The press is the enemy of the people? No, writes veteran journalist Kalb (Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War, 2015, etc.): That’s just another presidential projection.
In a sense, the free press is its own defense as a guarantor of a free society. But only in a sense, and it has frequently come under attack, especially under the administrations of Richard Nixon and now Donald Trump. Of the latter, the author, now associated with the Brookings Institution, confesses to not having taken him seriously, adding, “and when I did, finally, it was too late.” Trump constantly attacks the press as the ocean attacks the beach, gnawing away at it so when journalists present evidence of his bad behavior, he can brush it away. Ironically, as Kalb notes, an early master of this strategy was Democratic advance man Pat Caddell, who worked for Jimmy Carter before going over to the Breitbart side of the force and pushing the thesis that the press was an instrument of the elite—and worse yet, “the network anchors and newspaper columnists themselves had become part of the elite, and they had to be made the target of an angry, outlier candidate.” Enter Trump. While not necessarily sanguine about the chances, Kalb looks closely at the clash of visions between Joseph McCarthy and Dwight Eisenhower more than 60 years ago, with the hopeful thought that some like force might help temper Trump. However, he notes, McCarthy “was the most popular Republican in the country” after Ike himself. McCarthy connects to Roy Cohn, and Cohn to Trump, who learned his lessons well: Never admit error, and never apologize. While there’s a little too much appeal here to the ghost of Edward R. Murrow and perhaps not enough practical resistance, the author rightly points out how the media brought some of the trouble on themselves by allowing Trump all the oxygen in the room—which can be fixed.
In this brief yet vigorous broadside, Kalb concludes that the media must shoulder the burden of checking the authoritarian impulse at work today: “There is no other option.”