Whatever side you’re on in the debate over journalism these days, you’re not going to like some of what I have to say. Let’s start with a basic fact. President Donald Trump is engaged in the most direct, sustained assault on the free press in our history. Since early in the campaign, he has done everything he can to delegitimize the media — attacking us institutionally and individually. And I think his purpose is clear: a concerted campaign to raise doubts over whether we can be trusted when we report critically about his administration.
According to the Trump Twitter Archive, between Jan. 10 and the end of October, Trump tweeted about “fake news” 141 times. One stands out. On Feb. 17, the president tweeted this: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews , @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy. It is the enemy of the American People!” And that was precisely his point. If we report negatively about something he’s doing, we are hurting the country.
Reince Priebus, then the White House chief of staff, was my guest on “Fox News Sunday” two days later. When I asked him about the president’s tweet, he complained that, yes, we covered what Trump did, but that “as soon as it’s over, the next 20 hours is all about Russian spies.” I answered: “You don’t get to tell us what to do any more than Barack Obama. He whined about Fox News all the time. But he never said we were the enemy of the people.”
But don’t take it from me. Listen to William McRaven, a Navy SEAL for 37 years, the man in charge of the missions that captured Saddam Hussein and killed Osama bin Laden. McRaven graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in journalism. He’s now the chancellor of the University of Texas system. And after the president’s tweet, he told students: “This sentiment may be the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.”
Remember, this is a man who fought the Soviet Union, who fought Islamist terrorism. But when I asked him about his comments, he said, “Those threats brought us together. Both the president and I swore an oath to the Constitution. And the First Amendment of that Constitution is freedom of the press. When the president says the media is the enemy of the people, to me that undermines the Constitution. So I do think it is a tremendous threat to our democracy.”
It turns out McRaven may have understated the threat. A Politico poll a couple of weeks ago found that 46 percent of voters believe major news organizations make up stories about Trump. A Newseum Institute poll in May found 23 percent think the First Amendment “goes too far.” And 74 percent don’t think “fake news” should be protected by the First Amendment.
But there is another side to this debate, as there usually is. There’s an old saying: “Even hypochondriacs sometimes get sick.” And even if Trump is trying to undermine the press for his own calculated reasons, when he talks about bias in the media — unfairness — I think he has a point.
On Nov. 10, 2016 — two days after the election, here was the lead paragraph of a front-page article in The New York Times: “The American political establishment reeled on Wednesday as leaders in both parties began coming to grips with four years of President Donald J. Trump in the White House, a once-unimaginable scenario that has now plunged the United States and its allies and adversaries into a period of deep uncertainty about the policies and impact of his Administration.” “Reeled ... coming to grips ... unimaginable ... plunged.” Could they have come up with any more buzzwords?
On Feb. 16, this was the lead on the CBS Evening News: “It has been a busy day for presidential statements divorced from reality.” A week later, this was the lead: “The president’s troubles today were not with the media — but with the facts.”
On Aug. 2, this was the report from CNN’s White House correspondent: “This White House has an unhealthy fixation on what I call the three M’s: the Mexicans, the Muslims, and the media. Their policies tend to be crafted around bashing one of these three groups.”
Now, I’m sure some of you hear those comments and think they’re “spot on.” But ask yourself — honestly — do they belong on the front page of the paper? Or the lead of the evening news?
I believe some of my colleagues — many of my colleagues — think this president has gone so far over the line bashing the media, it has given them an excuse to cross the line themselves, to push back. As tempting as that may be, I think it’s a big mistake.
We are not players in the game. We are umpires, or observers, trying to be objective witnesses to what is going on. That doesn’t mean we’re stenographers. If the president — or anyone we’re covering — says something untrue or does something questionable, we can and should report it.
But we shouldn’t be drawn into becoming players on the field, trying to match the people we cover in invective. It’s not our role. We’re not as good at it as they are. And we’re giving up our special place in our democracy. There’s enough to report about this president that we don’t need to offer opinions or put our thumb on the scale.
Chris Wallace is anchor of “Fox News Sunday.” This op-ed is adapted from a speech he gave Nov. 9 to the International Center for Journalists.