It probably is too much to ask for Donald Trump to pause and think for a moment and parse his blanket damnation of “the media.” His primal instinct is simply to go for the throat of anyone who doesn’t applaud him instantly and unconditionally.

 

But we should be able to expect more from some of his senior advisers. After all, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, is a Phi Beta Kappa who earned a law degree with honors from George Washington University and has run her own polling and consulting firm for more than 20 years. Steve Bannon, even more senior as Trump’s chief strategist, has a master’s from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a Harvard MBA with honors.

But on the national stage, they denigrate themselves and their cause when they sharpen their boss’ declaration of “a running war with the media” and his public statement that journalists “are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”

There’s Bannon, the president’s trusted consigliere, attacking the media for news stories negative about Trump. “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” he said in an interview with The New York Times. “I want you to quote me on this. The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country … The media has zero integrity, zero intelligence, and no hard work.”

Conway famously said the administration prefers “alternative facts” to actual facts reported by the media and suggested that reporters who challenge Trump’s version of the facts should be fired.

You’d think these two would be much more sophisticated and thoughtful in how they defend their boss. Instead, they are demonizing an entire profession and, apparently, hoping to create an alternative reality built upon alternative facts that they create and control, bypassing independent reporting and evaluation they cannot control.

One key seems petty but means everything: When Bannon says “the media is” and “the media has,” he is not only being ungrammatical — media being a plural word — he is lumping together every medium of mass communication, from wacko websites, basement bloggers, cable TV channels of every stripe and wild social networks to legitimate, professional — and yes, mainstream — journalism organizations.

Surely Bannon understands the difference. After all, before he entered politics, he was executive chair of Breitbart News, a radical-right news and opinion website whose founder Andrew Breitbart once told The Associated Press that he was “committed to the destruction of the old media guard.”

To Bannon and Conway, this is all political strategy and gamesmanship. To those of us who practice real journalism, it’s an attack on our integrity and our mission of serving our communities and our nation through a commitment to principled journalism in the spirit of the First Amendment.

Serious journalism organizations, particularly most daily newspapers, have venerable codes of ethics that guide their daily operations and are strictly enforced. They are all very similar.

The national Society of Professional Journalists begins its code by stating that “public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.”

The American Society of News Editors adopted its first code in 1922. Its current version has this preamble: “The First Amendment, protecting freedom of expression from abridgment by any law, guarantees to the people through their press a constitutional right, and thereby places on news people a particular responsibility. Thus journalism demands of its practitioners not only industry and knowledge but also the pursuit of a standard of integrity proportionate to the journalist’s singular obligation.” Its website (bit.ly/2ha8aCE) includes many more codes from across the country.

The Times-Union’s code of ethics begins with this: “We as journalists have a large responsibility to make certain our reports are true and objective. A profession that subjects people and institutions to constant scrutiny must itself maintain the highest of principles. The integrity we earn by maintaining our principles is our most valuable asset.”

Reporters and editors who are not committed to those principles are weeded out early in their careers. If one made it to our staff, he or she quickly would be exposed by sources or colleagues. Editors oversee reporters, and other editors oversee those editors. Up the ladder, our president, Mark Nusbaum, who began his career in a newsroom, would tolerate nothing less.

Every day, since my first journalism course in the eighth grade in Lubbock, Texas, through high school and college journalism and a 50-plus-year career, my work has been guided by those values and ethics.

Ross Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist, wrote recently that journalists tend to have two views about the fate of our profession under the Trump assaults.

“The first is that ours is an age of maximal danger for the freedom of the press, that Trump’s war on newspapers and networks will escalate from tweets to Erdoganian crackdowns, that truly independent journalism will be marginalized while the White House breeds a lap dog press.

“The second is that this will be a golden age for the media, offering reporters a chance to shake free from access journalism and source-greasing and actually do their job in full, while finding in a Trump-fearing country the audience for serious investigative journalism that many believed had vanished with the internet.”

There is evidence that the public is hungry for that, as some national publications like the Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair have had major subscription increases since the election. And nonprofit news organizations like National Public Radio and ProPublica have reported surging donations.

Douthat cautioned against a third possibility: “Mainstream journalism in this strange era may be freer than the fearful anticipate, but not actually better as the optimists expect. Instead, the press may be tempted toward — and richly rewarded for — a kind of hysterical oppositionalism, a mirroring of Trump’s own tabloid style and disregard for truth.”

NBC anchor Lester Holt had it right when he spoke at a journalism-awards program at Columbia University last week: “We are all aware of what is happening around us. The attacks on our legitimacy. The efforts to undermine our relevance. And I know I am expected to say something profound. But here’s all I got: Do our jobs. Do our jobs … What we can’t do is get trapped in a debate. We are not at war with anyone or any entity. That’s what some would hope for. We cannot afford to be seen as petty or on someone’s side.”

CNN President Jeff Zucker used some of the same words at a University of Chicago event last week, saying journalists “need to do our jobs, not be intimidated and worried about what Steve Bannon calls us.”

Subjects, sources or other special interests often try to manipulate or influence the press, usually through flattery, obfuscation or threats. What’s different here is that the bullying comes from the White House and is so crude. It won’t matter. Real journalists will do their jobs.

Trump can count on it.

frank.denton@jacksonville.com,

(904) 359–4197