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Podcast: The delicate dance between the president and the press

Editor's note: The following is a transcript of the eighth episode of Therefore, What? — a podcast from Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson. It's been edited for clarity.

Boyd Matheson: President Trump and many of the national media continue their rocky relationship. Filled with contempt, their rhetoric may be good for ratings on cable TV, and may help the president gin up his base for re-election. But the lack of civility keeps us a safe distance from having the conversation we must have as a country. Such contempt also allows both ends of the political spectrum to raise billions of dollars in campaign cash. But that money won't buy us a better nation. The proper role of the press, the presidency and the First Amendment on this edition of Therefore, what? Doug Wilks is the editor of the Deseret News, Doug, thanks for joining us today.

Doug Wilks: You bet, Boyd, great to be with you.

BM: Well, obviously, there's a lot of chatter and a lot of clamor out there in this battle between the president and the press, and we wanted to just drill down and kind of get beyond the headlines and a lot of the smoke and anger and angst and frustration that's out there and really talk about what does this really mean. What should we be thinking about when we see this kind of battle between the president and the press?

Doug Wilks
Doug Wilks
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

DW: You know, it's interesting you use the word battle. And I understand why it's being used, why it's appearing, because it does feel like the president's declared war on the press. And certainly from the president's perspective, he believes the press has declared war on him. And his supporters believe the media is out to get him. And when you have two sides like that, in any kind of a war, someone's trying to hurt the other person and someone's trying to win. And that's not really the role of the press, and it's certainly not the role of the president. So somehow we're in this place that we need to get out of. And so finding that solution is really what the press should be doing, as well as the president.

BM: Yeah, so let's unpack that a little bit. First, I think we need to keep in perspective that this is not a new thing. There is always that natural tension between an administration and the press. Presidents have their agendas. They have their things they want to roll out. They want to look good. They want to be seen in a positive light. They want positive stories. The press has a job to do in terms of truth, and shining a light, and so those are always in conflict. And I think it's important for us to step back and recognize that this surely is not the first time this has happened. You had John Adams and the Sedition Act in 1798, which outlawed any criticism of the press. We've seen it through different administrations. So how do you see that in terms of kind of a historical perspective?

DW: Well, you're right, and the Sedition Act, but that's kind of the standard for trying to clamp down and stop the free press. Clearly, that was not what the country wanted. We have the First Amendment offering us, you know, constitutional protections for speech and for the press, and certainly for religion, which is also important to us here at the Deseret News. But if you look at what happened in the Obama administration, just most recently, he had one of the most closed White Houses that there were. And the press criticized him, but because there is a great deal of progressive thought or liberal thought within media, rightly or wrongly, and certainly from President Trump's perspective wrongly, they supported President Obama and their editorial pages supported what he was trying to do. But there was never support for what he was doing, not being transparent, clamping down on the press, going after whistleblowers, and it was very, very aggressive. Then back to (Richard) Nixon, talking about he didn't trust the press, there was bugging, they tried to influence the press. And certainly the public was basically shocked by what happened with Watergate and very thankful that journalists were able, particularly Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at The Washington Post, were able to lead a charge toward transparency, toward honesty, and that was really — you could see the lines drawn. But you saw the purpose was to help the country. The purpose wasn't to grow the brand of the president or the brand of any individual newspaper.

BM: That's right. That's always where I think the American people get hurt in this kind of crossfire. It's interesting, looking at some past administrations, you had probably the two presidents in recent memory, who probably did the best with the press were Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. They both had their suspicions. They both had their problems with the press. But they both kind of took this positive approach, at least in public, that the press have a job to do. We’ll endure the hard question or the uncomfortable thing, but they at least kept a positive outward expression. Which I think was good for the American people to say, OK, everyone's got a job to do. Let's make sure that gets done.

DW: Yeah, I think the big difference between now and then is that those presidents kept the focus on the country or kept the focus on public affairs. There were things that they had to do and the press was watching them do that and when they criticized, it was usually about, well, them making the case for why the policy was strong or why the thing they were trying to do was strong. Today, President Trump has made the press the focus. And you can argue why. Is it a distraction? Does he like to engage in the battle to, you know, to use the word that we started with? Or is there something else at play? Certainly it solidifies his base. And certainly it capitalizes on the shortcomings of the press. I've had many interactions the past month with people who say they don't like President Trump coming down on the press, but the press deserves it, that the press is not doing its job, that it's fallen away from facts and has gone into opinion to the extent that people think many in the press are trying to take down the president, rather than be a watchdog of the president.

BM: Yeah, I think that's such an interesting point. You talk about what is in the best interest of the American people as opposed to what's in the best interest of the president. I think some of the criticism currently, particularly for the national press, is that there are some in the national media who have made themselves the story. They become the center point. We watched that play out in a White House press briefing where Sarah Sanders and Bob Costa went back and forth and you know, he wanted her to confess that you know, the term "enemy of the people" was wrong and bad and then she sort of flipped it on him with, wait a minute, you know, you sat in the (White House) Correspondents' Association dinner while I got skewered for my looks and being a traitor to my gender and a traitor to the country and said nothing. So it was this interesting — it shouldn't be about the press or a member of the press — they should never be the story and it shouldn't necessarily be just about the presidency and their agenda. It needs to be about the principle of what's truth and what's best for the American people.

DW: Well, principle is the key, right? And you and I've talked about this a lot with the Deseret News. We're trying to focus our attention on the principles that we make decisions by. In the instance of the correspondents' dinner, Sarah Sanders, she said, I was ridiculed. Well, she was ridiculed by a comedian in a comedic venue. Now she can rightly argue, but the correspondents enabled that, they allowed that to happen. But there were journalists that came up to her and apologized for that. Afterward, people who have been critical of her came up and apologized. So it's not like journalism or media is this monolithic thing and that everyone thinks together. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, independent thought. And it's in the Constitution so that there can be this independent thought.

BM: That's right. I think what we have to get back to is what is that principle? What is that proper role? We've been talking here in the newsroom and in the office here the last few days of what is the right place? What is the right role? What are the principles we should be talking about, and I think more importantly, it's how are we talking about them. Because I think what makes us strong as a nation, we're always at our best as a nation when we're open and honest, and we have roiling debates in the marketplace of ideas. And it seems like the contempt that the president has for the press and the contempt that some in the media have for the president are getting in the way of those principles competing in the marketplace of ideas.

DW: I think you're absolutely right. And I think as journalists, we have to own our role in that, right? One of the great messages that we give here at the Deseret News and I've stood in front of our journalists, and we've talked about humility and the role humility has to play. If you're arrogant, you think you're the smartest person in the world. If you're arrogant, you think that your question is the best question. Now we're in the questioning business. So we ask questions, but we have to be willing to listen, we have to be willing to put things in perspective and we have to be willing to recognize what we don't know. So we want to engage in thoughtful conversation. We want to engage in civility, civil conversation, and those are the things we've been writing about. Certainly, you've been writing about for the past year, a focus on principle, do it civilly, and see if you can lift the country because we should have some ability to get some common goals.

BM: Absolutely. I know you've written several of your pieces lately around this topic and around this proper role and you've also done the courageously vulnerable thing to do — that is to say, I want to hear what you're thinking and really inviting the public to share some of their thoughts about what's happening in relationship to the press, the media and the presidency. And you got some really interesting responses on that.

DW: Now there's no question. This started for me when I went to breakfast, my wife and I went to breakfast with a wonderful woman named Ingrid. And she was born just at the onset of World War II in Germany. So she lived in Berlin and the whole first six years of her life were fleeing from bombs that went all around her. And we talked about the things that enabled this kind of thing to happen, the rise of Hitler. So I knew by talking to her and talking about our country today and talking about Hitler, that people would wrongly think that I'm trying to compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. And I as very clearly as I could put in the column that no, to do so would be totally wrong. He is not Hitler. He is not like Hitler. It's the circumstances of the country that we were trying to refer to — things that she was talking about, trying to clamp down on the press, the number of publications in Germany in 1933. I don't have the figure in front of me but there were like 4,000, I believe, publications. Well that was cut by thousands by the time World War II got underway. Many publications were part of the political parties back then, right, a newspaper was part of a political party. But he clamped down, he shut down that press and then you don't have opinion. And then anything he says gets echoed by others. So you need to prevent the echo chamber.

Anyway, from this conversation I was able to draw out the public, and this is where the conversation came about. Certainly, what the president is doing in terms of condemning all media is not correct. However, the media need to do a better job. And for the past 10 years, we've become, you know, Fox News versus CNN. Or liberal versus conservative. Or we're far right-wing versus far left-wing. And when you have these factions, now you are changing and taking sides and having a culture war, right. And that gets far, far away from the principles that you have espoused, namely those principles of the First Amendment.

BM: Yeah, so in one of your columns, you — I think it was the same column where you talked about one of the first things that the U.S. did post-World War II was to make sure that there was a newspaper set up and rolling.

DW: That's right. So the war wasn't even called yet, right? It was still very active. And they thought, well, we need to get the newspapers going. So that this thought and the way of reconstruction can begin. And that's very telling because it shows the loss of a free press and the value of a free press. And it's not just press. We're talking about speech. The two are intertwined. And it's the public's vehicle, right? Sometimes we think that the press is just simply something that wants to make money, something that will appeal to the lowest common denominator. Well, there really is an altruistic, smart motive behind trying to get diverse opinions into the public square.

BM: Yeah. And isn't that the ultimate display of confidence for the principles of freedom? To immediately open the venues and the dialogue, the free speech back, to me that's saying we believe in the people and that's really what this is all about.

DW: Yeah, and there's also a great lesson there that no matter what happens, if you can grab ahold of the principle it's like, OK, what will make Germany a great country? What will lift it from war? What will lift it from this despotic leader that took us down this path? Well, let's start with a principle. We need to have people speak freely and we need to give them a vehicle to do that, which is the press, and they started down that path. Today we have this tremendous technological ability to get the messages from everyone to everyone. Any individual can give a message. That, in some cases, wreaks havoc on trying to get smart thought or truth, which we're struggling with now across the board. But if you focus on the principal use, OK, let's get back to that principle and see what we can do to correct the ills of media and perhaps the ills of government.

BM: Over the last few days, the Boston Globe had put out a challenge for news organizations across the country to come out in their editorial pages on the 17th of August with a strong indictment of the president calling the press the enemy of the people and 200-plus have signed on to do that. More will probably join and the Deseret News is taking a slightly different approach to that. Tell us about that.

DW: Well, as we've discussed this the past few days, my initial reaction was that this was a big mistake. Because when it presents the message that the media speak with one voice and kind of plays into the critics' charge that the media are trying to take down the president. The Boston Globe's motives are pure. They're saying, look, let's focus on this principle. It's not right to say the press is the enemy of the people, and people on their editorial pages, the opinion editors, and the editorial board should come out strongly against that. We as an editorial board, we've commented in columns and in our pages about, yes, we think that's fundamentally wrong to say that because it hurts the ability to stick to the principles of the First Amendment. Criticize the press all you want about not fulfilling that responsibility, but don't attack the core principle. Still, the Deseret News doesn't want to be seen as attacking Donald Trump. He's the president. We want to be a watchdog like other media, but we want to focus on principle. So how do we continue to focus on principle without jumping on a bandwagon where we’ll write an editorial that basically we've already stated in many different ways. We also wanted our work to stand for itself. In other words, we don't want to say, you know, trust us and stop talking poorly about us. We want to simply say we're valuable based on the work we're doing, and please judge us on the work we're doing. So we are taking a different stance and you know, you've been integral in that and crafting that.

BM: So as we've looked at those possible editorials to really come down and to simply print as an editorial, the First Amendment, to me, sends a really strong message in terms of what matters. It's not about the opinion of the paper. It's not about the opinion of 200-plus papers across the country. It's about the principles and those first principles, and as we often say, if we don't put the First Amendment and those principles first, we really won't have a country that can last.

DW: So we're taking the tack to publish the First Amendment on our editorial page, both in print and online. And it's simply the First Amendment and we're following with a single-word editorial and that word is ditto. Enough said, nothing else needs to be said, we will follow the First Amendment to the best of our ability. Criticize us when we fall short. We want to be transparent when we fall short, but really, we don't want to overthrow anyone. What we want to do is correctly find answers to questions, solutions to problems, that really is the role of the Deseret News — to try and be a source of truth and light.

BM: That's right. So as we wrap up today, as people are thinking this through and watching this play out, as it will continue to play out in the coming months and years ahead. What should we be thinking about, what should we be doing as citizens as it relates to the First Amendment?

DW: Well, I think we need to have respect for each other and humility of position. Meaning, don't think we are the smartest people in the room, right? It's really, try to listen to the person sitting next to you. There are certainly people who support the president who are smart, who are educated, who have strong opinions and whose opinion about the support for what he's doing in his policies are reasonable. By the same token, there are people who think there are character flaws with this president, and they're troubled by that and they can’t understand why people would support him. All right, well, both people sitting side by side can have reasonable positions. But if we start by shouting each other down, we get nowhere. If we listen, if we try to understand and then we say, OK, well, I have faith in our Constitution, faith in the First Amendment. There's a place for all of us just to speak about these things, and we will reasonably move forward. But it's about respect.

BM: It's that difficult dance that the president and the press will always play. I don't think any of us are expecting a Kumbaya moment or a big group hug in front of the White House anytime soon. And I do think it's one area where, you know, if the Russian meddling in America has done anything at all, if they've achieved anything in terms of their goal, I think it has probably been in sowing the seeds of discord, contempt and distrust. And that’s starting to fray the fabric of the country. It's one thing to distrust a politician or a government agency. But I think that contempt is starting to lead us towards not trusting each other in our communities and in our homes.

DW: I think that's right. I received a letter from a 95-year-old woman. She was born in 1923, and she was commenting on my column and my breakfast with Ingrid. And she said, you know, there were many similarities between her growing up in America during the war and Ingrid being bombed every night. But as she went through, kind of lamenting the state of the country and people arguing with one another, she said this, and I'm holding her letter in front of me. She said, "My prayer is if you love your country, like I do, watch out for anyone who is trying to take away our free press and our wonderful freedoms," meaning all of the freedoms. Just start with that. Whoever the president is, whoever your senator is, whoever your shopkeeper is, anyone who is agitating to take away the freedoms, well, that's a problem. And I think that's a good place to start.

BM: Doug Wilks, editor of the Deseret News. Doug, thanks for joining us today.

It was great to have Doug Wilks, a longtime journalist and someone who really understands the value, not only of the free press but of what rigorous journalism really means. And it's becoming more and more difficult, as you see, particularly on cable television, where you're not sure where the reporting ends and where the opinion begins. That's an important question for all of us as I look at Therefore, what? One thing we have to make sure we're all keeping in mind is this reporting? Are we getting to the truth and the facts? Or are we getting into opinion and influence and propaganda, in some cases? And so as citizens, we have to constantly be asking the question and we have to have that humility that Doug spoke about in terms of questioning our assumptions, questioning our positions and creating space for that to happen. And so that's not going to happen without the press, that's very important to understand. I think it's also interesting to note that part of the challenge is with social media, the lines get even more blurry. Because you've got folks who are just gonna you know, plaster your Facebook page or your Twitter feed or your Instagram with their opinion. And often if we just read the headlines and skim past, that becomes the reality and so we have to be very cautious as citizens. To me that's an important 'Therefore, what?' for all of us is to to check our ego at the door, to challenge the assumptions and to get to the facts. What do we know?

And that's why journalism does continue to have an important role in the country. The rigors of journalism help us get to the truth. And the truth is what matters. Truth is both a liberator and an indicter. And it will liberate those who get to the truth. And it will indict those who either conceal it or lie or go completely against it. And so that role continues to be very important in our country today. I think it's also important for us to look for the lessons in this whole feeling of angst and fear and frustration. And what we have to realize is if we get to any discussions, discussions that we ought to be having around our kitchen table, conversations we should have at the water cooler at work, or over the back fence, or in our community spaces, is that we have to get past the loud, angry and strident voices on both ends of the political scale because they are preventing us from getting to the truth. And to have the conversations that will get us to better solutions for the challenges that we face as a country.

I also think it's important for us, listening to Doug. I just kept going back through and thinking there is this delicate dance. There is this balance point between the press and the presidency that they have to do. And as I said, they're never going to have a real Kumbaya moment, I don't think. But they do have to respect the importance of the delicate dance that does take place between the press and between any administration, regardless of political party or who's actually sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office. It's an important thing, it's important for our country. And we have to keep those first freedoms — that First Amendment is first for a reason. And I think it challenges all of us to do better, to be better and to become a little bit more in terms of how we communicate and talk about these kinds of principles. That's the challenge. That's the test for all of us. And so, while the difficult dance of the presidency and the press will continue, it will absolutely continue, our role as citizens is to make sure that we are the ultimate arbiter of truth. And to find out for ourselves and to communicate in a way that invites that kind of understanding, because that is what has made and what will continue to make America truly extraordinary.

So remember, after the story is told, after the principles presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is Therefore, what? Don't miss an episode, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today. And be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on DeseretNews.com/podcast and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News. Thanks for engaging on Therefore, what?