Call­ing the pres­i­dent the en­emy of the me­dia The ‘Gray Lady’ morphs into a fierce par­ti­san warrior

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By David A. Keene

New York Times pub­lisher A.G. Sulzberger took to the pages of The Wall Street Jour­nal last week to lam­bast Pres­i­dent Don­ald J. Trump as an out-of­con­trol en­emy of a free press whose over the top rhetoric should be seen as a har­bin­ger of worse to come. Mr. Sulzberger, like many an­other Trump critic, con­fuses the pres­i­dent’s crit­i­cism of a hos­tile me­dia with a de­sire to elim­i­nate the First Amend­ment guar­an­tees so im­por­tant to the func­tion­ing of a free so­ci­ety.

The man’s need to de­fend his own pub­li­ca­tion against over-the-top rhetoric is cer­tainly un­der­stand­able, but sin­gling out the pres­i­dent a his­tor­i­cally unique en­emy of the me­dia ig­nores the his­tory of pres­i­den­tial me­dia re­la­tions as well as the grow­ing ten­dency of ide­o­log­i­cal ad­ver­saries to im­pute the worst mo­tives to each other. He is most upset with and makes a good case against Mr. Trump’s use of the word “trea­son” in crit­i­ciz­ing a re­cent New York Times re­port re­veal­ing that the United States hacked the Rus­sian power grid so we will be in a po­si­tion to dis­rupt it should the need arise.

Per­haps the pres­i­dent’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion as “a vir­tual act of trea­son” was un­called for, but Mr. Sulzberger’s re­ac­tion demon­strates that he has a far thin­ner skin than the pres­i­dent him­self. Mr. Trump has been la­beled a traitor by his po­lit­i­cal and me­dia critics since he was sworn in. When for­mer CIA Di­rec­tor John Bren­nan took to the air­waves af­ter the Helsinki Sum­mit to charge that the pres­i­dent’s per­for­mance there was “noth­ing short of trea­sonous,” The New York Times didn’t crit­i­cize Mr. Bren­nan’s rhetoric and re­mained si­lent when for­mer in­tel­li­gence chief James Clap­per charged that Mr. Trump was “es­sen­tially aid­ing and abet­ting the Rus­sians.”

When oth­ers called Mr. Clap­per to task for us­ing a text book def­i­ni­tion of trea­son to de­scribe the pres­i­dent’s be­hav­ior, Mr. Clap­per re­sponded that he was only us­ing the word “in a col­lo­quial sense.” In other words, by call­ing the pres­i­dent a traitor he was not say­ing Mr. Trump should be hauled off, tried and per­haps even ex­e­cuted for his acts. Mr. Sulzberger is right to sug­gest that politi­cians should be care­ful of

the way they char­ac­ter­ize those with whom they dis­agree, but we live in a po­lar­ized and less-than-po­lite age. We all too of­ten ig­nore the rhetor­i­cal over-reach of our al­lies while the same lan­guage from oth­ers shocks and even, as in Mr. Sulzberger’s case, fright­ens us.

In re­cent days, for­mer FBI Deputy Di­rec­tor An­drew McCabe, House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Adam Schiff and Cal­i­for­nia Con­gress­man Eric Swal­well, who ac­tu­ally imag­ines him­self tak­ing Mr. Trump’s job, have in one way or an­other sug­gested that the pres­i­dent is a traitor. None of this seems to have got­ten un­der Mr. Sulzberger’s skin or moved him to warn against the use of over-the-top rhetoric.

This is a new McCarthy­ism in which po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cates ques­tion not just the judg­ment, but the pa­tri­o­tism of their ad­ver­saries, a phe­nom­ena ex­am­ined by Bob Merry in a re­cent piece in The Na­tional In­ter­est.

Mr. Sulzberger is right to warn that rhetor­i­cal at­tacks on a free press can lead to ac­tual at­tempts to rein in or si­lence crit­i­cism of the pow­er­ful. Af­ter all, it has hap­pened be­fore. Demo­cratic Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son had hun­dreds of re­porters locked up dur­ing World War I, and Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt’s vit­ri­olic at­tacks on news­pa­per own­ers and ed­i­tors who de­vi­ated from the of­fi­cial govern­ment line dur­ing World War II was leg­endary. He and his fol­low­ers called those he par­tic­u­larly dis­liked traitors who “aided and abet­ted” the Nazi war ef­fort.

Roo­sevelt un­leashed the FBI, the Jus­tice Depart­ment and what was then known as the Of­fice of Facts & Fig­ures to find ev­i­dence that the own­ers of The Chicago Tri­bune were col­lud­ing with the Nazis. Af­ter an ex­ten­sive in­ves­ti­ga­tion, th­ese ear­lier-day Robert Muellers found “no col­lu­sion,” which nei­ther com­forted nor slowed down the Roo­sevelt’s at­tempts to si­lence The Tri­bune. One of Roo­sevelt’s con­gres­sional al­lies, in fact, took to the House floor to at­tack Tri­bune pub­lisher Robert McCormick‘s editorials as mak­ing him “sub­ject, at least to think­ing peo­ple, as be­ing guilty of trea­son and I so charge him.”

The cur­rent pres­i­dent may tweet his crit­i­cism of the me­dia, but isn’t wire-tap­ping them or putting them in jail.

Like it or not, we live in an age of hy­per­par­ti­san­ship that can, as Mr. Sulzberger notes, turn dan­ger­ous. His prob­lem is that his pa­per has mor­phed into a par­ti­san warrior. This has in­creased his cir­cu­la­tion, but lim­its his abil­ity to calm waters that he has had a hand in stir­ring up. One wishes it weren’t so be­cause an even­handed call for ci­vil­ity would be in the in­ter­ests of ev­ery­one. David A. Keene is an ed­i­tor at large for The Wash­ing­ton Times.

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