The Trump administration’s penchant for secrecy is not a media issue; it is a democracy issue. And that makes it the weak spot in Trump’s otherwise successful jihad against American journalism.
Ponder this irony: A political movement driven by populist fervor is now aggressively shutting the public out of the business of government. The proclivity for concealment extends from White House briefings to federal agencies to Congress’s taste for hiding the legislative process from the prying eyes of taxpayers. As The Washington Post reported:
The Senate bill to scale back the health-care law known as Obamacare is being written in secret by a single senator, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and a clutch of his senior aides.
Officials at numerous agencies of the Trump administration have stonewalled friendly Republicans in Congress — not to mention Democrats — by declining to share internal documents on sensitive matters or refusing to answer questions.
President Trump, meanwhile, is still forbidding the release of his tax returns, his aides have stopped releasing logs of visitors to the White House and his media aides have started banning cameras at otherwise routine news briefings…
So far, there has been little public backlash because it is hard to overstate Trump supporters’ lack of sympathy for reporters who complain about the restrictions on information or access. But that does not mean that they reject the need for transparency, especially when it comes to draining the swamp of government.
That could provide journalists with an opening; but the key is convincing voters that the attack on transparency and accountability is keeping them in the dark.
This is not to underestimate the challenges here. The bottom line, particularly on the Right is this: They hate you. They really hate you. Trump’s strategy in declaring the media “enemies of the people” is clear: He delegitimizes an independent source of criticism and exposure, while providing his base with red meat. His approach is aped by his allies in the conservative media, including Fox News’s Sean Hannity, who has taken to using clumsy formulations like the “Destroy Trump Media.”
As McClatchy’s Washington Bureau reported last month, “This is not run-of-the-mill Republican criticism of the press anymore. It is now a deliberate strategy to help GOP candidates win elections fueled by public hatred of reporters.”
It seems increasingly likely that, as McClatchy reported, the 2018 campaign will try to “convince Trump die-hards that these mid-term races are as much a referendum on the media as they are on President Trump.” In practice, that will mean “embracing conflict with local and national journalists, taking them on to show Republican voters that they, just like the president, are battling a biased press corps out to destroy them.”
To the extent that Trump and his supporters make this about the media, the strategy may be effective. Not so with secrecy.
Admittedly things change fast, but so far opinions about openness in government have not splintered along ideological lines. (The attacks on leaks is perhaps another matter.) There is no populist groundswell insisting that the government be trusted to run in privacy or the public be kept in the dark. This is especially true when trust in government institutions seems to be at historical lows on both sides of the political spectrum. Sunlight is always a good disinfectant, but never more so than when the public is convinced that we are disinfecting a fetid swamp.
Journalists may regard the case for transparency in government as self-evident, but the case can and should be made anew. The Trump era provides an opportunity to go back to first principles and remind the public why the freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment. Don’t take it for granted that the public has connected all of those dots.
The Washington Post’s slogan, ‘Democracy dies in darkness,” is a good start, but a more populist appeal might be more effective: “What are the politicians hiding from you? What do they not want you to know? Have they forgotten they work for you?”
Once that point is made, there will be an opportunity to remind the public that this is the point of journalism: to provide information, to challenge, dig, shed light, and to expose. As H.L. Mencken once said, “Journalism is to a politician as dog is to a lamp-post.” Not a bad lesson for journalists themselves to re-learn.