After the United States lost the Vietnam War, our country’s top military strategists gathered to analyze the defeat and design the remedy. Ultimately they drafted new rules of engagement: We’d lost, they concluded, because we’d fought the wrong war using the wrong rules; the enemy had been fighting—and winning—a completely different kind of military engagement.
I mention that history by way of metaphor to talk about the engagement between Donald Trump and the press. President Trump has been leading the press around by its collective nose for more than a year. He used and abused them during the campaign, running as much against the press as against Hillary Clinton.
Last week the president took his press abuse to whole new levels. He called the news media “the enemy of the American people”—language that’s dangerously close to branding reporters “an enemy of the state.”
Now, in a new assault on the press, the White House banned some of the country’s leading news organizations from an off-camera “gaggle” while including spurious right-wing journalists. Remarkably, only two reporters refused to attend in an act of solidarity with the banned journalists.
So far in responding to these attacks the press has insisted on more of the same: We’re going to keep doing our jobs, they say. The facts are the facts, and reporting the facts is what we do.
The problem is, this time really is different. This time the old rules of engagement simply don’t apply—not when the president puts organizations like Breitbart and Infowars on an equal footing with the real journalists with real standards.
Like the U.S. military after its defeat at the hands of a guerilla-war fighting opponent, the legitimate U.S. press now must re-write its rules of engagement or risk failure. And we can’t afford that. We need the press, more than ever.
Here are six rules to consider.
1. Create your own NATO: News Alliance for Truth and Objectivity. (Yes, there are existing professional associations, but not for this unique time and this urgent purpose.) Hire or appoint an executive director who can speak for this NATO alliance, a respected and trusted retired journalist from an earlier era. Never stop competing against each other for scoops, leaks and sources. But like the other NATO, adopt a basic principle: An attack on one is an attack on all.
2. Stop letting yourselves be abused. You are under no obligation to participate passively in your own public flogging. Plan ahead: The next time President Trump or one of his designated mini-Trumps decides to abuse you personally, publicly and professionally, take a united stand.
3. Don’t lose track of past, unresolved issues. Take a lesson from the clock that ran on the news during the Carter Administration and the Iranian hostage crisis: “America Held Hostage, Day #X.” How many days has it been since President Trump promised to release his income taxes? Legally separate himself from his business interests? Start a clock on President Trump.
4. Set up a NATO war-room for real-time fact checking. Remember: You are the News Alliance for Truth and Objectivity. You are not only in the news business. You are in the truth business—which goes to the heart of these attacks on your credibility. Set up a NATO website with an up-to-the-minute truth dashboard. It’s not enough to tell the American people the truth; you also need to show the truth.
5. Those who argue that you need to do your jobs and report the news are right, of course. And more. In the context of the Trump administration you have a higher calling: You need to insist on the real meaning of words. Your job is to defend our words from being distorted and de-based. There are no such things as “alternative facts”—even with air quotes. Words matter. Don’t start using President Trump’s alternative dictionary.
6. Don’t just report news. Find news, dig for news, go out and listen for news. If ever there was a time for journalists to become investigative reporters, this is it. We need the story behind the story. We need you to ferret out what’s going on in all the places the Trump administration doesn’t want you to look.
No, the press is not at war with the Trump administration. But it’s not good enough for the press simply to do what it has always done the way it has always done it.
The press needs new rules of engagement if it is to do its critical, time-honored job: Tell the truth, give us the information we need, and investigate and hold accountable those in power.