By David K. Shipler
When will we stop listening to Donald Trump? Yes, he’s president with a lot of power to make people’s lives miserable, but his tweets? Please. His latest, at this writing, is an attack on an ad (“a bad one”) for the “failing @nytimes” scheduled to air during the Oscars ceremony. The Times ad declares: “The truth is hard. The truth is hard to find. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important now than ever.” How fitting that Trump should make his debut in the art of reviewing TV commercials by panning one that extols the virtue of truth.
It might be imperative in a democracy to remain shocked, to sound the alarm again and again. But at what point does the public become numb to presidential absurdity? How literally do we take his historical allusion, for example, calling the “fake news” media the “enemy of the people.” Did Trump know that he was borrowing a line from Lenin and Stalin that was used as a condemnation deserving of death or imprisonment? The phrase is so heavily weighted that it was avoided in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953.
The Times ad selling truth follows the exclusion of the paper’s reporters, plus those from CNN, the Los Angeles Times, and several other news organizations, from an informal briefing by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, whose contempt for the press seems to have begun in college when the student newspaper called him Sean Sphincter. Editors then insisted it was just a mistake, a typo. Yeah, sure. Spicer doesn’t seem to have healed.
His briefing ban got news media huffing and puffing indignantly, and rightly so on principle. But let’s be candid for a moment. Sitting through Spicer’s lies and fulminations must be torment. If I were covering the White House, I’d be relieved at being excluded. I learned very little at most White House briefings I attended in the 1980s, when I was The Times Chief Diplomatic Correspondent. When I read recently that the State Department hadn’t been doing its customary daily briefing under Trump, I silently envied those who now cover the place. Every day was a tedious bore, with reporters trying mightily to advance a story a quarter-inch as the press secretary flipped through a loose-leaf binder to find the page with the pre-cooked answers to anticipated questions. I loathed those sessions and got much more out of individual interviews in diplomats’ offices.
Indeed, when I worked at The Times, I knew hardly any reporters who liked the White House beat. A few did, but most found it too confining, the news too formulaic, the information flow too dependent on silver-tongued officials who could slide their way so smoothly around a fact that it usually floated away unscathed. Trump’s White House is different, of course, because it’s permeated with leaks. It’s so appalling that it must be more fun to cover.
You see, in the perverse but essential world of a free press, the worse the situation, the better the story. This came through to me once during several days and nights I spent at a Bronx firehouse, one of New York City’s busiest. As it happened, nothing happened. That is, there were no fires other than one pile of trash smoldering in a vacant lot. The firefighters, keen to show me the tough side of their jobs, were reduced to telling stories.
One after another, they described one “good fire” after another “good fire” from last week or the week before, and I finally realized that they and I were kind of in the same line of work. I told them that they spoke of a “good fire” the way we journalists spoke of a “good story.” Not to be too cynical about it, but a bad situation makes a “good story.” They got it.
So, the obnoxious, dangerous White House is a “good story,” even as some of Trump’s cabinet secretaries try to sweep up the mess he makes with his tweets. If their clean-up operation continues thoroughly enough, perhaps his tweets and his rants—which are still in the mode of campaign rhetoric—will gradually be taken less seriously and become like scribbled epithets in the margins of actual policy. In foreign affairs so far, that seems to be happening. Not so in domestic affairs, including immigration, where his tough talk has animated tough enforcement. The same is likely in some of the regulatory agencies that protect Americans, which are poised for actual destruction by his appointees.
At this point, then, alertness to the health of our precious democracy requires us to keep listening to the small man with the big mouth, in case his words—damaging enough as words—get translated into action. Someday, perhaps, the country will be able to ease its tension by tuning him out. But not yet.