By Casey Bukro
Powerful men often have a way with words, although not always in the way we might expect.
Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago was famous for malapropisms, often saying the opposite of what he meant. He was Chicago’s powerful mayor for 21 years, and an example for journalists taking measure of Donald J. Trump.
Daley was the undisputed Democratic kingmaker in Illinois and beyond until his death in 1976, both feared and respected. Daley was a force in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential victory, leaving lingering hints of vote fraud. A dressing down by Daley could leave his underlings in pools of sweat.
But his speech was sometimes tangled and mangled, often while he was agitated or angry. Such as the time he was talking about the battle being waged by police against street violence during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
“Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all,” the mayor said. “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”
I heard him say, while speaking about the importance of aid to dependent children: “I ain’t no sob sister, but you have to be concerned about the upraising and bringing of these kids.”
This is not to suggest Daley was not taken seriously. A lifelong resident of one of Chicago’s Irish-American neighborhoods, he was viewed as a man with an occasionally odd way of talking. That did not prevent him from rising to the heights of political power.
In a time when news media and recording technology were less ubiquitous, Chicago still had four mainstream daily newspapers, plus radio and television. Sometimes Daley was quoted exactly, sometimes journalists cleaned up his language.
Yet press secretary Earl Bush was moved one day to plead with reporters: “Don’t print what he said, print what he meant!”
The same challenges await journalists attempting to decipher what President-elect Trump says and means, a challenge with echoes of the Daley era.
“This is the problem with the media,” former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told journalists at a Harvard election postmortem. “You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally.”
The looming Trump presidency has journalists scrambling for ways to cover and explain his actions. It’s as though an alien were moving into the White House, and new protocols must be adopted as the newcomer keeps changing the rules.
More than just words, journalists are being tutored on how to handle a man who during the campaign was accused of lying and groping women, and who before taking office breaks protocol by communicating with foreign leaders.
Russian and American journalist Masha Gessen, who spent years reporting on Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia, says Putin and Trump are alike in some ways. Both are autocrats who lie as an exercise of power, she says.
In the New York Review of Books, Gessen wrote an article titled: “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” She offers six rules, the first being “Believe the Autocrat.” There is a tendency to believe an autocrat is exaggerating and does not mean what he says. “Back in the 1930s, The New York Times assured its readers that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was all posture,” warns Gessen. Hitler also is credited with inventing the “big lie,” a lie told so often that it is believed.
“The national press is likely to be among the first institutional victims of Trumpism,” writes Gessen. “There is no law that requires the presidential administration to hold daily briefings, none that guarantees media access to the White House. Many journalists may soon face a dilemma long familiar to those of us who have worked under autocracies: fall in line or forfeit access. There is no good solution (even if there is a right answer), for journalism is difficult and sometimes impossible without access to information.”
In an appearance on National Public Radio’s “On the Media” program, Gessen urges reporters to “focus on the gap between facts and truth. We have to figure that out…and how it keeps changing.”
The program was billed as offering advice on how to cover President Trump. The moderator said Trump might even spark a reinvention of journalism.
When you talk about a politician who lies 90 percent of the time, Gessen says, fact-checking is not the way to go. “It is a cacophony of lies. Lying is the point. The point is I can say what I want.” Trying to identify each lie serves no purpose. “Tell the bigger story,” advises Gessen.
In Putin’s Russia, says Gessen, government officials say it’s the freest country in the world, although everyone knows it is not. “How do you use the word ‘freedom’ if you use it to lie?” she asks. The Russian language was “constrained” to avoid or limit discussion of certain topics.
All this is happening, says Gessen, against “a worldwide trend of reversal of democracy,” of which the United States is a part. Hence Gessen’s rule No. 3: “Institutions will not save you.” Institutions are enshrined in political culture, not law, she says. They have collapsed or severely eroded in Russia, Turkey and Poland, she says.
In Soviet Russia, so-called kremlinologists worked full-time to parse every word and move in the Kremlin, trying to divine who was in, who was out, and the true meaning of statements in the seat of government. This could be the fate of a Trump Washington, with journalists trying to understand his changing words and meaning.
“This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally.”
Soul-searching is also going on in newsrooms these days. Discussions include this message: We need journalists to be journalists more than ever now.
Words have suddenly become extremely important to the media these days against a backdrop of conspiracy-minded critics who say the media engage in hidden meanings, political correctness and sugarcoating repugnant views. They say this “normalizes” such sentiments by making them appear benign.
One of the terms getting a lot of attention is alt-right, the chosen name of an extremist fringe linked with racism, Nazi sympathizers, hate groups, white nationalists and misogynists. It is believed that “alt-right” sanitizes all that, even making them seem respectable and acceptable.
As a result, the Associated Press posted guidance on using alt-right: “Avoid using the term generically and without definition, however, because it is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience. In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist.”
New York Times public editor Liz Spayd devoted a column to the discussion. She described “tense discussions” between reporters and editors over using alt-right and other labels that provoke criticism or misunderstanding.
Central to this discussion is whether Trump is “a legitimate occupant of the White House,” as Spayd put it.
To question Trump’s legitimacy for the White House appears to ignore the results of the Nov. 8 election. But the question also goes to his character. If the news media decide to challenge him on those grounds, that challenges not only Trump’s honesty but also morality in government.
This would also be a challenge for the media. One of the tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics urges journalists to “abide by the same high standards they expect of others.” Journalists should be sure their own houses are in order before they throw stones.
Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. How are you reporting Trump’s words? Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.