CBS This Morning had an interview with Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron this week. It was an interview that editors dream about, very laudatory and mentioning specifically several major news stories the paper has reported first about the Trump administration. The decades-long competition with The New York Times was mentioned, and for sure editors and staff at the Times have to be cringing at the stories the Post has published first. In the old days of newspapering, we called them scoops. And when you got beat, it was not good.
Baron was asked about the new ownership at the Post, and he said that the purchase of the paper by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had brought financial capital to the paper but also intellectual capital in pushing the organization into the digital age. To me, Amazon is one of the most extraordinary companies of the digital age. And The Washington Post has been reinvigorated since Bezos purchased the paper from the Graham family more than three years ago. In the last couple of years I have recommended the Post to a number of people who have asked for a recommendation of a quality newspaper. The paper’s political coverage is solid, the international staff still very engaged, and, as a personal bonus for me, the sports section is nicely done. Certainly the editorial page of the paper leans left, but I find it more reasoned and more balanced than the sharply left and often maddeningly shrill editorial page of the Times. And George Will is a solid conservative columnist and also one of the finest stylists writing for a newspaper.
Newspapers continue to struggle in the digital age. The reasons are many and varied. I agree with many conservative critics that many news organizations seem intent on making the Trump administration a failure. Just as many news organizations insisted on doing everything possible to make the Obama administration a success beginning in 2008. Obama had marginal success as a president. I’ve predicted that Trump will actually have more success than some people, especially Democrats, believe. But the news stories that the Post has broken provide information the public needs to know. And it also creates a telling environment indicating that the Trump administration needs to make serious adjustments in its strategies and communications. I believe the Obama administration was ill-served by the softball coverage it received, especially in the early years. Thomas Jefferson helped create the idea of the press as a check on government. He survived some of the most vicious criticism and name-calling one could imagine. And he proved to be one of our best presidents. I believe government is best served, and presidents, too, by strong coverage that provides the information people need to know for the self-governance intended by the Founders.
News reports over the past weekend detailed a decision by officials at Texas Southern University in Houston to revoke an invitation for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn to speak at commencement. The action came after a petition signed by 850 people protested his appearance. TSU is a historically black university established in 1927.
This represents another sad chapter in which a university decides on a speaker based solely on political perspective. The record of universities either revoking an invitation to speak or having students shout down unpopular speakers in protest continues to grow. It is tragic that university administrations continue to allow and sometimes even support such appalling intolerance of free speech. The petition against Cornyn specifically cited his confirmation votes for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. If there’s a difference of opinion, fair enough. Differing opinions can be expressed in a civil manner. Each semester I teach my ethics students that one of the many brilliant concepts our Founders adopted was the marketplace of ideas, generally credited to the British poet John Milton. We are gradually losing awareness of that founding principle.
For my money, John Cornyn is a pretty good guy. He had a solid record as attorney general in Texas. He was reasoned in his opinions, and he was quite supportive of open government, including open records and open meetings. There are plenty of extremists in the GOP camp, just as there are extremists on the Democratic side. John Cornyn isn’t an extremist. He’s now named on the short list of those President Trump is considering to replace fired FBI Director James Comey. Truthfully, Cornyn would be an excellent choice. But I would actually prefer that he continue his leadership role representing Texas in the United States Senate.
The Washington Post has done some fascinating reporting on a secret agreement made between the Associated Press and Nazi Germany in 1941. The agreement allowed for photographs by German photographers to be used by the AP and distributed as a part of its regular photo service to AP member news organizations. It raises old and difficult questions about ethics. The AP says that it did nothing to compromise its independence as a news organization. And yet the propaganda effects of some of the photographs are obvious. It is always difficult to make assessments on such matters more than 70 years after the fact. The AP was of course charged with obtaining news and photographs about world events. And yet by 1941, the world pretty much knew of the tyranny and ultimate ambition of Adolf Hitler, even if the full scope of the Holocaust was not widely known. I have always respected the AP and, during my time as an editor, gave it my full support. Even understanding the difficulty in trying to make the correct assessments on such an agreement in 1941, I am bothered to learn of it today.
Last month, my friend Selwyn Crawford was making a few closing remarks at the 26th annual Journalism Day sponsored by The Dallas Morning News. Journalism Day is an event for high school journalists and teachers in North Texas. More than 370 attended this year. The SMU Division of Journalism is a contributing sponsor. Selwyn got a little fired up in his comments, which I believe were entirely spontaneous. And in doing so he gave high school students, and all of us, the reason we should be journalists and take great pride in what we do. Here’s the video of Selwyn’s remarks.
News media have been filled with reports on President Trump’s first 100 days in office. It’s always been a standard news media measurement, but it’s even more important now in the digital age. If you do an Internet search on the topic, literally thousands of links will appear. I was honored last week to be on a panel to discuss the topic at the Headliners Club in Austin. The Headliners Club has for more than 60 years discussed news and major events with a membership of members of the news media and government as well as business leaders in Texas. And the Headliners Foundation of Texas annually provides excellent scholarships for students studying journalism and communications.
The second panelist was ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd. The moderator was veteran journalist and chair of the Headliners Foundation of Texas Board of Governors Mark Morrison. We had a lively discussion in front of a packed Headliners Club. (The food and the cocktails at the Headliners Club are exactly as I remember them. Excellent.) Matthew and I were asked to grade Trump’s first 100 days. Matthew gave Trump an incomplete; I gave him a C. Perhaps it’s my tendency as a professor to want to attach a fixed grade. We both agreed that Trump’s biggest accomplishment has been the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch, 49 years old, is a solid conservative and should be an influence on the court for decades. His background and education are of a superb legal intellectual.
We discussed at length the various failures of the new Trump administration, and they are many. Clearly, not making good on the promise to repeal and replace Obamacare is a major failure. His travel restrictions from Muslim countries and his effort to block funding to sanctuary cities are tied up in the courts. His recently announced tax reform, in which he seeks a major reduction in the corporate tax rate and an increase in the personal deduction, is being met with scorn from Democrats and some general skepticism. I predicted, however, that Trump will be successful in getting some type of a major rewrite of the tax code. Even the most skeptical Democrats would agree that a revised, comprehensible tax code would be a good thing.
In assigning a grade to Trump’s first 100 days, I noted that his supporters generally have a different take on the news. For the most part, they are not seeing a daily catalog of failures and shortcomings that are the headlines on the major evening newscasts, The New York Times and The Washington Post. My comment to the Headliners Club was this: “Most Trump supporters are saying, ‘Yes, by God, we got our man elected. He’s moved into that White House and he’s giving ’em hell at every turn. Just what we wanted.'” And I think polling bears that out. His hard-core supporters like what he’s doing. They live a different reality than the mainstream news media, particularly the Eastern media. Which is why so many in the media were surprised that he won in the first place, and why Democrats remain so embittered.
I noted in an earlier blog and op-ed that Trump’s erratic and often angry campaign has morphed into a presidency of like tendencies. I think a grade of C is appropriate. He’s been average. No more and no less. But it has been pointed out, and noted at our Headliners discussion, that presidents have had a bad first 100 days and then gone on to be considered very good. Harry Truman is such an example. And there have been others have an excellent start in the first 100 days and then go on to be considered poor presidents. Jimmy Carter is such an example.
We were also asked about Trump’s characterization of journalists as “enemies of the people.” I said it was of course nothing more than Trump’s hyperbolic approach to his Twitter feed and much of his commentary in general. Nonetheless, I said that words can be hurtful. There is certainly enough criticism of modern news media, and much of it is deserved. But if we forget the traditional and necessary role of the news media in democracy and in modern society, we will err grievously. I said that we have been on a path of the last 20 years in which news media essentially have been marginalized by government. I noted the unprecedented seizure of Associated Press phone records by the Eric Holder Justice Department in one of the numerous and relentless leak investigations during the Obama administration. I noted the USA Patriot Act, passed within weeks of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, that did serious damage to access to public information. And I said that the Federal Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1966 and signed by President Lyndon Johnson, had been a global model for government transparency but now is crippled by bureaucracy, inefficiency and a government tendency to want to operate in secret. I said at the Headliners meeting that my friend and colleague Mike Wilson, editor of The Dallas Morning News, had written a nicely nuanced column in response to the Trump tweet on journalists. Being a journalist and editor has never been easy, and today’s hostile environment, not to mention the economic situation for most news media, has made journalism and news especially difficult. Before leaving this topic, I noted that Hillary Clinton despises and distrusts the news media every bit as much as does Donald Trump. She just doesn’t tweet about it.
Of the major news reports on Trump’s first 100 days, one of the best to me has been done by John Dickerson of CBS News. The highlights are in several segments of video on the CBS website. There is also a full transcript of the interview available.
I predict Trump will be more successful than many Democrats can stand and less successful than many Republicans want. At the Headliners discussion, both Matthew and I agreed that international issues could create a crisis in which Trump could enjoy popular support. The rally-round-the-flag sentiment is historically very powerful. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is kooky and very likely mentally unstable. He is a wild card in a world of unpredictable and dangerous currents and events. But also unpredictable will be whether Trump’s tax plan and domestic policies can fuel real economic growth. The general economic malaise has been a part of the angst that fueled Trump’s candidacy and his election. The U.S. has also had a bull market that just turned eight years old and economic growth that has been steady if unspectacular. A recession is coming. Who can say when? But one will indeed come. And if Trump should be unlucky enough to be president when it comes, he will be blamed. And any good that he does will fall into the black hole of the harsh judgment of presidential history.