Trump and Media Group-Think
Today is the day that some 300 U.S. newspapers heeded the Boston Globe’s call for an organized demonstration against President Trump. The protest consists of editorials and columns denouncing the president for his frequent characterizations that the “fake media” is the “enemy of the American people.”
The problems with this scheme -- one is tempted to use the word “collusion” -- are so manifest it’s almost too easy to point them out. The most obvious is that it plays directly into the president’s hands, making the press look overtly partisan, while underscoring Trump’s basic point, which is that the media hates him so much we don’t follow our normal rules of behavior. When is the last time the Fourth Estate ran what amounts to a coordinated campaign?
A second concern is what we might call the Calvin Coolidge problem. When informed in 1933 that the famously taciturn former president had died, famed wit Dorothy Parker quipped, “How can they tell?” My point is that if 300 newspaper opinion writers decide to kick Donald Trump in the fanny, how are their readers expected to distinguish this day from any other?
My own objection to this organized effort can be found in the words to a Bruce Springsteen song, and a Howard Fast vignette from 70 summers ago, at a 1948 political convention in Philadelphia.
Many journalists of my generation venerate Bruce Springsteen. We love his music, parse his lyrics while contemplating our lives, and, truth be told, identify with his progressive politics. As is the case with all great art, however, his best songs have a universal application to the human condition, and such messages don’t always fit neatly into the paradigms of partisan politics.
In “Growin’ Up,” for instance, Springsteen sings about branching away from the crowd to find your own path in life: “I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd, but when they said, ‘Sit down,’ I stood up.”
I thought of this line when Boston Globe op-ed editor Marjorie Pritchard called on her fellow editorial page editors and opinion journalists to unite against Donald Trump on a single day. In other words, when she told them to sit down and write group-think rebuttals, they didn’t stand up. They said, “Yes, ma’am.”
It also put me in mind of Howard Fast. Rarely quoted today, Fast was one of the most prolific American writers of the 20th century. “Citizen Tom Paine,” his historical novel first published in 1943, remains a riveting read. Fast was a man of the left -- 1943, when he was working for the U.S. Office of War Information, was also the year he joined the Communist Party.
Fast would run for Congress on the American Labor Party ticket, write frequently for the Daily Worker, win the Stalin Peace Prize, be temporarily blacklisted in Hollywood, hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and jailed for contempt of Congress. In the late 1950s, he turned away from communism and wrote a book about the experience called “Being Red.”
In that memoir he relates an evocative encounter in late July 1948 at the Progressive Party convention, which he attended as a credentialed journalist and where he ran into one of his idols, H.L. Mencken. When Fast went to shake the great Baltimore Sun columnist’s hand, Mencken took it in both of his own hands and told him he’d just read “The American,” Fast’s novel based on the life of former Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld.
Mencken said that if he’d ever written anything that good, he’d “put down my pen with pleasure.” Howard Fast found this praise fulsome, but appreciated it nonetheless, and thanked Mencken, who then said, in reference to the Progressives, “Fast, what in hell’s name are you doing with this gang?”
“I tried to invent some clever reply, but all I could say was that it was a better place to be than at the Republican or Democratic convention,” Fast wrote. “This was as far from a bright or witty rejoinder as one could get, but I was tongue-tied, and the thought of preaching to Mencken or haranguing him was inconceivable. It was not just that I admired him and loved the way he wrote and thought, but he had just given me the best straightforward compliment I had ever received. I had no wish to challenge him. I owed him too much.”
But Mencken wasn’t finished.
“There’s a better place than that,” he said. “With yourself.”
“I can’t put politics aside,” Fast protested.
“Put it aside?” Mencken snorted. “Hell, no. Henry Louis Mencken is a party of one. Do you understand me? You’re a party of one. You don’t put politics aside; you taste it, smell it, listen to it, write it. You don’t join it. If you do, these clowns will destroy you as surely as the sun rises and sets.”