Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Opinion

Column: Why the media should not become the opposition party

It is not unprecedented for a White House to view the media as the enemy — the "opposition party," as presidential adviser Stephen Bannon labeled us last week.

But it is vital that we not become that party.

After an exhausting, often alarming first week of the Trump administration, many people were telling journalists that we can no longer conduct business as usual.

"You're bringing a spoon to a knife fight," one acquaintance told me.

We need to stop covering the president's tweets, we were advised. We need to label his false statements as lies. If White House counselors are dishonest, we should stop interviewing them. If Breitbart or parts of Fox peddle Trump propaganda, we should be the voice of the other side.

No. The answer to dishonest or partisan journalism cannot be more partisan journalism, which would only harm our credibility and make civil discourse even less possible. The response to administration insults cannot be to remake ourselves in the mold of their accusations.

Our answer must be professionalism: to do our jobs according to the highest standards, as always.

If the president makes a statement, we report it. If it is false, we report the evidence of its falsehood. If the president's critics say he is a totalitarian, we report that. If their charge is exaggerated, we provide the evidence of exaggeration. We investigate relentlessly.

So far, I believe the Post has been setting the standard in this difficult job. It is not boasting for me to say so, because as editorial page editor I have no input in the Post's news coverage. I am only a reader, like all of you.

On the opinion side of the house, which I oversee, we are entitled to our opinions. But here too it is important to maintain a thoughtful perspective.

We on the Post's editorial page spent the better part of the past two years warning the country not to elect Donald Trump. We said he was unfit by temperament and experience, misguided on many issues and a potential danger to democratic norms.

Now we find ourselves in the unusual position of hoping to be proved wrong.

The opening of the Trump administration has not been encouraging, to put it mildly. But that doesn't change our mission.

We must distinguish between words and deeds. We must sort the good from the bad. And, in a political culture inclined to view every adverse action as the onset of a potential apocalypse, we must distinguish the merely regrettable from the genuinely harmful, and the genuinely harmful from the irreversibly damaging.

When, as one of his first executive actions, Trump blocked a fee reduction for federally insured mortgages, he was taking a prudent, modest step to protect federal finances, not opening a war on working people.

When Trump ordered the creation of an office to assist the victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, he sent an inaccurate message about the prevalence of such crime, but the office itself seems unlikely to do much harm. But barring refugees from war-torn countries, and favoring one religion over another — that defaces our democracy. It betrays a tradition of American generosity and tolerance that we have occasionally strayed from in the past — and always have come to regret doing so.

I am not complacent. There is nothing normal or healthy about a White House counselor telling the media it should "keep its mouth shut" for a while, nor about a president obsessing over his ratings, taunting those he calls his "enemies" and branding journalists "among the most dishonest human beings on Earth." Such attitudes should be frightening to all Americans, not just those of us who work in the business.

But we can't allow ourselves to be brought down to that level. We do not spoil for a knife fight. Whatever comes at us over the next four years, what we should wield is our pens and our laptops, our facts and our fairness.

© 2017 Washington Post

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