New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal last week to lambast President Donald J. Trump as an out-of-control enemy of a free press whose over the top rhetoric should be seen as a harbinger of worse to come. Mr. Sulzberger, like many another Trump critic, confuses the president’s criticism of a hostile media with a desire to eliminate the First Amendment guarantees so important to the functioning of a free society.
The man’s need to defend his own publication against over-the-top rhetoric is certainly understandable, but singling out the president a historically unique enemy of the media ignores the history of presidential media relations as well as the growing tendency of ideological adversaries to impute the worst motives to each other. He is most upset with and makes a good case against Mr. Trump’s use of the word “treason” in criticizing a recent New York Times report revealing that the United States hacked the Russian power grid so we will be in a position to disrupt it should the need arise.
Perhaps the president’s characterization as “a virtual act of treason” was uncalled for, but Mr. Sulzberger’s reaction demonstrates that he has a far thinner skin than the president himself. Mr. Trump has been labeled a traitor by his political and media critics since he was sworn in. When former CIA Director John Brennan took to the airwaves after the Helsinki Summit to charge that the president’s performance there was “nothing short of treasonous,” The New York Times didn’t criticize Mr. Brennan’s rhetoric and remained silent when former intelligence chief James Clapper charged that Mr. Trump was “essentially aiding and abetting the Russians.”
When others called Mr. Clapper to task for using a text book definition of treason to describe the president’s behavior, Mr. Clapper responded that he was only using the word “in a colloquial sense.” In other words, by calling the president a traitor he was not saying Mr. Trump should be hauled off, tried and perhaps even executed for his acts. Mr. Sulzberger is right to suggest that politicians should be careful of the way they characterize those with whom they disagree, but we live in a polarized and less-than-polite age. We all too often ignore the rhetorical over-reach of our allies while the same language from others shocks and even, as in Mr. Sulzberger’s case, frightens us.
In recent days, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and California Congressman Eric Swalwell, who actually imagines himself taking Mr. Trump’s job, have in one way or another suggested that the president is a traitor. None of this seems to have gotten under Mr. Sulzberger’s skin or moved him to warn against the use of over-the-top rhetoric.
This is a new McCarthyism in which political advocates question not just the judgment, but the patriotism of their adversaries, a phenomena examined by Bob Merry in a recent piece in The National Interest.
Mr. Sulzberger is right to warn that rhetorical attacks on a free press can lead to actual attempts to rein in or silence criticism of the powerful. After all, it has happened before. Democratic President Woodrow Wilson had hundreds of reporters locked up during World War I, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vitriolic attacks on newspaper owners and editors who deviated from the official government line during World War II was legendary. He and his followers called those he particularly disliked traitors who “aided and abetted” the Nazi war effort.
Roosevelt unleashed the FBI, the Justice Department and what was then known as the Office of Facts & Figures to find evidence that the owners of The Chicago Tribune were colluding with the Nazis. After an extensive investigation, these earlier-day Robert Muellers found “no collusion,” which neither comforted nor slowed down the Roosevelt’s attempts to silence The Tribune. One of Roosevelt’s congressional allies, in fact, took to the House floor to attack Tribune publisher Robert McCormick’s editorials as making him “subject, at least to thinking people, as being guilty of treason and I so charge him.”
The current president may tweet his criticism of the media, but isn’t wire-tapping them or putting them in jail.
Like it or not, we live in an age of hyper-partisanship that can, as Mr. Sulzberger notes, turn dangerous. His problem is that his paper has morphed into a partisan warrior. This has increased his circulation, but limits his ability to calm waters that he has had a hand in stirring up. One wishes it weren’t so because an even-handed call for civility would be in the interests of everyone.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.
Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.