Cocalico Corner: Red, white, and true

By on July 5, 2017
Cocalico Corner Donna Reed

Okay, it’s the Fifth of July and I, for one, have had enough.

I’ve had enough of the attacks and the viciousness played out in social media and led by no other than our President of the United States.

I said “our” and “United States.” But, right now, from where I stand, neither seems accurate.

Like tens of thousands of Americans, I have spent my life in a career I’ve considered a calling. From childhood, I’ve considered myself a patriot and working for the free press guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution was my way of putting that patriotism into everyday action.

I’ve been lucky enough to get a taste of national journalism in my college and post-college year in Washington, D.C. I shadowed national print reporters through the halls of Congress to the White House briefing room to the State Department in Foggy Bottom.

In those days, prior to 24/7 cable news, I witnessed journalists and elected officials interacting. I did see some disagreements regarding coverage, but never did I encounter a meanness of demeanor nor abusive language. And this was during the heated days of Watergate and its politically chaotic aftermath.

Returning home after D.C., I was lucky to join the staff of the Reading Eagle, the afternoon daily. Over the years, I was assigned to everything from the Reading School District, bankruptcy court, local police and crime, county courts and government, medical, City Hall, and business beats. I was also fortunate enough to be able to write a weekly column. And, in time, I became an editor.

Over those 23 years, there clearly were uncomfortable moments. In the late 1970s, when the FBI was investigating the Reading School District, some didn’t like the coverage. Once on the medical beat, I confused two kinds of skin cancer and the irate physician tracked me down at my home to loudly berate me and greatly upset my mother. Another time, when I was sitting on the city desk, an individual prominently featured in a crime log item threatened to “come in there and teach you a lesson.” It was the one and only time my colleagues and I had to alert in-house security and the city police as a precaution.

I cite these incidents for a reason: the first and last drew strong reactions because of the content published. The second incident was a genuine error — one which was corrected for the record, something any respectable news entity must do not just to rectify a mistake, but to reinforce the institution’s credibility.

That brings me back to the First Amendment and the free press. This background is some of the stuff upon which my working life and my respect for journalism is built. In the U.S., it’s not the journalist’s job to report what people want to see, hear, or read; it’s to report the truth no matter how uncomfortable it may be. And, it’s also incumbent upon us all to correct errors of content when brought to our attention.

Over the past couple years, the candidate who would be president has diligently built a campaign to discredit the media. In mid February, he Tweeted it “is the enemy of the American people.”

If the free press is indeed that, then the First Amendment is also the enemy of us all.

What Trump doesn’t like is being questioned and his actions covered. He has been criticized for his cabinet appointments, his nepotistic appointments to the White House staff, his numerous weekends away from D.C., his interactions with world leaders, his executive orders including the travel ban, the proposed border wall, his determination to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and, in general, the verbiage and demeanor his late-night early-morning Tweets have displayed.

Well, guess what, Mr. Trump — you’re not leading your own business anymore. You are the leader of this nation, and, what traditionally was considered the leader of the free world. It’s not that you should be — you must be a role model.

The press has the obligation to cover your presidency and report to the American people. Every president since George Washington has served under the scrutiny of the free press.

Have the relationships all been cozy? Not quite.

It’s likely you could find instances in which each American commander in chief has tangled with the press. Andrew Jackson did so from personal matters to the great controversy surrounding the re-chartering of the Second Bank of America in the 1820s. Abraham Lincoln was vilified both preceding and after taking the oath of office from his looks to his stances on slavery. Warren G. Harding did not deal well with coverage of the Teapot Dome Scandal. Franklin D. Roosevelt, while deified by some, was routinely taken to task as an elitist despite his successful WPA programs to help the Depression-impacted jobless, his creation of Social Security, and his leadership during World War II.

Harry Truman and the press were frequently at loggerheads: no one can forget that iconic photo with him gleefully displaying the newspaper headline: “Dewey defeats Truman.” Dwight D. Eisenhower liked to keep the media at a comfortable distance.

Lyndon B. Johnson was as suspicious of the press as his martyred predecessor was enamored of it. The intense coverage of the Vietnam War, including the impassioned commentary of venerated news anchor Walter Cronkite that it needed to end, was a key factor in LBJ not seeking re-election.

Then there was Richard Nixon and the Watergate affair, the undoing of a power-driven ego uncovered by two tenacious police beat reporters. The generally gentle Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, but the coverage of that pardon would contribute to his defeat to Jimmy Carter, a man as cool to the media as his White House was in those energy-challenged days of the late 1970s.

Ronald Reagan wasn’t called the Great Communicator for nothing; despite the dawn of 24/7 cable news, coverage of him and his presidency was pretty golden until the Iran-Contra scandal hit. The two Bushes, George H.W. and George W. the younger, both had their issues with journalists.

The coverage of Bill Clinton leading up to his impeachment was relentless and salacious; still he remains popular to many. And Barack Obama, now six months out of office, was also subjected to some seriously questionable coverage, particularly from one cable news entity.

Most of these presidents, despite the availability of increasingly rapid mass communications, exercised a degree of civility in response. They agreed to disagree — with varying degrees of editorial endorsement or disparagement.

But now, there is a more dangerous tone. When our nation’s chief executive uses words like “the enemy” or “fake news” or denigrates virtually every mass media enterprise outside of Breitbart or Fox because they don’t cowtow or report in ways to make him look heroic, history is always there to remind us how this sort of thing turned out in other nations with other leaders. It wasn’t good.

I am confident our free press, our First Amendment will have the final say. That’s part of the reason I celebrate our Independence Day. And that’s why I’m still on the job the day after.

About digital editor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *