General Michael Flynn’s resignation Monday night as Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the ever-lengthening chain of events leading up to his announcement. More to the point, no one who knows even a smidgen about Washington’s political sphere and its symbiotic relationship with the media, came away from Flynn’s fall from grace with more than a shrug and an “I told you so.”
During a White House press conference the following day, press secretary Sean Spicer used the word “trust” dozens of times to describe what no longer existed between Mr. Trump and Gen. Flynn. When pressed by the media for additional details about Flynn’s resignation, Spicer suggested the media was following the wrong story, that the real story was about the leaks from the White House, and how government employees pass information to the media.
The problem for Trump and his people is that they are not—by choice—of the political sphere, and they do not understand, or want to understand, the symbiosis necessary to maintaining what is admittedly a delicate balance between an administration’s need to gather and process information vital to national security, and the media’s need to inform the public about actions related to the information. Information and inform. The core creatures of the symbiosis.
Two events during John F. Kennedy’s brief administration illustrates both sides of the symbiotic coin: the Bay of Pigs in 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
When there is no symbiosis—no trust—between the White House and the media, a botched and ugly event like the Bay of Pigs gets uglier quickly, and the raft of dissembling stories that flowed from the White House (or the stories that were kept locked away), did nothing to inspire trust between the president and the media who reported on him. It also did nothing to bolster trust between Kennedy and other world leaders who looked on in amazement at the bollixed operation.
When the symbiosis works, it looks something like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, where President Kennedy, having been briefed on Cuba’s buildup of missiles capable of striking the United States, and, having been given several options of response, requested television time on the three major networks on Monday evening, October 22. In his address, Kennedy laid out what information he had—pictures and all—and what his response to Cuba and the Soviet Union would be. President Kennedy’s remarks were strong, focused, and reassuring, not only to Americans, but to other world leaders sitting on the edges of their seats:
“I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations. I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination and join in an historic effort to end the perilous arms race and transform the history of man.”
Contrast President Kennedy’s remarks 55 years ago, to this statement from White House advisor Stephen Miller during a recent Sunday news show: “Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” And, of course, Donald Trump’s persistent disparagement of the media is incomparable to any past president’s relationship with the Fourth Estate.
No matter what demeaning words about the media spread from this White House, it’s very important to understand that the media gets no pass just for being the media. It is not enough to exist under the quasi-protection of the First Amendment, which, when read closely, says only that the “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”. A proscription against Congressional fiat does not, alone, imbue a reporter or a news organization with an inalienable, unfettered, right to write and be credible. It is the public’s opinion of the media that gives, or takes away, the media’s power of the press.
Alexander Hamilton said it best when he wrote in Federalist 84:
What signifies a declaration, that ‘the liberty of the press shall be inviolably preserved’? What is the liberty of the press? Who can give it any definition which would not leave the utmost latitude for evasion? I hold it to be impracticable; and from this I infer, that its security, whatever fine declarations may be inserted in any constitution respecting it, must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government. And here, after all, as is intimated upon another occasion, must we seek for the only solid basis of all our rights.
Public trust in the media can be rendered ephemeral by a mere whiff of disbelief or government-promoted fear (real or manufactured). When we, as journalists, do not enjoy a large percentage of favorable ratings by the public for whom we write or broadcast, our freedom is vulnerable.
We are vulnerable now to forces pressing on us from many directions, directions unimagined by the Founders or even journalists of 40 years ago. One instrument of those forces resides in the coat pocket or bedside table of the Chief Executive—it is a cell phone linked to Twitter, which, in turn, is linked to millions of Americans who believe more in his incoming tweets than they do in all the words we write or speak against him. That is his steamroller, and he, his staff, and his followers are driving it straight for us.
I believe we must resist the desire to build a barricade and fight from its ramparts. We must, instead, stand firmly in front of the oncoming machine, reporting at every moment, never blinking, and let the public see what our freedom looks like when it is truly threatened. Remember a man, a tank, and Tiananmen Square.
This is our moment in the square.