Editor’s Note: Sam Donaldson served as White House correspondent and as an anchor for ABC News. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Reading Jim Acosta’s new book “Enemy of the People” is like watching a train wreck in progress, with passengers bracing for the inevitable crash.
Friends and critics agree we have never seen a president like Donald J. Trump, whose disdain, even contempt and apparent hatred for many members of the press is almost daily on display.
Acosta cites instance after instance when this President and many of his staff show that they are bent on interfering with the ability of reporters to bring the public an accurate account of the administration’s stewardship.
For most of his adult life, President Trump courted the press, lived for its attention, even for a time pretended he was someone else when calling reporters to sing Trump’s praises. Whether now he truly believes that the mainstream press, as he says, reports “fake” news and is the “enemy of the American people,” or that such language is simply part of a tactic meant to stoke the anger of his “base” while escaping an objective accounting of his actions doesn’t matter. The effect is to undermine the credibility of the media, leaving him free to pursue policies that harm us at home and abroad.
Trump’s wholesale attack on the mainstream press is wrong, and it is dangerous.
History shows that tyrants and would-be tyrants always attempt to destroy a free press. And that is why the First Amendment to our Constitution specifically forbids government from interfering with the work of the press.
I spent 52 years as a reporter in Washington, 16 of them as the White House Correspondent for ABC News, covering Presidents Carter and Reagan and President Clinton’s second term.
Now, none of us likes personal criticism, particularly a president trying to do arguably the toughest job in the world while “the nattering nabobs of negativism,” as Vice President Spiro Agnew once put it, are picking at his failures as well as reporting on his triumphs.
But the Presidents I covered in one way or another, starting in the Kennedy administration (and with the exception of Richard Nixon), fundamentally understood and accepted the important role of the press.
They bridled privately and occasionally publicly (President Kennedy once canceled the Republican-leaning New York Herald Tribune’s White House subscriptions, and President Johnson hit back at the press reporting on the Vietnam War) but they understood that no one had dragged them kicking and screaming to their illustrious and important post. They realized Harry Truman got it right when he said, “If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.”
I occasionally heard from the White House staff (never the President) that my reporting was unfair, that some of my questions were too sharp and, in the press briefings, along with the UPI’s redoubtable Helen Thomas, would get into fierce arguments with the press secretary. But it was never personal on either side.
Once, returning from a Carter trip to Japan, Press Secretary Jody Powell threw a full glass of red wine at me. Powell said some days later he lived in dread that I might go public with a complaint of anti-press mistreatment. It told him I was a bit upset – that was good red wine and I had wanted to drink it!
Back then, press secretaries tried to put the best face on it when things went badly for their boss. But they didn’t lie to you, as Mr. Trump’s press secretaries have done regularly, and they didn’t call you names to your face. Both sides recognized the responsibilities of each other’s jobs, and we got along.
Compared to what I see today, my time covering Presidents and their press secretaries was a cakewalk.
When I asked President Carter to respond to the critics who were saying he was “failing as President,” when I asked President Reagan how he could defend the “hypocrisy” of selling arms to Iran at the same time as asking our allies to respect an arms embargo on that county, when I asked President Clinton if it was true when a woman publicly raised the charge of “rape,” each of them responded with an answer, not with an attack on me.
When Jim Acosta tried to ask President Trump perfectly reasonable and appropriate questions at a televised news conference last November, he was called “a rude, terrible person” by Mr. Trump, who said CNN should be ashamed for employing him.
And no president before in history, as far as we can ascertain, ever attempted to “lift” a reporter’s White House pass because he didn’t like the reporter’s questions.
When Acosta’s pass was taken away by Trump’s White House after the November news conference, a federal judge ordered its restoration. When he doesn’t like a judge’s decision, President Trump is fond of saying that it was done by an “Obama judge,” but he can’t say that in this case; this judge was nominated by him.
When Acosta and CNN were attacked by President Trump in November, CNN management was not cowed, but issued a statement, saying, “We stand behind Jim Acosta and his fellow journalists everywhere.”
It reminds me of the time when the Nixon White House attacked Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for their early Watergate reporting. The Washington Post’s great Executive Editor Ben Bradlee said rather laconically, “We stand by the boys. We stand by the boys.”
Jim Acosta and the other hardworking men and women who cover the White House will continue the effort to do their job. And the news organizations who send them there will continue to back them up.
I salute them and am proud to stand with them.