It feels like years ago, but it was only this past August when the executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, held a series of interviews and staff meetings to defend his publication from charges that it was underplaying President Donald Trump’s racism. The catalyst was the paper’s August 6 headline “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.” To be fair, it was literally true regarding the remarks the president had recently (and apparently reluctantly) given. But his consistent use of Ku Klux Klan–level rhetoric obviously contradicts that one speech.
While Baquet admitted that the headline was a mistake, he took issue with those who argued that by refusing to call a spade a spade—or in this case, a racist president a racist—the paper was deceiving its readers on Trump’s behalf. Baquet’s view was that Trump was nothing special. “I get that people see the phenomenon of someone who says inflammatory statements as a new thing,” he told a reporter, but he noted that he’d covered colorful politicians as a young journalist, such as Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, and Trump did not strike him as categorically different. (Edwards famously quipped to Baquet, then at New Orleans’s Times-Picayune, “Only way I lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.”)
The Times, like nearly all news organizations, has also been hesitant about calling Trump a liar. Ironically, the Times was among the first to report that the president was repeating “an election lie” way back in January 2017 when Trump insisted, during a meeting with congressional leaders, that he had won the popular vote if one discounted all those who voted illegally. (He lost by about 3 million votes, and voter fraud is extremely rare.) The result of the Times’ hypercaution, however, is that America’s most influential media institution has ended up normalizing Trump, allowing him and his followers to undermine the norms of our democratic republic.
“We’re not cheerleaders for the president nor are we the opposition,” argued Peter Baker, a New York Times White House correspondent, adding that he worried that “the noise”—meaning the complaints about the paper’s use of kid gloves vis-à-vis Trump—might “overcome our journalistic values.” While Baker, together with his colleague Maggie Haberman, has energetically reported on the bizarre backstage drama of leaking, lying, and backstabbing that is Trumpworld, he, like Baquet and Haberman, has also gone to considerable lengths to make it all seem routine.
Baker must know that Trump is nuts. In August, covering his antics at the G-7 summit in France, Baker wrote that the president “seemed especially erratic, spinning out wild conspiracy theories, provoking racial and religious divisions and employing messianic language about himself.” But just two days later, Baker said, “Like other presidents, and perhaps even more so, Mr. Trump tends to hear what he wants to hear at settings like this, either tuning out contrary voices or disregarding them.” Recall that he was describing a politician who had just tweeted this almost comically transparent lie: “The question I was asked most today by fellow World Leaders, who think the USA is doing so well and is stronger than ever before, happens to be, ‘Mr. President, why does the American media hate your Country so much? Why are they rooting for it to fail?’”
I dare Baker to explain how this is like other presidents. Trump recently went after Baker and his wife, New Yorker writer Susan Glasser, in one of his 801 September tweets, complaining, “Peter Baker of the Failing New York Times, married to an even bigger Trump Hater than himself, should not even be allowed to write about me. Every story is a made up disaster with sources and leakers that don’t even exist.”
The point to remember is this: Trump is not like other presidents. He is not like them in almost every respect, but the contempt he showers on journalists is truly unparalleled. “We’re not at war. We’re at work” is Washington Post editor Marty Baron’s oft-quoted mantra. But Trump is sure as hell at war. That’s why he calls journalists “scum,” “slime,” “sick,” and “lying, disgusting people.” It’s why the president congratulated a Republican congressman for body-slamming a Guardian reporter. That’s why he has lifted the phrase “enemy of the people” from its previous champions Stalin, Mao, and Hitler.
The journalistic values and professionalism that Baron and Baker describe and Baquet embodies are no doubt admirable, but they were forged in another era under different circumstances. And while there are good reasons not to want to scare off conservative readers or make accusations about a leader with whom one disagrees, there is also danger in complacency. No doubt coincidentally, one is reminded of the reporting of The New York Times, which reassured readers in 1922 that “several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded” and was just a political ploy “to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line.” Again, Trump is not Hitler, and the United States of today bears little resemblance to the Germany of the 1930s and 1940s. Even so, history’s warnings can be suggestive.
What’s crucial to keep in mind was put nicely in a tweet by Times columnist Paul Krugman. After Trump suggested that House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff be tried for treason, Krugman wrote, “Trump consistently manages to be worse than you could possibly have imagined, even taking into account your knowledge that he will be worse than you could possibly have imagined.” Shame on any journalist or outlet that fears the consequences of revealing the truth about this dangerous, evil man.