In better times than these, I’ve wondered what would happen to American journalism if it lost the tattered protections—among them the First Amendment and patchwork of shield laws—that journalists in other countries never had in the first place. Now we might find out.
The question that has haunted American journalists in this century—How will we survive Craigslist?, where Craigslist has come to stand for everything about the Internet that has torn traditional journalism to shreds—has shifted to How will we survive Donald Trump? Trump is contemptuous of mainstream media and made it a whipping boy as he ran for president. He made it a whipping boy again at his news conference Wednesday, first sending out Mike Pence, the vice president- elect, to introduce him (as if this were a campaign rally!) and tell reporters that “with freedom comes responsibility,” then taking up the theme himself.
“I have great respect for . . . freedom of the press and all of that,” Trump said in his opening remarks, but perhaps not as much as all that. “But I will tell you, some of the media outlets that I deal with are fake news more so than anybody. I could name them, but I won’t bother, but you have a few sitting right in front of us. They’re very, very dishonest people.”
Trump made it clear he was talking about CNN, which the night before broke a story that said intelligence officials had shown the president-elect a two-page synopsis of unverified information they’d received alleging that “Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.”
Trump was scornful. “It’s all fake news,” he said, though he didn’t deny seeing such a report. Jim Acosta, the CNN reporter, tried to reply.
“Mr. President-elect, since you are attacking our news organization . . . “
“Not you,” said Trump.
“Can you give us a chance?” said Acosta.
“Your organization is terrible,” said Trump.
A lot of journalists expect nothing good (except for a torrent of stories) to come to journalism from Trump and his nominee for attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Trump let it be known Tuesday that “when intelligence reports get leaked out to the press” it’s not just “pretty sad” but “illegal.”
If Sessions chooses to prosecute reporters who traffic in such reports (or less charged documents), he’ll have the courts to back him up: the so-called reporter’s privilege (to protect sources) has been knocked down by first the Seventh Circuit Court in Chicago and then the critical Fourth Circuit in Virginia.
But however dark the picture, it could be a lot worse. Over the holidays, a young Brazilian woman sitting next to me at a wedding brunch talked about her father. His name is Carlos Amorim and he’s been an investigative reporter in Brazil all his adult life. He’s also written several books, the latest of which deals with his country’s desaparecidos—the leftists who vanished from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile while those countries were run by military regimes in the 1970s.
He must have feared for his safety from time to time, I remarked to his daughter.
He’s never felt safe, she replied. “Journalism in Brazil,” she added in a later e-mail, “is still a very dangerous career.”
By Amorim’s lights, journalism in the U.S. is a lot less dangerous and should continue to be. We worry about libel suits and contempt-of-court citations, but not about being pitched out of a plane into a swamp. Many of us imagine ourselves to be fearless as we pursue careers that keep us pretty safe and pretty smug.
In this 11th hour before the Inauguration Day many of us think of as midnight, I look around at the troops mustered for battle. A decade or two of austerity has served us well in one regard: today’s journalists are lean and mean and accustomed to living off the land.
I think of Chicago’s Darryl Holliday and his contingent of kids at City Bureau; what fear can they have of Trump and Sessions? I think of a nation of satirists eager to confound and paralyze the next president on social media. Social media can’t be corralled and locked up. Its derision is unsilenceable. Trump has no sense of humor. Mockery, should Trump’s behavior in office compel it, would bring him to his knees.
Media is a collective noun, but it came to consist of huge, jealous, and rival establishments that kept a close eye on one another but rarely allied. If now it’s us against him, media better be willing to cooperate, to share notes, share stories, and play Whac-a-Mole whenever the White House thinks it’s chased down an enemy. For a moment, when Trump was refusing to deal with CNN, I thought the room was going silent and Trump would get no new question from anyone until he answered Acosta. I was wrong, but I can imagine that happening.
If the White House decides on war, we’ll have assets beyond the flinty sense of duty that drives the brave journalists of other countries, keeping them in the field. And we will never run their risks. So, to ask the question: Do we really despair at Trump or are we itching to fight?
Correction: An earlier version of this post mistakenly stated that this was Trump’s first press conference since November. It was actually his first press conference since July.