Sunday January 15, 2017

Dear journalists: To cover Trump, remember I.F. Stone - Michael's essay

US President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a press conference January 11, 2017 at Trump Tower in New York.

US President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a press conference January 11, 2017 at Trump Tower in New York. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Listen 4:47

American news organizations and the journalists who work for them are hopping from one foot to the other these days, trying to figure out how to report on the incoming Trump Administration.

How difficult it will be was chaotically demonstrated during Wednesday's train wreck of a press conference.

It was depressing. The President-elect played the reporters like a cheap violin. It was like watching a schoolyard bully kicking a supine opponent.

In a recent New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof said reporters had to try harder to become watchdogs and not lapdogs.

Isidor Feinstein Stone, who died in 1989, was a revolutionary. He never went to a press conference. He never attended a White House briefing or held an off-the-record chat with a politician or a bureaucrat. - Michael Enright

Even something as simple as covering the day to day activities of the president-elect himself has raised a whole new series of questions and self-examinations by the country's political reporting elite.

For example, how does a reporter cover a story in which the incoming president tells a bald-faced lie?

This came up time and time again during the primary and general election campaigns.

Finally at one point, The New York Times instructed its reporters to call a lie a lie.

But at New Year's, Gerard Baker, the editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, announced his reporters would not use the word lie in their coverage.

He said that many of Donald Trump's assertions were questionable and challengeable but: "I'd be careful about using the word lie. Lie implies something much more than saying something that's false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead."

He did not add, tongue in cheek, that Donald Trump would never, ever deliberately mislead. 

Down the street at The Times, the editor Dean Baquet worried that Mr. Trump will, early in his administration, set out to destroy the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press. "He has said things that should make all journalists nervous about his view of the First Amendment." 

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President-elect Donald Trump talks to Vice President-elect Mike Pence during a press conference at Trump Tower in New York on January 11, 2017. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

It has been pretty much established that journalism's coverage of Donald Trump over the past year was something approaching disastrous.

In the first place, reporters and pundits never took him seriously. They thought he couldn't win the GOP nomination let alone the White House.

Among those who got everything terribly wrong was your congenial radio host. Two days before the election, I assured an audience in Port Hope, Ontario that Trump would never be elected.  After all, I averred proudly, I had done the arithmetic.

Television networks were worse. The three US majors broadcast a grand total of 36 minutes on election issues. The rest was all Trump.

But as the president of CBS said about the Trump campaign, "It may not be good for America but it's damn good for CBS." 

US political reporters, especially young ones, could do everybody a favour by spending 90 minutes watching a terrific Canadian-made documentary entitled ALL GOVERNMENTS LIE.

It tells the story of I.F. Stone, the diminutive gadfly who set the gold standard in investigative reporting in the Fifties and Sixties with a small newsletter called I.F. Stone's Weekly.

Blacklisted from getting a regular job on a newspaper during the McCarthy nightmare, he decided to set up his own shop.

Isidor Feinstein Stone, who died in 1989, was a revolutionary. He never went to a press conference. He never attended a White House briefing or held an off-the-record chat with a politician or a bureaucrat.

Instead he pored over thousands of public documents, picking up contradictions, obfuscations, and untruths. He wrote the newsletter in his home while his wife Esther handled the business affairs.

It is his contention that all governments lie, that gives the film its title.

Reading I.F. Stone as a teenager was, in part, why I wanted to become a reporter. 

Years later when I was based in Washington, I met Stone but was too awestruck to talk to him at any length. 

It is interesting that the documentary, which is winning awards all over the world, was made in Canada by Canadians.

Given the parlous state of journalism in the United States, plus the fact that mainstream journalism is held in such low public esteem, I'm really not sure it could have been made there.

Click the button above to hear Michael's essay.