The headline news over the weekend was about Donald Trump’s increasingly critical comments about the press. But that’s only the headline news.
There’s a larger battle going on about the role of the press in American politics, a war that one might conclude the press is losing.
As of this writing, for example, neither the Clinton nor the Trump campaign has established what is called a protective press pool. These are the reporters who are always with the campaign as it travels, not merely for formal events, but along the way. They hover in the background, an ever-present eye and ear to catch and record the off-hand comments and unplanned moments that may, or may not, provide the public with additional insight into a candidate or a campaign organization.
A protective pool has been established for both parties’ presidential nominees in every election in modern history without exception. It may be that they will be established for these campaigns, too . . . but their establishment already is late by those modern historical standards.
It has some reporters worried.
So, too, does Hillary Clinton’s penchant for avoiding the press. Her recent appearance before two national professional journalists’ associations in early August came more than 200 days after her last formal press conference.
Donald Trump, from the beginning, adopted a very different and, on the face of it, more press-engaging strategy. He has had a penchant for calling in to news/talk shows, on television and on radio, rather than coming to the studio. He has taken the initiative and a considerable amount of the control away from the networks and their hosts by doing so. He also drops off the call when it suits him, something no candidate being interviewed in a studio would ever do.
The press has a job to do: attract an audience. That’s not a new thing; from the rise of the “penny press” in the 1830s to the present, journalism has been a means to the end of attracting audience to advertisers. Scandal, disaster, heinous crimes, exposés about celebrities and prominent citizens . . . these have been central to the rise and survival of the industry because, apparently, we like these sorts of stories.
Journalism, over the last century and a half, also has acquired a self-consciously more noble aspiration: to be the people’s advocate and protector by holding those with power to account. In one familiar phrase, journalists are called to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
But reporters, even those who aspire to live up to the highest standards of the profession, are people too. Their careers can be made or broken by the extent to which they have access to newsworthy persons. Most are accountable to editors, news directors, publishers and owners, just people themselves, who may on occasion assert more than professionally dispassionate judgment over the news.
Demonizing the press is no more appropriate than demonizing any other segment of our economy. There are some great journalists and some poor ones, just as there are great teachers and poor ones, great lawyers and poor ones, great social workers and poor ones, great doctors and poor ones, great police officers and poor ones.
Identifying specific acts of inaccurate reporting, bad faith, even blatant dishonesty, is an appropriate and necessary act to call the press to responsibility. Branding them all villains is something else entirely.
By the same token, shutting out the press is no more appropriate than shutting out the public.
Most of us will never ride on a candidate’s plane, or stand backstage at a candidate’s rally. Most of us, if we ever come within a hundred feet of a candidate, will do so for only a fleeting moment in the surging wave of an overwrought crowd.
We need to understand those who would lead our nation better than we can from these passing encounters. Because we are not just choosing a political platform or policy agenda. We are also, especially when choosing a chief executive, choosing a leader.
Leadership is about much more than the office one holds or one’s rhetorical style. It is built on character, fueled by values, sustained by vision both of the leader and of the people to be led. Some of that can be revealed in a speech. Some of it is revealed in the unplanned moment and informal conversation. We need it all.
For that we need the press. We need them to have access. We need them to be engaged.
And we need to give them at least that much respect.