When the president said the media is the “enemy of the American people,” alarm bells clanged so loud in my head I could barely hear myself think. Maybe that was the idea.
Of course presidents have always had adversarial relationships with the press. That’s as it should be. And it’s the main reason I could never find the will to pursue a career in the news once I received my coveted bachelor of journalism degree. I didn’t want to be confrontational. I didn’t want to make enemies. I didn’t want to wheedle and annoy.
And I didn’t think it was much fun to be doggedly and thoroughly as objective as possible. That’s what we pledged to do back in the Pleistocene age. Back when network news was not required to make money, so ABC, NBC and CBS could live by veracity, not by ratings. It was a time when people paid to read newspapers and revenue could go toward hiring crack investigative teams who spent months uncovering stories. And reporters had actual travel budgets to go where the story took them. To track down the truth wherever it was.
There was plenty wrong with the media decades ago, but then as now, it was critical to our democracy. The press is the Fourth Estate—fourth after the three branches of government the press monitors to ensure there’s no abuse. The Fourth Estate is the only counterbalance we have when two out of three branches are staunchly conservative and the Supremes are split four-four, soon to tilt to the right, five-four. Our government has lost its balance and its checks have checked out.
Which is why, when the president rudely orders reporters to sit down, when he repeatedly refers to them as the dishonest press, and he blusters that respected media outlets are fake news, well, the clappers on the alarm bells begin to clink. When the president’s press secretary banishes major journalists from The New York Times, the LA Times, the BBC, CNN, and The Guardian, among others, then alarm bells ring even louder.
But now, when the president says the press is the enemy of the American people, I can only wonder who the real enemy is here. It is not the reporter trying to do his job. It is not the citizen who votes his conscience. But maybe we each need to look at our parties and our politics and try to understand why our country is careening into unknown territory.
Maybe we should remember a character who is just as obsolete as old-fashioned journalism—Walt Kelly’s Pogo. It was this befuddled creature who uttered the immortal words, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”