Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Thursday, August 17, 2017

All the press buzz is about the press itself lately. It’s no secret, the Fourth Estate didn’t bring its A-game to covering the 2016 presidential campaign.

The question preying on our minds is whether we did right by the American people in reporting home truths to them. Or did we get mired in the muck of the greatest reality show on earth? Did we get lost in the trees of Twitter, fake news and all that internet stuff? Maybe it’s a “post-truth” world, after all.

In our democracy, much depends on the answers. We like to think the First Amendment is first for a reason, that freedom of the press is indispensable to the America dreamt of by the framers of the Constitution — Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, all the bright white men in Philadelphia.

But here’s the thing: Broadcasting Donald Trump’s rallies and hate-mongering for hours of free airtime, unedited, may not be what they had in mind. Good for ratings, but in retrospect, wrong.

Duck if you can; there’s a lot of guilt and angst flying around Cambridge, Massachusetts, New York and down south to Washington, D.C. The usual rituals have unusual urgency.

At the Kalb Report at the National Press Club, host Marvin Kalb voiced the question of whether a Trump administration will crack down on press freedom. That’s not far-fetched, considering Trump’s open hostility to the media. Kalb, a journalism sage, remembers the good old days when candidates didn’t shout and hurl, “Corrupt!” or “Dishonest!” to the gaggle of reporters trying to do their job.

Trump’s blustering late-night tweets were a way to run around deadlines and the newsroom vetting process, to communicate directly and grow his base, letting loose insults and leaving claims and facts unchecked.

In fits, Trump ripped up the press paradigm of how to cover a presidential candidate. In his first political rodeo, with nothing to lose, he invented a new way to win — lobbing over our heads, always angry or gloating. At first, the press and the public found him more entertaining than others in the Republican field.

That raised a question for the presidential debate moderators, two of whom were Kalb’s guests, Martha Raddatz of ABC News and Chris Wallace of Fox News. Over the 90 minutes, if a candidate makes a false claim, should the moderator correct him or her? Millions of Americans are watching and making up their minds. The answer from Raddatz and Wallace was no, that’s not our job. Let the other candidate say so.

That’s old-school neutrality, but the game has changed so much that it’s time the press becomes more aggressive, too — in the moment, as it happens. We like to scrutinize events at our desks, stewing over coffee, but we have to change with the times, too.

As the president-elect appoints his cabinet, he is sending in the Marines to three major military or homeland security posts. That’s troublesome, but the nightly news is not going to say so. Newspapers have suffered financially over the last decade and some have even physically shrunk and seen their buildings blown up (the Miami Herald.) But it’s no time to be shy when we have a Caeser-like ruler riding into Rome who’d like to silence us into submission. And it’s time to fight back against the fake news “epidemic,” as Clinton said on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, issued a memo on media harassment and ended it: “Just do your job.” But the climate is changing — indoors and out. (In a glaring omission, the debates failed to discuss climate change.)

One thing’s for sure: If Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, yet lost 2.5 million votes in the popular count, we’d never hear the end of the outrage on Fox, talk radio and on the Breitbart website. Am I “right?”

The cuts and blows to truth are still raw. Looking back at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where opposing campaigns met to debrief, Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s director of communications, declared, “I would rather lose than win the way you guys did.”

The late Senator Pat Moynihan wisely said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Clinton did her level best, and we played by press rules. But not all was fair in the public square.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

IMAGE: A man hands a newspaper to a customer at a news stand in New York, U.S., November 9, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton