Longtime conservative critics of a prevailing center-left bias in the press won a significant victory this week. In celebrating their success, however, those same media skeptics are sacrificing the credibility they have spent years accumulating and husbanding by coupling their fortunes with those of President Donald Trump.
Conservatives have long condemned a prevailing culture in the press in which preserving a cordial relationship between reporter and subject seemed to be the principle objective. It has taken the inauguration of a president with whom reporters have a bitterly hostile relationship to reinvigorate the conscience of the press. That reorientation accelerated over the weekend following a humiliating display in which White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway promoted an insultingly thin narrative in which Americans were asked not to believe their own eyes.
The journalistic class has been so offended by Spicer’s claim that this sparsely attended inauguration had “the largest audience” of any prior inauguration that they implicitly conceded many of the points that conservative media critics have been making for the last eight years. “The traditional way of reporting–digging–is back,” averred McClatchy’s Washington editor, Kristin Roberts. “It’s the lazy, modern way that relies on handouts that might now be dead.” Roberts was remarking on a Washington Post column from media columnist and former New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who quoted numerous journalists newly endowed with a steely resolve to do journalistic combat with this White House.
Conservatives should welcome this new sense of mission in members of the Fourth Estate, even if the timing is more than a little irritating. Journalists did not react with such ire when Jay Carney was insisting that he knew at least three Hilary Rosens, or when they were being manipulated (as former Deputy NSA Ben Rhodes confessed) to sell untruths about the Iran nuclear deal to a skeptical public. At a moment in which the journalistic establishment is essentially conceding their point, conservative media critics are entitled to some triumphalism. They would be better served, however, to check that impulse. Few of the right’s most strident media critics have adjusted to their new reality.
For conservatives, an antagonistic relationship with the press is baked into their DNA. They are used to being the plucky outsiders raging against an entrenched and closed system in Washington. During the Obama years, the powerful and the press enjoyed a symbiotic relationship at which conservatives took regular shots. At least, that was how the right saw it. That traditional power dynamic has been turned on its head. Conservative media critics are no longer the David in this relationship; they have a vocal ally in the Oval Office. Standing before a memorial to those Americans who perished in U.S. clandestine operations on Saturday, Trump insisted that he is prosecuting a “running war” with the “dishonest media.” Conservative media critics are his de facto foot soldiers in that war. They’re the man now.
Those on the right who are taking a victory lap today cite opinion polling that shows the public has a historically low estimation of the political press. In combination with the election of someone who is himself a media critic to the White House—a figure who won the presidency while railing against the reporting establishment—that suggests to them that media is well and truly discredited. This is wishful thinking. The institution of political journalism will not disappear over the course of Trump’s presidency. Indeed, there are promising albeit early indications that the practice will enter a renaissance in the Trump era. Conservatives risk sacrificing some of the resonance of their argument against the practice of political reporting by harnessing their movement to a presidency that has an antagonistic relationship with the truth.
Not only is Donald Trump an unpopular president who may tarnish Republican politicians by association, but he could also compel conservative media critics to sacrifice their credibility. Standing by the president, the left will be able to claim–with some justification– conservative media critics’ goal isn’t the restoration of objectivity and skepticism in reporting. Precisely the opposite, in fact. They want to ensure biased reporting benefits them and their allies. And one of those allies is the most powerful person on earth.
Over the years, conservative criticisms of the press have resonated more than those who issue those criticisms often acknowledge. In the past, the self-evident validity of their frustration with individual acts of reportorial bias was lent moral authority by the fact that conservatives suffered from a power imbalance. The authority of their arguments may remain intact, but their influence has changed dramatically. If they come to be seen as handmaidens for the president, their fortunes will rise and fall with his. That would be a tragedy not just for conservatives but for objective journalism, too.
Caution, Conservative Media Critics
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A doctrine is taking shape.
With all of Washington consumed by the effort to craft and pass health-care legislation, the Trump White House appeared to catch the country’s political establishment off guard when it announced that the crisis in Syria was again reaching a crescendo.
In a prepared statement, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer revealed that the Bashar al-Assad regime was engaged in “potential preparations” to execute “another chemical attack” on civilians. “[If] Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price,” the statement read.
Hours later, the Pentagon expounded upon the nature of the threat. “We have seen activity at Shayrat Airfield,” said Captain Jeff Davis, “associated with chemical weapons.” The Shayrat Air Base outside the city of Homs is the same airfield that was targeted in April with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
For all the frustration over the Trump administration’s failure to craft a coherent strategy to guide American engagement in the Syrian theater, the White House has communicated to the Assad regime a set of clear parameters in which it is expected to operate. That is a marked improvement over the approach taken by Barack Obama’s administration.
When American forces in Syria or those under the American defense umbrella are threatened by the Assad regime or its proxies, American forces will take action. On several occasions, U.S. forces have made kinetic defensive strikes on pro-government militias, and that policy recently expanded to include Syrian regular forces. On June 18, a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber was destroyed when it struck American-backed fighters laying siege to the ISIS-held city of Raqqa.
The Trump administration has also telegraphed to Damascus the limited conditions that would lead to offensive operations against regime targets. At the risk of contradicting his campaign-trail promise to scale back American commitments abroad, President Trump was convinced at the urging of his closest advisors and family members following the April 4 chemical attacks to execute strikes on the Assad regime. His administration was quick to communicate that this was a one-time punitive measure, not a campaign. There would be no follow-on action.
That directive may no longer be operative. With the release of this latest statement warning Damascus against renewed chemical strikes on rebel targets, the triggers that led to strikes on regime targets in April are hardening into a doctrine. The United States will act aggressively to maintain a global prohibition on the use of weapons of mass destruction. There is enough consistency and clarity to Trump’s approach that it might amount to deterrence. Even if the Assad regime is not deterred, onlookers may yet be.
This is a doctrine that Barack Obama flirted with, but declined only at the last minute to adopt. “As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them,” Obama explained to the nation in a primetime address on September 10, 2013. “Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians.”
This was and remains a prophetic warning. ISIS militants have already deployed chemical munitions against Iraqi troops and their American and Australian advisors. An inauspicious future typified by despots unafraid to unleash indiscriminate and unconventional weapons on the battlefield would surely have come to fruition had the West not eventually made good on Obama’s threats.
Obama framed his about-face as an odd species of consistency. He deferred to Congress in a way he hadn’t before and wouldn’t after while simultaneously empowering Moscow to mediate the conflict. This laid the groundwork for Russian armed intervention in Syria just two years later. In contrast, Donald Trump eschewed the rote dance of coalition-building and public diplomacy. Instead, he ordered the unilateral, punitive strike on a rogue for behaving roguishly. And he’s willing to do it again if need be.
That approach will prove refreshing to America’s Sunni allies who, by the end of the last administration, were entirely disillusioned with the Obama presidency. Obama’s waltz back from his red line undermined the Gulf States and shattered hopes in Syria that the West was prepared to enforce the proscription on mass civilian slaughter. In the week of war drums leading up to the anti-climax of September 10, 2013, a wave of defections from the Syrian Army suggested that a post-Assad future was possible. Today, few think such a prospect is conceivable. And because the insurgency against Assad’s regime will not end with Assad in power, an equal number cannot foresee a stop to the Syrian civil war anytime soon.
These circumstances have led some to criticize the Trump administration. Perhaps the behaviors they’ve resolved to punish are too narrowly defined. Maybe the White House should rethink regime change? It is, after all, not so much a civil war anymore but a great power conflict. American troops—to say nothing of Russian, Turkish, British, French, and a host of others—are already on the ground in Syria in numbers and at cross purposes. Still others contend that even this level of engagement in the Levant is irresponsible. They argue the Syrian quagmire is to be avoided at all costs.
These are all legitimate criticisms, but only now can there be a rational debate over a concrete Syria policy.
For more than three years, Barack Obama tried to have his cake and eat it, too. He presented himself as sagaciously unmoved by the political pressuring of Washington’s pro-war establishment, which salivates over the prospect of lucrative strikes on an alien nation. At the same time, the Obama White House cast itself as a reluctant defender of civilization in the Middle East and elsewhere—perhaps even too quick to deploy men and ordnance. This was only nonsense retrofitted onto Barack Obama’s pursuit of a face-saving way to retreat from his self-set “red line.”
The Trump administration’s policy in Syria is an improvement over Obama’s if only because it deserves to be called a policy. Love it or don’t, at least Americans are no longer being gaslighted into debating the merits of phantasms invented by political strategists in Washington talk shops.
This isn't about politics.
On June 23, the Washington Post ran a comprehensive article reviewing the Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, which involved stealing emails from Democratic Party accounts and releasing them via Wikileaks. The outstanding work of reporters Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous shows that there was a bipartisan, cascading failure to respond adequately to this attack on our democracy. That attack began under President Obama and is continuing under President Trump.
The Post revealed that the CIA had “sourcing deep inside the Russian government” showing that Vladimir Putin had personally tasked his intelligence agencies with “audacious objectives—defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.”
Obama was informed of this while the election was underway, but he did little.
… the Obama administration secretly debated dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia, including cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin and sanctions that officials said could ‘crater’ the Russian economy.
But in the end, in late December, Obama approved a modest package combining measures that had been drawn up to punish Russia for other issues — expulsions of 35 diplomats and the closure of two Russian compounds — with economic sanctions so narrowly targeted that even those who helped design them describe their impact as largely symbolic.
The article went on to quote “a former senior Obama administration official involved in White House deliberations on Russia” who said: “It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. I feel like we sort of choked.”
In fairness to Obama, he tried to seek bipartisan support to expose Russia’s machinations and found no interest among the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, who were plainly more worried about losing an election than about this Russian attack on our democracy. Obama knew that if he had spoken out more forcefully, Trump and his Republican supporters would have hammered him for allegedly trying to “rig” the election for “Crooked Hillary.”
That doesn’t excuse Obama’s failure of leadership. He was the commander-in-chief; it was his responsibility. It does make clear, however, that he was worried not just about the possibility of worsening relations with Russia but also about being charged with a partisan interference in the election.
The failure to react more strongly to the Russian hack extends now into the Trump administration. Trump’s reaction to the Post story is indicative of his troubling mindset. The day before the Post story came out, Trump claimed on Twitter that reports of Russian interference—as unanimously attested to by his own intelligence agencies—are “all a big Dem HOAX!” Following the publication of the Post’s story, he tweeted: “Just out: The Obama Administration knew far in advance of November 8th about election meddling by Russia. Did nothing about it. WHY?”
Given that the Obama administration had publicly called out Russian interference in October, it’s hard to imagine why this would be news to Trump now.
The benefit of the doubt ends there. Trump’s next reaction was purely cynical. “Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 Election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T!” So when Trump is accused of collusion with the Russians or other wrong-doing, he claims that the entire Russian operation is a “hoax.” But when he wants to accuse Obama of wrongdoing, then he stipulates that the hacking was real.
For Trump, this is a purely partisan issue. The Democrats are out to get to him, to de-legitimize his election victory, and he will say or do anything to stop them—even if that means denying the reality of the Russian operation one moment and admitting it the next. There is no indication that he has treated this attack with the gravity it deserves, which makes it more likely that the Russians will be up to their old tricks in future elections, just as they have been doing recently in Europe.
Trump is right to castigate Obama for not doing more, but the same criticism now applies to him.
How the West was dug.
Next Tuesday marks the beginning of the 242nd year of the independence of the United States, and the day will be justly celebrated with parades, picnics, and fireworks from Hawaii to Maine.
But next Tuesday will also mark another anniversary of surpassing historical importance to this country. For it was on July 4th, 1817, 200 years ago, that the first shovelful of dirt was dug and the construction of the Erie Canal began. Finished eight years later (ahead of schedule and under budget) it united the east coast with the fast-growing trans-Appalachian west.
It was a monumental undertaking. At 363 miles, the canal was more than twice as long as any earlier canal. (The Canal du Midi in southern France was 140 miles in length.) Thomas Jefferson thought the project “little short of madness.” But Governor Dewitt Clinton saw the possibilities and went ahead, artfully handling the very considerable political opposition and arranged the financing (much of the money was raised in London).
Clinton was quickly proved right and the Erie Canal can claim to be the most consequential public works project in American history. Before the canal, bulk goods such as grain could reach the east coast population centers only by going down the Mississippi River and out through the port of New Orleans. With the canal, it could travel via the Great Lakes and the canal to the port of New York. Before the canal, it had taken six weeks to move a barrel of flour from Buffalo to New York City, at the cost of $100. With the canal, it took six days and cost $6.00. The result was an economic revolution.
Within a few years, New York City had become, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes (the doctor and poet, not his son the Supreme Court justice), “that tongue that is licking up the cream of commerce of a continent.” The city exploded in size, expanding northwards at the rate of about two blocks a year. That may not seem like much, but Manhattan is about two miles wide, and thus the city was adding about ten miles of street front every year, a pace that continued for decades.
The cost of the canal was paid off in only eight years and thereafter became a cash cow for the state. This allowed it to weather the crash of 1837 and the following depression, which bankrupted the state of Pennsylvania and crippled Philadelphia’s banks. New York quickly became the country’s undisputed financial center, which it has been ever since.
And while goods were moving eastwards, people were moving westward through the canal as farmers deserted the thin, stony soils of New England for the rich, deep loams of Ohio and Indiana. This “New England diaspora” moved the political center of the country westwards.
The canal era in this country was a brief one as railroads, beginning in the 1830’s, began to spread. But the Erie Canal continued to function as an artery of commerce until the 1970’s and is still used today for things that, usually for reasons of size, cannot be moved by highway or railroad. And it remains a popular avenue for recreational boating.
So Americans should remember Dewitt Clinton next week just as we remember Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin. For New Yorkers, that goes double. For it was the Erie Canal that put the “empire” in the Empire State.
From the July/August COMMENTARY symposium.
The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:
We’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.
The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.
The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.
But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.
The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.
The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.
Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.
The travel ban is saved, for now.
President Trump got a much-needed win today when the Supreme Court allowed part of his executive order on immigration to take effect, vacating stays issued by lower courts. The justices will decide the fate of the executive order in the fall. Judging by today’s ruling, it’s possible that Trump will triumph, at least in part, if only because the president has broad authority to restrict entry into the United States by anyone who is not a citizen or permanent resident. But even if Trump’s executive order proves to be legal, that doesn’t mean that it’s wise or necessary from a security standpoint.
The Department of Homeland Security can now keep out nationals of six Muslim countries—Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen—as long as those nationals cannot “credibly claim a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.” Prepare for more litigation to figure out what constitutes a “bona fide relationship,” a new, arbitrary standard invented by the justices to modify the arbitrary standard invented by President Trump. What does any of this have to do with the dictates of counter-terrorism—the ostensible justification for the travel ban? Not much.
There is no history in the United States of terrorist acts committed by nationals of the six countries in question. As a Cato analyst noted, back when the ban still applied to Iraq as well as the six other countries: “Nationals of the seven countries singled out by Trump have killed zero people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and 2015.”
In justifying the travel ban, Trump’s original executive order on January 27 made its main argument the 9/11 attacks, “when State Department policy prevented consular officers from properly scrutinizing the visa applications of several of the 19 foreign nationals who went on to murder nearly 3,000 American.” But the 9/11 attacks were committed by 15 Saudis, 2 Emiratis, 1 Egyptian, and 1 Lebanese—none of whom would be covered under the Trump travel ban. That’s not an argument for enlarging the ban but merely a commentary on the fact that the executive order as crafted is utterly disconnected from any actual security threat.
This reality is further underlined by the fact that when the original executive order was issued on January 27, the Trump administration claimed that it had to suspend all entry for nationals of seven Muslim countries for 90 days—and of all refugees from all over the world for 120 days. The stated intent of that order was to “ensure the proper review and maximum utilization of available resources for the screening of foreign nationals, and to ensure that adequate standards are established to prevent infiltration by foreign terrorists or criminals.”
Well, it’s now been 150 days since that executive order was issued—and we have not experienced any attacks by the hordes of terrorists that Trump claimed were waiting to rush into the United States when his executive order was suspended. And yet the administration is now arguing that it needs at least 90 more days to come up with vetting procedures for the entry of nationals of the six Muslim countries in question. Why haven’t the previous 150 days sufficed to make entry requirements as stringent as they need to be? In reality, there is no evidence that Homeland Security has had to strengthen already rigorous admission standards significantly.
President Trump gave away his real motives for pursuing the travel ban, in spite of the original justification lapsing, when he tweeted in favor of it on June 3 just minutes after a terrorist attack in London. “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough,” he wrote. “We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” When Trump sent that tweet, the nationality of the attackers was not known. (They would subsequently be identified as a British citizen born in Pakistan, an Italian citizen born in Morocco, and a Moroccan who had been granted residency in the European Union because of his marriage to an Irish woman.)
All that anyone knew at that point is that the attackers were Muslims. So Trump was clearly signaling that his real worry is not about the six countries in question—none of which had anything to do with the London attack—but with Muslims in general. In keeping with his campaign rhetoric, which catered to anti-Muslim bigotry, Trump evidently wants to keep as many Muslims out of the country as possible.
It will be up to the Supreme Court to rule on whether Trump can do so under the Constitution. From a security standpoint, this blanket animus against Muslims is highly counterproductive. It would make no sense, even if it were legally possible, to keep out all Muslims—including citizens of American allies from Britain to Saudi Arabia. It’s not even clear that this is possible to do: How would immigration agents know that someone is a Muslim or not? Passports don’t ordinarily list religion.
The U.S. needs the cooperation of moderate Muslims, both at home and abroad, to fight the scourge of terrorism, which has claimed far more Muslim lives than those of Christians or Jews. That means we shouldn’t alienate Muslims by trying to ban them from the United States. The U.S. should be trying to gather as much intelligence as possible on terrorist designs from within Muslim communities, both domestically and abroad, while at the same time carefully screening anyone, Muslim or not, who seeks entry to the United States.
But that’s not very sexy. It’s, in fact, the status quo. Trump seems intent on some big, showy, symbolic act, no matter how counterproductive, to demonstrate that he is doing more to combat terrorism than Obama. The Supreme Court may just let him get away with it.