(An Elton John tune has been going through your observer’s mind for the last few days)
Donald Trump doesn’t like reporters. “You know my opinion of the press—very low,” he said at a recent press conference. “The media is among the most dishonest groups of people I’ve ever met,” he has said. “Seventy-five percent is absolutely dishonest, absolute scum, scum,” he has proclaimed.
“The media frankly is made up of people—in many cases, not in all cases—who are not good people,” he said. “I think the political press is among the most dishonest people that I’ve ever known…I find the political press to be unbelievably dishonest.”
Just to set the tone of this entry early, let it be known that this observer is proud to have been “scum” for more than a half-century. It is, believe it or not, a strange badge of honor given by people such as Donald Trump to carry the label of not being “good people.”
One might be tempted to respond, “That’s true. Of course, do not forget that people are known for the company that they keep. And guess who we’ve been keeping company with.” But that would be snarky and unprofessional and will be left unsaid.
Trump’s attitude means we are doing our jobs. And people like Donald Trump don’t believe we should do our jobs, which is questioning the honesty and credibility of people such as Donald Trump.
Trump seems to think his characterizations of the press will (a) make his followers love him even more without reservation and (b) intimidate the press. We don’t know if any of his most loyal adherents will ever be bothered by the things they are learning from those of us whom Trump despises but we do know that efforts to intimidate the press don’t work. Good reporters don’t back off, especially when people such as Trump have no responses to their questions beyond name-calling.
Trump has threatened to change libel laws if he’s elected President so he can sue reporters more easily. He regularly ignores the fact that he is not running for dictator, but is running for an office that is only one-third of government and that he cannot by himself determine what the law is.
One thing journalists know above all else about libel law is that truth is an absolute defense. That standard is terribly unwelcome to people such as Donald Trump who seem to think truth should be defined as whatever falls from their lips.
What triggered the newest broadside was solid reporting by David Farenthold of the Washington Post. You recall Trump bragged in January at an event he held when he skipped an Iowa Caucus debate that he had raised six million dollars for veterans’ groups in one hour, including one-million dollars he personally donated.
He and his campaign have now admitted, in fact, that the total amount raised in the last five months is not six million dollars but 5.6, even with the million dollars Trump finally did contribute—late last month.
The Post did a lot of spade work to discover only half of that amount had been distributed to veterans’ groups by early May. And Trump had NOT contributed one-million dollars in January. He wrote a check May 24th, the day more distributions were made—after Farenthold started asking questions that Trump’s people either refused to answer or tried to squirm out of answering. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks retorted, “If the media spent half as much time highlighting the work of these groups and how our veterans have been so mistreated, rather than trying to disparage Mr. Trump’s generosity for a totally unsolicited gesture for which he had no obligation, we would all be better for it.”
The response is a cheap and completely unoriginal one that is not uncommon when reporters start pressing candidates for the truth. Attack the questioner for asking the question. Ms. Hicks conveniently ignores the reams of stories that have been written about mistreatment of veterans, whether by the VA or even in Arlington National Cemetery, and more reams of stories written every year about the work of local and national veterans’ organizations. Mr. Trump’s “generosity” was not expressed in January, when he said it was, but was only expressed (for lack of a better word) in May after Farenthold started asking questions and others started picking up the story. An “unsolicited gesture for which he had no obligation” is a curious phrase, certainly. Was it an “unsolicited gesture” or was it a well-staged event to take the spotlight away from a debate he dodged with his opponents? Is there no obligation when one says in January that he has contributed one-million dollars—but he hadn’t?
There is every indication that questions about Trump’s character (and Hillary Clinton’s character as well) will only intensify, not because the press has a vendetta against them (some undoubtedly do, as some undoubtedly are apologists) but because the stakes are high and the spotlight must be harsh.
So let’s be clear. To Donald Trump, fair press coverage is any coverage that lets him spout, unchallenged, anything that he says as gospel. Those who don’t believe that is the role of the press are “scum.”
Forty years ago, when the Arab oil embargo drove up energy prices and inflation was leading to home loan rates of almost twenty percent, Joe Teasdale won the Missouri governorship by promising to lower utility rates and fire the Public Service Commission, which sets the rates for state-regulated utilities. He knew it was economically impossible to lower utility rates and legally impossible to fire the members of the PSC. But it was a populist message that resonated just enough for him to get into office. He referred to those of us in the Capitol press corps who had questioned him repeatedly on the issue as “jaded.”
At his first press conference after his election, he found himself facing several Capitol reporters wearing pins reading “Jaded J. C. Reporter.” It was a pin reporters were proud to wear and some of those reporters, now long gone from the Capitol, still have those pins.
Perhaps it’s time the reporters covering the Trump campaign started wearing pins with the word “scum” on them. It would be an honor to have one.
And it would be a message to the man on the stage that name-calling will not stop fact-checking, and will not give a free pass to demagoguery.