheless.

So how closely associated is Hillary Clinton with Henry Kissinger? Certainly there’s an element of guilt-by-association in Sanders’s accusation, which is his M.O. Count me as among those who are tired of Sanders’s constant insinuations that anyone who takes campaign contributions from Wall Street is by definition corrupt.

Still, this New York Times piece by Amy Chozick makes clear that Clinton didn’t just accidentally bump into Kissinger one night at Zumba class. Chozick points out that when Clinton reviewed Kissinger’s book World Order for The Washington Post, Clinton wrote: “Kissinger is a friend, and I relied on his counsel when I served as secretary of state.” Clinton continued: “He checked in with me regularly, sharing astute observations about foreign leaders and sending me written reports on his travels.”

I don’t think we have to worry that Clinton will be giving the 92-year-old Kissinger an office at the White House if she is elected president. Still, Sanders has identified not just a political problem for Clinton but a substantive one. She needs to address it.

Woodward: The Post is ‘more authoritative’ than the Times

5165378988_992ac1351a_b
Woodward in 2010. Photo (cc) by Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Is The Washington Post “more authoritative” than The New York Times? You might expect investigative reporting legend Bob Woodward to say so. After all, Woodward has spent nearly his entire career at the Post, and institutional loyalty runs deep.

Still, Woodward’s remarks — delivered at a stop on his latest book tour Tuesday night in Harvard Square — come at a time when they’re likely to garner more attention than they otherwise might. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who bought the Post from the Graham family nearly two years ago, is sinking money and resources into the paper. And media analysts like Ken Doctor are saying that the Post is making its first serious run at the Times in many years.

Asked by a member of the audience about changes in the media business, Woodward responded with an unsolicited paean to Bezos. “I think he’s helping us as a business,” Woodward said. “It’s a better website. I find things much more authoritative, quite frankly, than The New York Times, to be honest.”

And when asked by his interlocutor, Washington insider-turned-Harvard academic David Gergen, whether newspapers remain committed to investigative reporting, Woodward replied: “I know The Washington Post is, because I asked Jeff Bezos. He has the money. We talked about this. He said I could quote him on this, and I will. He said, ‘Rest assured, Marty’ — Baron, the editor — ‘will have the resources he needs.’”

Woodward will forever be remembered as one-half of the twentysomething reporting duo (with Carl Bernstein) who broke open the Watergate story and brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. Now a no-longer-boyish 72, Woodward was on hand to promote his latest book, “The Last of the President’s Men.” In it, Woodward tells the story of Alexander Butterfield, the Nixon aide who revealed the existence of the White House taping system before a congressional committee, thus providing the evidence that Nixon really was a crook.

Several hundred people crowded into the First Parish Church for Woodward’s reading, sponsored by the Harvard Book Store. The book is based on some 40 hours’ worth of interviews Woodward conducted with Butterfield, as well as a trove of documents. Butterfield, Woodward said, provided invaluable insights into the inner workings of the Nixon White House, especially of the early years. “For two years, there was no taping system,” he said. “In a sense Butterfield became the tape recorder.”

The event began on a light-hearted note, with Gergen — who served four presidents, including Nixon — asking, “When did you all sense that you were on to something much bigger than you’d thought?” Woodward’s response: “When Nixon resigned.”

The conversation, though, took a darker turn as Woodward described Nixon’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation in “The Last of the President’s Men” is that Nixon ordered more and more bombs to be dropped during 1972 — the year he was up for re-election — even though he secretly acknowledged it had accomplished “zilch.” The reason, Woodward said, was that polling showed the bombing campaign was popular with the American public.

“It’s close to a war crime,” Woodward said.

Equally nauseating was Nixon’s response to journalist Seymour Hersh’s revelation in 1969 that American troops had massacred civilians in the village of My Lai. Nixon ordered Butterfield to go after everyone involved in exposing it, including the soldier who blew the whistle, Life and Time magazines and a perceived enemy who Woodward said was described by Nixon as “a liberal Jew.”

The mood brightened considerably when Gergen asked Woodward how he would go about investigating the leading 2016 presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Woodward said he would talk about Trump first, and then brought down the house with this: “Can we ask the audience a question? How many people want the next president to be somebody who has no touch with reality?”

As for Clinton, Woodward turned the tables and questioned Gergen.

Woodward: “You worked with her.”

Gergen: “I did.”

Woodward: “Do you trust her?”

Gergen paused before answering: “I have found — I don’t think she — I don’t think she tells lies. I think she’s careful with the truth.”

Woodward, after the laughs had faded away: “You didn’t get to work for all these presidents for no reason.”

Notwithstanding Woodward’s enthusiasm for Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the Post, his talk was, in some respects, an elegy for the kind of journalism Woodward represents. Whether you prefer the Post or the Times, at their best they stand for a rigor that often seems to be on the wane.

For all the faults of the 1970s-era press, there was something approaching a national consensus that made it possible for a story like Watergate to keep building. These days, the media are too fragmented, with too many so-called news outlets aligned with partisan interests. Fox News chief Roger Ailes would release his flying monkeys to go after the liberal media and it would all end in a standoff.

Though Woodward’s establishment-oriented journalism is sometimes criticized, including by none other than the aforementioned Hersh, he nevertheless represents something important: the power of the press to do good through thorough, indefatigable reporting aimed at rooting out the truth rather than serving some ideological cause.

Thanks for the assist from Kylie Ayal, a third-year journalism student at Boston University, who supplied me with a copy of her audio file of the event after I managed to erase mine by mistake.

On Greenwald, Kinsley is both right and wrong

Michael Kinsley
Michael Kinsley

A few thoughts about Michael Kinsley’s much-criticized New York Times review of Glenn Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide,” an account of his role in the Edward Snowden leaks.

Kinsley is technically correct in asserting that the government has — and should have — the final word when it comes to deciding whether secret information should be made public. Thus I part company with the likes of Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan, who, in a post headlined “Michael Kinsley Comes Out Against Journalism,” fulminates: “Michael Kinsley does not believe that a free press should be allowed to [expose official secrets]. He believes that the decision to tell government secrets ‘must ultimately be made by the government.'”

It’s Nolan’s “should be allowed” that bears scrutiny. In fact, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the government may act to prevent secrets from being revealed if those revelations would cause a serious breach of national security. Here is how the Court put it in the 1931 case of Near v. Minnesota:

No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops.

The government may also prosecute both leakers and journalists post-publication, as a majority of the Court all but invited the Nixon administration to do in the Pentagon Papers case — and as Harvey Silverglate explains in this 2006 Boston Phoenix essay.

If you think about it, how could it be otherwise? It’s so easy to conjure up scenarios involving nuclear weapons, terrorism and the like under which censorship and prosecution would be justified that it’s not even worth the effort to spell them out (although Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes tried to do just that in Near).

But I emphatically part company with Kinsley over his sneering, dismissive tone, and his shocking failure to understand the role of a free press (or even a press that’s not quite as free as Hamilton Nolan imagines) in a democratic society. Because if the ultimate authority rests with the government, there are nevertheless times when leakers, individual journalists and the institutional press must stand up to the government and risk its wrath in order to serve the public interest. That’s what The New York Times and The Washington Post did in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own secret history of the Vietnam War.

And I would argue that that’s what Snowden, Greenwald, Barton Gellman (curiously absent from Special Agent Kinsley’s arrest warrant), The Guardian and The Washington Post did in exposing the NSA’s practices.

I wrote more about the legal background for The Huffington Post last June.

Photo (cc) by the Aspen Institute and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.