Enemy of the People: Trump’s War on the Press, the New McCarthyism, and the Threat to American Democracy. A Book Review
Recently, I had occasion to use a quote from Washington Post executive Editor Marty Baron: “We’re not at war, we’re at work.” He uttered those words last October while he and Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, were at the National Press Club filming an edition of “The Kalb Report” with the host, veteran journalist and author Marvin Kalb.
The topic under discussion was freedom of the press, and Baron was responding to the idea that his newspaper is “at war” with the current administration. While Baron, famously unflappable, appeared almost sanguine about the state of U.S. journalism in the face of endless presidential vitriol, his interviewer, Kalb, was not. In fact, he was clearly alarmed.
That sense of alarm comes through palpably and unapologetically in Kalb’s Enemy of the People: Trumps’s War on the Press, the New McCarthyism, and the Threat to American Democracy. The author makes this clear right up front, answering in the affirmative to his own question, “could I, after all these years, drop my usual dedication to objective journalism and, for probably the first time in my professional life, tell the public what I truly felt about Trump and his approach to the press?”
In fact, he does not confine his opinion to that singular element, as evidenced by such passages as this one: “The partisan split, which had divided American politics for decades, only widened further as Trump and his troops stormed into Washington, taking the nation and the world hostage to his chaotic, authoritarian style of leadership.” When it comes to throwing off journalistic objectivity for the first time in a 60-year career, Kalb has decided to go all in.
Arguably, if any living journalist deserves to do so, it’s Kalb, who interrupted work on his three-part memoir to produce this slender volume. Old enough to have met Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow during the brief post-Stalin “thaw” of 1956, when Kalb was a young translator at the U.S. Embassy, he has witnessed and reported on enough modern history to have earned the opportunity to offer his unvarnished perspective. (Read our review of his first memoir volume here.)
In a stunning bit of timing, Kalb had already decided to offer his opinions on the president and the press in a speech he was to give at the Cosmos Club on February 16, 2017. That was the same day Trump tweeted that the press “is the enemy of the American People.” For Kalb, those words, “enemy of the people,” favored by dictators throughout world history, served as his red line. He rewrote the opening of his speech, and the battle was joined.
It’s worth noting that Kalb was a target of the last U.S. president who had an especially ugly relationship with the press: Richard Nixon. Nixon had Kalb’s phone wiretapped and his office ransacked, and yet Kalb feels strongly that there is something more dangerous about this administration even than that one.
Another crucial entry in Kalb’s bona fides is his distinction as being the last of the journalists recruited by Edward R. Murrow — “Murrow’s Boys” — to join CBS News. The bulk of this book focuses on the parallels between junior Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy and Donald J. Trump, and examines the determined reporting led by Murrow and his team to shine a scalding light on McCarthy’s anti-Communist rampage, which eventually led to the senator’s downfall.
Beyond sharing the no-holds-barred lawyer Roy Cohn, McCarthy and Trump share any number of other unsavory traits and abetting environmental factors, including a legislative branch that has misplaced its spine. Both men use the press to their advantage, lie egregiously, and play to the darkest impulses of their listeners. Both are wildly popular with their followers, seemingly untouchably so.
It’s as though Cohn is describing his later client when he spoke of McCarthy as being “impatient, overly aggressive, overly dramatic. He acted on impulse…He would neglect to do important homework…He was selling the story of America’s peril.”
The parallels are useful, but they only go so far. Murrow had a long-standing relationship of trust with the American people, having brought the Blitz alive for them — almost single-handedly creating on-location radio and later television reporting as he did so — and then giving them on-the-ground reporting during World War II. And he kept his powder dry until he felt his team was fully prepared to make the case against McCarthy and his tactics.
And though McCarthy hitched his fortunes to the hottest topic of the time to ride to prominence, he was in the end a one-trick pony. This allowed Murrow and others the relative luxury of having a single area on which to focus audience attention. In contrast, the current president has journalists playing daily — even hourly — Whack-a-Mole, where the shifting, unending outrages lead to a sort of numb exhaustion.
It’s been a long time since America has had an Ed Murrow or a Walter Cronkite to speak to the entire nation from a place of trust. If McCarthy’s moment had come in an age of social media and 24-hour cable news playing to splintered, partisan audiences — well, that would be what we have now, the raging demagogue, but this time with no trusted Murrow-like newsman to bring him to heel.
The other unfortunate parallel between McCarthy and Trump is that both are exceedingly good at selling newspapers and driving up TV news ratings. Kalb quotes political reporter Willard Edwards of the Chicago Tribune saying, “McCarthy was a dream story. I wasn’t off page one for four years.”
In Kalb’s discussion with Baron and Baquet, both guests acknowledged their respective papers’ return to solid financial ground after a number of rocky years; neither one addressed the role that Trump’s virtual ownership of the news cycle may have played in the health of the papers’ balance sheets. Could Trump be right that the media needs him as much as he needs them?
Kalb has written this book as something of a journalists’ call to arms, reminding them that determined reporters can and do make a difference in rooting out and spotlighting corruption, and in holding our leaders accountable to the people they represent. On August 15, 300 newspapers nationwide published editorials to push back against this idea that the news media is the enemy of the people, rather than being one of the pillars of democracy.
Which brings me back to why I was using Marty Baron’s quote. It was for a poster I carried at a march, in memory of my oldest friend and long-time newsman, John McNamara, one of the five people killed at the Capital Gazette for the sole reason that he worked for the newspaper. So it’s not a big stretch for me to agree with Kalb’s final sentence: “And, so, with all due respect to the office you hold, Mr. President, the ‘enemy of the people’ is not the press. It is you.”
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle and writes a monthly column and reviews regularly for the Independent. She is chair of the 2018 Washington Writers Conference and is president of the Annapolis chapter of the
Maryland Writers Association.