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Susan Estrich - Nixon, too, declared war on the press. . . and lost

  • Published in Columns

On the verge of irrelevancy in an age where people are used to getting their news for free, The New York Times, pay wall and all, is on a roll.

And thank God for that.

Having declared the press the enemy of the people and banned The New York Times from a White House press briefing, Team Trump has managed to give the press in general, and The New York Times in particular, the boost they needed. Subscriptions are going straight up, as they should. The "old media," the much-maligned "mainstream media," is doing its job, while the apologists on the right try to figure out whether they are cheerleaders or journalists.

The problem with the Washington press corps, seen from the outside, is how cozy they have always been with the people they cover. Send a reporter to a foreign country and, inevitably the outsider, you might get a fair and cleareyed view from her. Send a reporter to Washington, D.C., for 20 or 30 years and you'll find someone whose closest friends are the people he covers, whose kids go to school with the kids of the people he covers, who spent hours on end during that first campaign with the candidate who is now president.

The coziness cuts both ways. Reporters want access, and politicians want good press. Smart politicians know how to "play the press," rewarding those who write favorable stories with juicy leaks and tidbits, invitations to fancy dinners, time with POTUS. Trust me, treating everyone equally does not work.

But it's one thing to cultivate the press, as Jack Kennedy did brilliantly; to charm them, as Bill Clinton did in his 1992 campaign; to win them over despite themselves, as former Secretary of State James Baker did in the Bush years.

It's quite another to declare them public enemies and to condition the right to attend White House briefings on ideological "correctness."

If you really want to force them to do their jobs, that's how to do it.

Or to quote someone I don't know that I've ever quoted so approvingly before, our much-missed former President George W. Bush: "I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. We need an independent media to hold people like me to account. Power can be very addictive. And it can be corrosive. And it's important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere."

Are you listening Team Trump? That's not me talking. That's not The New York Times talking. That's the guy who refrained from criticizing his successor for eight years, respectfully saying only that it is a "tough job."

Many campaigns ago, I was working for a candidate who (like every candidate I've ever known) felt he was being unfairly hammered by The New York Times. So the word came down from high-up that no one was supposed to talk to The New York Times reporters on the campaign plane. It was a brilliant strategy except for the fact that The New York Times kept publishing stories, and they were not better for us because no one commented. After a few days, we started talking to the Times again.

On Oscar night, watching with old friends from politics, we found ourselves almost cheering the ad for The New York Times: "The truth is..." I looked around the room, at people who had been burned by The New York Times, myself included, as recently as last summer. And I laughed. When I used to visit Bill Clinton in the White House, he would show me clippings of bad stories from The New York Times. A friend had a private meeting with a foreign prime minister and was shocked that the entire conversation revolved around his host's problems with the way he was being covered by the press.

I have news for conservatives: Liberals hate the media, too, when we're under attack. I'm sure W had as big a stack of clippings he didn't like, as Clinton did.

But you don't declare war on the people whose job it is to keep you honest. The last president who did that was Richard Nixon, and he lost that war.

(Susan Estrich is a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law Center. A best-selling author, lawyer and politician, as well as a teacher, she first gained national prominence as national campaign manager for Dukakis for President in 1988.)