Enemy of the People: Trump's War on the Press, with Marvin Kalb

Nov 12, 2018

Trump has a love-hate relationship with the press, which he calls "the enemy of the people" when it crosses him, knowing nothing of the origins of the phrase, says Marvin Kalb. Yet the pillars of democracy are the sanctity of the court and the freedom of the press. "I think that President Trump—not wittingly, unwittingly—is moving this nation away from our common understanding of democracy toward something that edges toward authoritarianism."

JOANNE MYERS: Good morning, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you for beginning your day with us.

Our speaker is the legendary award-winning journalist Marvin Kalb. He will be discussing his latest book, entitled Enemy of the People: Trump's War on the Press, the New McCarthyism, and the Threat to American Democracy. In it he expresses his concerns about Donald Trump's unrelenting attacks on the press and what this portends for the future of American democracy. We are delighted to welcome him back to this podium.

Within a month after assuming office, President Trump began tweeting that fake news media was an "enemy of the American people." And he hasn't stopped. Attacks on the media have been a hallmark of his presidential campaign and reflect the style in which he governs.

For a journalist of long standing, this rhetoric to delegitimize the work of the press, at least those outlets that are critical of Trump, has sown confusion in the public's mind about what's real and what isn't, what can be trusted and what cannot, about what is truth and what is falsehood. While assaults on the press aren't new, for Mr. Kalb the vitriol directed at the press at this time and the words "enemy of the people" uttered by dictators throughout world history served as his red line, compelling him to leave the journalistic cloak of objectivity behind and speak out.

Mr. Kalb writes that "When Trump attacks the press . . . he is attacking one of the foundations of American democracy. The Founding Fathers deliberately placed 'freedom of the press' into the First Amendment to the Constitution, because they understood that only this 'fourth branch of government' could keep the other three in line. Far from the press being 'the enemy of the American people,' it is a foundation of freedom and democracy—and therefore should be cherished, not criticized, strengthened, not undercut and undervalued."

There is no one who understands this more than our guest this morning, who for more than six decades has embodied the ideals, vision, and excellence of the Fourth Estate.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest today, Marvin Kalb.

MARVIN KALB: Thank you very much, Joanne.

It's a pleasure for me to be back here. I was speaking with Joanne about the book that brought me here six or seven years ago, but I'd forgotten. So forgive me.

She in her introduction really hit the major points, but I'd like to review a couple of them.

This is a book that I did not want to write, that's number one. I did not want to write it because I didn't ever want to, frankly, be crowded into believing that a fundamental pillar of American democracy was suddenly being threatened. That simply didn't enter my mind.

On February 17th of 2017, I was going to be doing a talk at a club down in Washington. My speech was already written. In mid-afternoon I got a call from a friend of mine who works at the White House. I have one or two who work at the White House.

He asked me, "You're going to be talking about the press tonight?"

I said, "Yes."

He said, "You better aware of something that the president is going to be saying."

I said, "What is that?"

He said, "Well, the president is going to call the American press 'the enemy of the American people."

I laughed, literally, thinking that, There goes my friend. He's joking once again.

He said, "I'm not kidding. That is exactly what he said and I'll read it to you," and he read this paragraph including that phrase.

I have to confess to you that I was stunned, I was absolutely stunned. Over the period of the next couple of months I began to think about why it had that impact on me.

The first thing that came to mind was a story that I covered many, many years before in Moscow in February of 1956. At that time, Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, was delivering a very major speech before the 20th Party Congress in Moscow. That was called the "Secret Speech." In it he attacked Joseph Stalin, and he attacked Stalin for having fathered a form of communism that Khrushchev, another good communist, found abhorrent. Khrushchev gave a number of illustrations of the way in which Stalin had perverted communism by carrying it way beyond what Marx might have had in mind.

One of the things he pointed to was the use of the phrase "enemy of the people." Khrushchev said that that is unacceptable because you could name any good communist "an enemy of the people" and then you would have the theoretical backing to get rid of that "enemy." Khrushchev didn't like it.

I was thinking to myself, Here was Khrushchev arguing with another communist about the use of the phrase "enemy of the people" and finding that in communist lexicon that was too much and you can't go down that path. And here was a president, duly elected, in a democracy, using that phrase. And then, obviously, you begin to think about what is on his mind and what is the origin of the phrase.

I believe firmly that President Trump has no idea what the historical origin of the phrase "enemy of the people" is—none. He does not read history books. He does not read books—and he has stated so, by the way. I do not say that pejoratively, but factually. He has stated that he doesn't read books, that every now and then he will read a chapter of a book that is brought to his attention as "something you've got to read." I'm not even sure of that.

But putting that aside for a second, he is not a reader. So where did the phrase get into his head and how? I did a number of calls here and there, and the most interesting story emerged.

Some of you in this room as I look around are old enough to remember Pat Caddell. Pat Caddell was a pollster. Pat worked for Jimmy Carter. In 1975-76 he was the one, not totally but significantly, responsible for the fact that Jimmy Carter, a virtually unknown governor of Georgia, was going to be the president of the United States. Pat had a very good feel for the American people, and he translated that feel into phrases that Carter was to use very successfully to advance his case.

At that time Pat Caddell was very much a man of the left. He is now very much a man of the right. Starting in about 2010, his effort to be published in a number of the major American news organizations failed, and he began to look around for other places.

One of the places he found was Breitbart. Breitbart was an alt-right—still is—website which runs articles that perhaps most of you would not choose to read—likewise with me—but nevertheless I was told that if you want to find out about where Pat is today you've got to go to Breitbart.

So I went to Breitbart, looked up the Pat Caddell contribution. What was very interesting in this connection of the research for this book was Pat got into his head that the American press corps—there's some truth to this—had become so elitist and the bigshots in American journalism had become themselves removed from where the average American citizen was. Whether that's true or not I don't know, and I don't really believe it, but put that aside. That was very much in Pat's mind.

He is the one who came up with the phrase "enemy of the people," and that the American press, by becoming too elitist, too removed from the average citizen, had become a force that operated counter to the interests of the American people, and therefore they were the "enemies" of the American people. Pat knows, because he's a very smart man—at least he was—that the expression has two derivations, one political and one literary.

The political one goes right back to the Roman Empire, when Nero vanished on vacation into Greece while Rome burned, and then he was brought back by the Senate and accused of being an "enemy of the people" and killed. That idea of an established political organization getting to a political figure who had gone astray, bringing him back, accusing him of being the "enemy of the people," everybody that the existing government represented, that guy could then be accused of being the "enemy," and therefore the juridical-political foundation for killing him was established.

That went through the French Revolution, went through all of the minor revolutions and middle-level revolutions of the 19th century.

When it got into the 20th century, it was very much a feature of the far left or the far right. Hitler used it broadly; Hitler used it in a way as to encompass just about everybody. Mussolini used it in a rather elitist way; Mussolini used it to go after specifically certain people who had objected to his rise to power—"They were the enemies; kill them." Hitler more broadly. Stalin used it, as I was saying before with Khrushchev, very widely, and according to Khrushchev wrongly. Mao Zedong used it, but in a communist sense that the "enemy of the people" were the landlords.

But in every way it was a phrase where you could designate part of society as being out of line with what it is that you, as the existing authority in society, determined was the right way to do things—anybody who was a dissident, off to one side, and killed.

Who are the people, therefore, who by their very nature in the 21st century are the obvious "enemies of the people"? Namely, the press, because we are in the middle of everything. We are the people who are seen. When there is a terrible tragedy in California, it is the press today that is reporting that 11 people were murdered. That's the press's job. But at the same time it comes through—or it could come through if you wish it that way—as a negative force.

I don't believe any of this is in Trump's mind. He is using the phrase because it just sounds "right." When he was reading this on Breitbart and hearing it on the Breitbart Radio and it was pushed to him by the man who then ran Breitbart, namely Steve Bannon—and Bannon loves the phrase, uses it all the time, and he picked that up from Pat—that was then brought into the White House, presented to Trump—loved it immediately—and he met Pat Caddell.

Pat then said to him something that, as we all get to know the president, appealed to the president enormously. Pat, psychologically very smart, went to the president and said, "That expression of yours, Mr. President, 'making America great again,' is the greatest political expression in the history of American politics." "Ah," Trump said, "I thought of that." So immediately the bond was established. They had that common thing. So they get on very well.

The expression is in Trump's mind. He has since said, by the way, that of his two favorite expressions, "fake news" and "enemy of the people," "fake news" is better; it accomplishes more the aim that the president is setting out.

Here what I would like to do is divide things in part. One is what is going on in terms of Trump's strategy, and what might be the effect of that strategy whether it is intended or not.

The strategy itself is, as he has said to Lesley Stahl and anybody who will ask him that, and if he is in a candid moment, he will acknowledge right off the idea is to put the press on the defensive and to play on what it is that Spiro Agnew and Nixon started, which was the growth of the Vietnam War and Watergate—that was the larger phenomenon.

In that period of time, if you could get at the people who were reporting on how awful the Vietnam War was—and who were those people? The press. And what were the press saying? That American strategy was no good (it wasn't), that American lives are being lost needlessly (they were). But if you were saying this Johnson didn't want to hear that and Nixon didn't want to hear that.

That then fell into a line that satisfied Nixon's Southern strategy, the whole move to the right in American politics—pushed, by the way, in 1968 by the former governor of Alabama, George Wallace. Wallace, in a way, is the first of the Trumpian politicians. Wallace is the one who first came up with this idea of using the whole right wing of American life and politics as an entity that could oblige and push a certain direction in American politics.

And so it was indeed pushed, and you had Spiro Agnew, that distinguished vice president, speaking about "the nattering nabobs of negativism." It didn't take with everybody. It took with the people Nixon needed throughout the South in order to ensure his election and then reelection in 1972.

Worked like a dream. It had a racist appeal. There was white nationalism built into it. There was anti-Semitism built into it. The anti-press factor just naturally came along, as if the dog is walking behind you and you just pull it along and it comes. That is what happened.

Bannon fits into that and Trump fits into that. If you can use an anti-press line to attract a whole group of your supporters and lock them in, that's a good, comfortable feeling for any politician.

That is what Trump is doing. It's not that he is anti-press—he's not. He uses the press constantly.

We were chatting earlier about what can the press do to fight it. Not very much in my opinion. He has the press in his grip and he is using it now very effectively in terms of building, maintaining, and solidifying his support in the entire right wing of American politics.

The independence, as we learned on Tuesday of this week, of breaking free of Trumpian—I'm trying to think of a word that fits in here that's fantasia and nuttiness, but you'll figure it out—but they're trying to do this. I think that right now the entire American political structure is sort of moving away from Trump, that middle ground is moving away, but we're not quite there yet. So the president can use that, and use it very effectively.

My concern in the writing of this book was not so much what is in Trump's head and his intent as what the effect of it could be. Here I found myself delving into memories. One of the memories concerned someone who Tom Fenton will know very well, and that is Ed Murrow, who in 1957—I must say I still treasure this thought—was the guy who hired me at CBS. I had the opportunity from 1957 until 1960, the tail end of 1960 when Murrow left, to have quite a few conversations with this man. He was very much my idol. I thought the world of him and still do.

One of the things that Murrow told me was of a conversation that he had with an Oxford don who asked Murrow for a definition of freedom.

Murrow said, "Democracy."

The don said, "No, that's not good enough. Spell that out for me."

What Murrow said was that in his mind "democracy," this word, stands on two essential pillars. One pillar he described as the sanctity of the court, by which he meant no one stands above the law. On the other side was the freedom of the press. Murrow's idea was that if you had those two standing or holding up the foundation of democracy, your society was in good shape. You are going to manage and maintain that democracy, if the word itself continued to have meaning—and this gets tricky.

"Democracy" is a word. It has meaning because we vest in that word certain value systems. If we don't put what we feel democracy is into the word itself, it's a word which you can throw out. It could be a like a leaf in the wind—it's there but gone. But it is firm if you truly believe that democracy represents certain value systems, such as the sanctity of the court and the freedom of the press.

That idea stuck in my mind. I was privileged to read a speech that the late Justice Douglas delivered in 1976 at a State Washington Bar Association meeting in Washington. The tail end of that speech really grabbed me, and I began to think about it years ago, and it has very much stuck in my mind.

He raises a question. In 1976 Justice Douglas was concerned about the stability of American democracy. Why? Because we had just emerged out of the terrible experience of the Vietnam War on the military side and the Watergate scandal on the political side. And it had shaken the system. There's no doubt of that.

On April 31 of 1975, when the North Vietnamese came in and took over South Vietnam, it shook the political-cultural establishment in the United States and people were looking for "enemies of the people," and the right wing fastened onto the press as having covered the war in the wrong way, and that meant that there was something profoundly wrong with one of the pillars of American democracy.

Douglas wrote that when political systems shift from, let us say, democracy to authoritarianism, or even further to autocracy, it doesn't happen one morning at 8:38 and we hereby pronounced that this democracy is now an authoritarian government. He said it happens in phases.

There is a wonderful book written by two young Harvard scholars that came out a couple of months ago in which they descry themselves that governments today that are moving away from the democracy that we have all known through most of our lives into something like authoritarianism are doing it as a result of elected officials moving then toward authoritarianism—not somebody like Hitler who emerges or a general who emerges, no—a politician duly elected, then using the existing levers of government to shift the meaning of that word "democracy" in another direction.

Douglas spoke of three phases. In that first phase, he said—and I'm giving it a little poetry here—that you will get up in the morning and you'll look around your bedroom and everything looks the same, and you go to work and the buses are running, and your boss is still there as nasty as ever, and everything is normal. You go home, whatever—fine.

Then you move into the second of three phases. Everything continues to look the same—the bus driver is still there, the job is still there, and the boss is still a nuisance—but you know in the pit of your stomach that something has gone wrong. There is something going on here that isn't right. You think you know it, you're not sure you know it, but in the pit of your stomach something has happened.

Then you get into the third phase—this is all Douglas, not Marvin—and in the third phase it breaks into two parts. One part is you get up in the morning and the sun is still shining and you feel pretty good about yourself, and then you say, "What was wrong with me yesterday? I thought something was wrong. Nothing is wrong. Everything is fine. You're a fool. Get about your job and let's get going." That's the good side.

The second phase of that could be that you get up in that third phase and it's dark outside. Suddenly you realize that what was in the pit of your stomach is now an established fact, and there are things that you thought you could do that you no longer can do. You thought you had this kind of assurance based on your understanding of democracy, but you no longer have that assurance. What has changed? You're not sure, but things have definitely changed.

And then he raises a very interesting question: What becomes your individual responsibility as a citizen of this country? If you know in the pit of your stomach that something is wrong and you do nothing about it, then when you're in the third phase, in darkness, don't complain then. You become what Douglas described as "the unwitting victim of the darkness."

Then, when you think back to the second phase and you say: "Could I have done something?" "Probably yes, but why didn't I? I don't know. I just didn't."

That is the issue that he raises, and I find it very relevant to what is happening today. In my opinion, totally dismissible—believe me; my wife does that quite regularly— but it's something that I feel very seriously.

I think that President Trump—not wittingly, unwittingly—is moving this nation away from our common understanding of democracy toward something that edges toward authoritarianism.

I'll mention this, probably I hope in perspective, a very small thing that happened yesterday at the White House. Jim Acosta, who is a CNN reporter and a very aggressive, good, sort of Sam Donaldson-type reporter when it comes to dealing with the president, believes, as Sam believed, that you ask questions.

The White House is set up so that—they are very sophisticated people—they know how to arrange public relations. They know when they want a reporter to ask a question and they know very well when they don't want him to ask a question.

The president yesterday has a news conference. Why? Because he lost the House. But that's not what you say. You say it has been a great triumph. How do you say that to the American people? You say it at a news conference. Who carries the message? The press carries the message. You can't stand on top of a roof and shout "Triumph!" and that will be the end of it. The press does it.

So you need the press, and Trump needs the press. He's got a love/hate relationship with the press. He loves it, but when the press does something that is not in his mind what he thought it was going to do, he becomes its enemy, it becomes the "enemy of the people."

I go back to the sanctity of the courts. Trump believes that the attorney general of the United States is not the number one law enforcement officer of the country, but rather his own personal attorney and is there to look after his own interests. That's not quite the way it was set up, but that is in his mind. There is no question about that.

And there are other things in his mind, too, as the press being an agent of his manipulation, and that it is supposed to do what he wants it to do, and that when it does not operate that way it then becomes the "enemy of the people." These are just too easy. I could go on, but I'm looking at the clock and I can't go on too long.

But there is a feeling that I sense—hardly the only one. There are all kinds of people I bump into all the time who have that feeling that you have in the second phase: everything in Washington right now is gorgeous, the leaves are turning color, everything is beautiful, you take a walk out in any suburb and you take a deep breath and you feel good about being an American—except there's something in the pit of your stomach that tells you something is up and it's not a good thing.

That is the reason I felt the need to write this book. It's the smallest book I've ever done—it's 160 pages—but I felt that I got what I wanted to say into that brief book.

This is the 16th book I've done. I have no idea if I would rank this among the better books. But it is what I felt had to be said now, and so I said it.

I'll be very happy to take your questions. Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you. Good to see you, Marvin.

I want to go to the point you made about individual responsibility and collective responsibility. It is perfectly clear that if any individual speaks up to this president he just demolishes that individual in ways that I think all of us are a bit shocked by and are tragic.

But yesterday was a good example with Acosta. Many of us have been talking about there should be a collective departure, just say, "This is unacceptable. Let's leave the White House." Some will stay, as you know, and he will appoint other people. But I think he would not like the diminution of attention, say, on the networks.

The point of all that is really to raise the question about where is the collective response in this country—not just the press, but where is it from other Republicans, from business? People have just rolled over.

I look at my country and I say, "Oh, my god." But I also, having years as a journalist, say, "Okay, what can we do?" We know journalists don't all have the same opinion, but shouldn't there be some collective action?

MARVIN KALB: Yes. Let me try to do something uncharacteristic and be an optimist.

The optimist in me says that what happened on Tuesday of this week is the first step away from a Trumpian move toward authoritarianism. The American people have risen to a meaningful degree and taken one significant piece of the U.S. government out of his control.

That means—and this is a very serious new factor—that he can no longer be assured of the compliance of Congress. One-half of Congress is likely to say "No"—and not only that, but is likely now to begin investigations involving subpoenas of people who before had been protected and now are going to be exposed to public scrutiny, and perhaps even public wrath. So in my judgment there is the beginning of a move away from what looked like authoritarianism on the move.

Now, does it have to happen that way? Absolutely not. He is still president of the United States. He has enormous power. The ability of a president to turn the mood of a country around and, because he's the president of the United States, the mood of the world around is very obvious.

So he can still do a great deal, but a banana peel has been placed in his path. Whether he sidesteps or slides on it and hurts himself we'll find out probably within six months.

QUESTION: Hi. I'm Helena Finn. I'm a former U.S. diplomat.

My question is whether you would say a few words about the new McCarthyism. McCarthy was not elected president and he did not have the kind of global impact. Look what's happening in Europe, and I think to a great extent the example set here is very important there.

MARVIN KALB: The new McCarthyism in the book—the book is in three parts. The middle part is a discussion of the role that Murrow played in the early 1950s with respect to McCarthy.

You're absolutely right, McCarthy was not a president. He was a senator. And yet, even as a senator he was capable of holding the entire nation in his grip, and people were terrified of losing jobs, simply being accused or finger-pointed "You're a communist, you're a leftist." Remember what happened out in Hollywood. The whole American society was trembling in the grip of this one senator.

When Murrow came back after World War II, when he came back to New York and began that part of his life, the one thing he talked about over and over again was his experience in Germany in the 1930s—his experience really throughout Europe, but focusing on Germany. It had a profound effect on him. He knew many Germans well—people of culture, writers, doctors, philosophers, professors—whom he admired enormously in 1933 and 1934 and 1935. Then, suddenly, in 1938 they were fascists, and it happened so quickly that a whole society could flip. That always was in his mind.

When McCarthy, starting with an innocent, silly speech really in Wheeling, West Virginia in February 1950, stood up before this group of Republican women and waved a piece of paper and he said, "I have a list here of 205 communists who are in the State Department." There was nothing on the sheet of paper. There were no communists—well, there were one or two, but that's a separate issue.

He capitalized on that, and that frightened Murrow. So he began to do a series of broadcasts that culminated on March 9, 1954 in a See It Now, the name of his program, documentary in which Murrow for 22 of the 30 minutes allowed McCarthy to do all of the talking. Murrow then had a powerful conclusion to the program, which I urge you by the way—you can get it now on these fancy new machines that we carry. It's an amazing thing to listen to today.

At the time that Murrow did that program, McCarthy's standing in the country was between 46 and 50 percent, the second-most-admired Republican in the country behind Ike. After the broadcast, within 48 hours, his standing dropped to 32 percent, where it remained throughout the Army-McCarthy hearings.

Now, we tend to think of the Army-McCarthy hearings as the reason why Senator McCarthy lost his standing and sort of collapsed. No. The collapse took place with the Murrow broadcast. Driving home the point was the Army-McCarthy hearings, at the end of which—four months later—McCarthy was censured. And then he was a bit of a drunk anyway, but he went into a deep drunkenness and died.

The power then, in my mind, of a free press in the hands of a responsible journalist can perform political miracles. Murrow was not thinking of political miracles, but he wanted the story out, so he did it. But that was the effect.

I have a feeling today that Trump would like to be not McCarthy—as a matter of fact he would look down on McCarthy—he would like to be that kind of figure, above it all, capable of terrorizing you.

Trump is not a nice man, by the way. The idea of hurting somebody deliberately to achieve a political end would not leave him uncomfortable at all.

The new McCarthyism is the threat that Trump poses, and in my judgment still poses until such time as we see really what happened. Then maybe we could all look back upon it cheerfully, and the sun is shining and all is well.


QUESTION: Susan Ball. Thank you.

I just wanted to be the voice of some other—what happens when you say, instead of calling it "Trump's war on the press" you call it "the press's war on Trump"?

MARVIN KALB: I would say that if I believed it, but I don't. I don't think that the press is at war with Trump. I think the press is essentially doing its job.

We've got to be very careful here, and this is one of the reasons that it is so easy to attack the press. What is the press?

In Murrow's day it was easy to come up with a definition of the press. You had the three networks, you had two or three or four or five good magazines, you had lots of newspapers representing all differing kinds of points of view, and that was essentially it.

Today we live in a world of the Internet and in a world where there are countless websites and networks—Breitbart is a good example of that—they're all over the place. So when one speaks of "the press," are you talking about The New York Times and CBS or are you talking about Breitbart, Vox, and all of those others?

You have to help me with that. I can answer your question if you tell me that we've got common ground. What are we talking about?

QUESTIONER [Ms. Ball]: I find there are two places to go to. I watch both sides. I'm pretty good about that, so I hear it from both sides. But I find very few places to go to for a conservative point of view or a balanced one and I find the others I can listen to for about 10 minutes before I have to turn them off.

MARVIN KALB: Which can you listen to for 15 minutes?

QUESTIONER [Ms. Ball]: I can listen to a conservative point of view and sort of nod my head to it.

MARVIN KALB: Right. But where is that conservative point of view expressed?

QUESTIONER [Ms. Ball]: Primarily, I guess, Fox News, but not limited to, because I go on the Internet.

MARVIN KALB: Exactly. In other words, to satisfy a conservative point of view you can go to Fox and many other outfits on the Internet, absolutely, and you will find in that world intellectual and political satisfaction, right?

QUESTIONER [Ms. Ball]: Agreement.

MARVIN KALB: I mean something that you feel comfortable with.

QUESTIONER [Ms. Ball]: Yes.

MARVIN KALB: Okay. And then there is somebody else who can approach politics from the point of view of, as I said before, The Times or CBS. Are you uncomfortable watching CBS?

QUESTIONER [Ms. Ball]: No. I watch them all the time. I'm not biased one way or the other. You may think I'm biased, but I am wanting to make sure I'm not biased by watching both.

MARVIN KALB: I'm with you 100 percent. What I'm trying to do is simply to explain that the word "press" today defies definition. We don't know what "the press" is. Therefore, the search for truth becomes increasingly difficult.

QUESTIONER [Ms. Ball]: It's hard.

MARVIN KALB: If you are predisposed to have a more conservative view of life, I completely understand your turning to Fox and other outlets because they will tell you things that make you feel more comfortable. There are other outlets on the Internet that would make somebody on the far left comfortable and you decidedly uncomfortable. But are the far left and the far right still defined as "the press"? If the answer to that question is yes, then it's very, very difficult for me to answer any question about "the press."

I have to push you and many other people into explaining your understanding of "the press" because we are in a different world now.

QUESTIONER [Ms. Ball]: Where do I go to find this middle ground that you are talking about?

MARVIN KALB: I would argue that my tastes in the press represent middle ground. I live in Washington, DC, so I read The Washington Post. You might regard that as left of center. The Washington Post is sort of in both worlds. It's a very good newspaper. I also see The Times and The Wall Street Journal. So there are three newspapers that define my newspaper reading.

On my drive to work I listen to NPR. I think NPR is a terrific radio news operation. I sense no left/right bias in that at all. Do you?

QUESTIONER [Ms. Ball]: Oh yes. I love—Jim Lehrer I loved, I watched all the time.

MARVIN KALB: But Jim is retired.

QUESTIONER [Ms. Ball]: I know. But he was able to straddle that middle ground.

MARVIN KALB: Jim was with PBS. I'm talking about NPR.

QUESTIONER [Ms. Ball]: I'm sorry.

MARVIN KALB: That's alright.

What I'm getting at here, I think—and we can move on—is the complexity of a definition of "the press," the search for a comfortable truth—comfort for you may not be comfort for me—and we are at that stage now where if one has trouble defining what we're talking about, we're in trouble all the way around.

QUESTION: Tom Fenton, formerly at CBS.

Marvin, thinking back to many years when I was a correspondent in Israel and you flew in, back in the 1970s, at one point we had a philosophical discussion over television news. I'm not quite sure what point I was making, but I remember the point you made—I'll never forget it. You said, "Tom, you're in show business."

Thinking now, thinking back, have we made ourselves an easier target for Trump and others by the trivialization of the news, the dumbing down of the news, the thinning out of what we offer? Could the answer be doing a better job, doing what we used to do?

I just moved here from Europe. I feel I'm in a news vacuum. I don't know what the hell is going on in Syria, what's going on in Iraq, what's going on—they mention Brazil and a few other things.

That's my question: Is there something we could do better and is that the answer?

MARVIN KALB: No question about it. No question that we can do better. But I'm still not sure that will provide the answer.

One of the reasons I say that is that Trump has managed to dominate the news environment. He is the beginning and the end of every story. Whether you're talking about sports, whether you're talking politics, he is the lede—"President Trump today blah, blah, blah."

Is that good? No, that's not good at all.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Fenton]: But why is he the lede? Is it because it's great for ratings?

MARVIN KALB: There's no question about that either, it is great for ratings. When the president says—jokingly, but it's true—that in the post-Trump era the ratings for CNN and MSNBC are going to fall—they are. They are now living on a high that this incandescently central figure in our lives, the president of the United States—I call him in the book a huckster. He is a great salesman. What he is selling is himself and any ideas that he can embrace as Trumpian. The press fastened onto that the minute they realized it was a hot story.

And then we're in show business and you have to go for ratings. Now, the good journalist goes for ratings without sacrificing content. You still covered Israel better than 99 percent of the people there, so you could do that and maintain your journalistic dignity. Some people will go over the line and do a terrible job.

But we are by our very nature in this world in which we live today, the Internet world, driven by values and impulses that move at such lightning speed that you can't hold on to anything, and there is a feeling of insecurity in our lives that in part has to do with this new phenomenon.

What can journalism do about it? Not terribly much, except try to run along with the mob and do the best that you can. But the best that we can today is not good enough, and there I totally agree with you. But I am not smart enough to have figured out how you head off the posse and move it in another direction. I don't see that.

We are in a way stuck with the success that Trumpianism has given to journalism.

QUESTION: James Starkman. Thank you for a wonderful presentation.

MARVIN KALB: Thank you.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Starkman]: I think the one thing that journalism could do would be to honor the distinction between the editorial page and the front page. What is your comment on that?

MARVIN KALB: I wish we could do that. That would be a very, very good thing indeed.

There is still the artificial distinction between the op-ed page and the news page. On the news page you're supposed to get the news and you get the opinion elsewhere. The nature of the business, as I was trying to describe a moment ago, is such that things get compressed. It isn't that there are evil people in the newsroom doing this and that. It is that the world in which they live today obliges them to do certain things that they would not have done 15 or 20 years before.

One of them is in a news story to slip in a word. Let me give you a good illustration here, the word "lie." Last year, some of you will remember, The New York Times, the number-one paper, used the word "lie" three or four times in the course of one week. Big storm in journalism and politics—"Oh, who the hell are you to say the president lied?"

The Times backed off and many other newspapers backed off. But now what you find is a heavy load of "misrepresentation." "Without any evidence the president today said . . . " You find other ways of saying he's lying without using the verb "lie." That's their middle ground.

Is that satisfactory? I don't think so. But it is the best that we journalists can do at the moment. It is to try to say to the reader, "Hey, look, you're all being taken to the cleaners, and let us understand that, and I'm helping you by pointing out to you that there's a misrepresentation of fact here."

You know, I read this stuff, you read it, and we say to ourselves: "Who are you kidding? Why don't you just use the word?"

But the word suggests that you know better than this other person the truth of a statement and the other person doesn't and is deliberately lying, knowing the truth but turning it around. That may not be the case. You could be misstating something out of ignorance, and who are you to determine whether you are doing that out of ignorance or political aim?

But thank you for that.

QUESTION: Michelle Ayer [phonetic], a journalism student. I'm sorry in advance if this is a broadly put question.

What impact do you believe, if any impact at all, would broadcast television news have on Trump if there was a debate on yesterday's outcome that would be similar to the debate that happened previously between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley?

MARVIN KALB: I think that's first of all a wonderful question and I thank you for that.

I'm not sure that it's doable today. In other words, I think that we have all advanced and the technology has advanced so far that the idea of having two people representing contrary points of view on the same program possibly could happen on PBS, but I don't see it happening on any of the large networks. I think we have gone too far.

I remember there used to be a program on CNN where they had a left and a right guy. The program lasted well and got good ratings for a couple of years, and then the ratings began to die out, and they died out because the idea of left/right arguing no longer made sense.

People were not listening to one another. So on the left you could say something and the person on the right would deny it simply because someone on the left had said it, putting aside the substance, just that the origin is the left and therefore it would be rejected; likewise the other way.

We have gone too far now, in my judgment—I could be wrong—we have gone too far to see something like that happen. Maybe once, but not as a program I don't think.

JOANNE MYERS: Some will say we have gone too far. Others will say we didn't go far enough.

At this point I'd like to conclude and remind you all that this book is available.

Thank you so much.

You may also like

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the 2017 G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 2017. CREDIT: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vladimir_Putin_and_Donald_Trump_at_the_2017_G-20_Hamburg_Summit_(3).jpg">Kremlin.ru (CC)</a>

JUL 24, 2018 Article

The Assault on Ethics

"A year and a half into the Trump presidency, its most consequential feature thus far is its assault on ethics," writes Carnegie Council President Joel ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation