As Inauguration Day approaches, the barrage of bad news continues unabated—almost too much to even keep track of, let alone analyze. Thanks are due, then, to Commonweal’s Paul Moses, who caught Rudy Giuliani’s jaw-dropping assertion last week that our democracy can breathe easier with a President who “is trying to get us back to a free press” and “may actually re-establish journalistic ethics.” In keeping with the upside-down unreality of the Trump era, this came one day after Trump, ever the adult, publicly scolded a CNN reporter during a press conference, saying “You are fake news!,” “Your organization is terrible,” and refusing to allow the reporter to ask a question.
Moses provides some background to help the reader understand why this sort of behavior strikes Giuliani as good news for freedom of the press: “When he was mayor, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion in 2000 that took the highly unusual tack of noting that beyond the case at hand, there was a disturbing pattern of First Amendment rulings against the city.” As mayor, Giuliani found himself on the losing end of several First Amendment disputes, frequently occasioned by his fondness for suppressing speech: cracking down on public marches, instituting draconian press rules for city employees, and retaliating (on numerous occasions) against groups whose speech offended the mayor’s ego or his personal religious sensibilities.
In other words, Giuliani behaved like a thin-skinned bully, which explains his affinity for Trump. It’s tempting to respond to bullies by submitting to them, or by preemptively curtailing any behaviors which might incur their wrath. For the press, that risk is heightened by the pressures of the dire economics and fierce competition which characterize today’s media landscape—perhaps partly explaining why, after Trump attacked one of their colleagues during a press conference, not a single reporter stepped up in defense.
Or, to be more optimistic, perhaps this was no more than the temporary paralysis that can result from being stunned by someone else’s boorish or aggressive behavior (a reaction which must be even stronger when the person in question is days away from becoming President of the United States). In any case, a better model for how the press should collectively respond to Trump is provided by Kyle Pope’s open letter in the Columbia Journalism Review, which (among other things) envisions a “unified front” among journalists against threats or punishments from the incoming Administration. “We’ll work together on stories when it makes sense, and make sure the world hears when our colleagues write stories of importance,” Pope writes. “We will, of course, still have disagreements, and even important debates, about ethics or taste or fair comment. But those debates will be ours to begin and end.”
This is the bolder response, and undoubtedly the wiser one. Even now, as the Oval Office nears, Trump’s behavior still adheres to what Josh Marshall long ago identified as a signature pattern of dominance and humiliation. “It is simply no accident that those who come into his orbit, who join with him, are rapidly visited with a string of indignities that stand in a bracing contrast to the power and status they earlier enjoyed,” Marshall wrote last summer. It is true of even the loudest, meanest self-styled tough guys in the GOP, like Giuliani and Chris Christie. It is true of Mitt “No Apology” Romney, who effectively apologized for his speech denouncing Trump during the primaries by groveling before the victorious candidate over a post-election dinner in one of Trump’s hotels. The supposed purpose of their meeting: Romney was being considered for the secretary of state nomination that ultimately went to Rex Tillerson. Except that he wasn’t, according to a Times report yesterday morning. According to remarks made by the inaugural committee chairman at a dinner the other night, “Trump said he had always wanted Mr. Tillerson, implying that the rest was for show.”
In other words, even when he was thought to be making key appointment decisions, Trump’s mind was focused on the public humiliation of those who had dared oppose him. Romney was foolish enough to fall for Trump’s act, apparently believing that public appeasement (and the magnanimity that might grace a better man in his moment of victory) might end their feud. Trump simply does not understand the world in that way. He sees every challenge as an affront to his vanity, and as the act not of an opponent, a critic, or a rival, but of an enemy. And his response is almost always the same. His treatment of the press will almost certainly not be tempered by the formality of tomorrow’s oath or the weighty responsibilities of the presidency. That lesson cannot be internalized quickly enough.