We’ve become accustomed to Trump outrages that seem OMG in the moment only to fade quickly into obscurity — replaced, as such things inevitably are, by the next insult, outburst or tweet. But even by those standards, a New York Times story reporting that Republican operatives with White House ties were seeking to embarrass President Trump’s adversaries in the media had an unusually short half-life.
Yes, there were stern condemnations from the usual suspects. Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger posted a memo to the staff calling it “an unprecedented campaign,” saying of the operatives: “Their goal is to silence critics and undermine the public’s faith in independent journalism.” A CNN spokesman said that when government officials and their allies “threaten and retaliate against reporters as a means of suppression, it’s a clear abandonment of democracy for something very dangerous.”
Others, though, were less impressed with this latest so-called threat to the First Amendment. Will Sommer of The Daily Beast tweeted, “This piece sure makes a big deal about a couple of guys using Twitter Advanced Search.”
This piece sure makes a big deal about a couple of guys using Twitter Advanced Search. https://t.co/wF308tV1iN— Will Sommer (@willsommer) August 25, 2019
CNN’s Oliver Darcy wrote that another Daily Beast reporter, Maxwell Tani, had actually revealed the existence of the campaign, and of Trump fanboy Arthur Schwartz’s involvement, many months ago. And Jack Shafer of Politico saw no problem with digging up social-media dirt on journalists, citing similar efforts by watchdog groups such as Media Matters for America on the left and, many years earlier, Accuracy in Media on the right.
“As much as I would like to sympathize with my fellow journalists,” Shafer wrote, “it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable to ask them to own or repudiate vile or impolitic things they might have stated in the past. Nor is it remotely unfair for the president’s supporters to demand that journalists, who are forever denouncing him as a racist (because he is), be held accountable for their bigoted speech, on Twitter or anywhere else.”
Here’s the background according to the Times story, reported by Kenneth P. Vogel and Jeremy W. Peters. Schwartz, an ally of Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump-whisperer Steve Bannon, has reportedly gathered material on journalists at several news organizations perceived to be hostile to the president, including the Times, The Washington Post, and CNN. The fruits of Schwartz’s labors were on display recently when a Times editor named Tom Wright-Piersanti was forced to apologize after Breitbart reported that he had posted anti-Semitic tweets many years earlier.
The Breitbart hit, in turn, was supposedly in retaliation for a Times story on the checkered past of Trump’s new press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, who reportedly has a history of unethical workplace behavior as well as two drunken-driving arrests.
“If the @nytimes thinks this settles the matter we can expose a few of their other bigots,” Schwartz tweeted after the Breitbart story on Wright-Piersanti was published. “Lots more where this came from.”
What’s fair is fair? Not quite. There are, in fact, some troubling aspects to all this. Unlike Shafer’s examples, Media Matters and Accuracy in Media, Schwartz’s shop has ties to the White House. It’s not entirely clear how close those ties are, but they’re close enough that we ought to be concerned. The First Amendment, after all, was designed to protect the press so it could monitor the powerful, not protect the powerful so they can monitor the press.
Moreover, we expect our leaders and the people who work for them to meet certain basic moral and ethical standards, or at least we used to. Journalists, on the other hand, are judged by their work. If what they report is true and fair, then it should be irrelevant whether they drink to excess, jaywalk, or posted embarrassing and offensive tweets years ago.
Tom Jones put it this way in The Poynter Report: “Yes, absolutely, the media should be held accountable, too. But stories published or aired by reputable news organizations stand up to scrutiny through the use of facts, sources and citations. Because this [Schwartz’s] operation can’t discredit such stories, the next best thing to do is discredit the journalists and outlets by combing through tweets and Facebook and Instagram posts from years gone by.”
As attacks on the media go, this is fairly small. It’s not as serious as calling news organizations “Enemies of the People,” or banning reporters from the White House, or putting the safety of journalists at risk by whipping up angry mobs at Trump rallies.
But it erodes the norms of democracy around the edges, contributing to Trump’s meta-narrative that the press is just another partisan player that his devoted followers need not take seriously.
WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy’s blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.