National Press Club

Renowned journalist Marvin Kalb warns of Trump’s challenge to America’s free press

April 3, 2017 | By Gil Klein |

Marvin Kalb speaks at the National Press Club on March 30, 2017.

Marvin Kalb speaks at the National Press Club on March 30, 2017.

Photo/Image: Michael Freedman

By attacking a free press, President Trump is threatening to turn the American democracy into an authoritarian state, veteran newsman and National Press Club Fourth Estate Award-winner Marvin Kalb said in a special presentation to Club members Thursday.

“It may be too dramatic to say that American democracy rests in the hands of a free, though at the moment, uncertain press, but I believe it does,” Kalb said. “I also believe that the press will ultimately prevail in this dangerous, running war the president has launched.”

Kalb was the chief diplomatic correspondent for CBS News from the 1960s to the 1980s, covering events from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the opening of China. He is the founding director of Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and for the past 23 years moderator of the Club’s “The Kalb Report.” He is also senior adviser to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Kalb has said he is appalled at Trump’s attitude toward a free press. The Press Freedom Committee of the Club’s Journalism Institute asked him to make his case at Thursday's event. Kalb said Trump’s “creeping authoritarianism” must be counteracted.

“Most important to any understanding of the president’s judgment of the press was his recent comment that they are all ‘enemies of the American people,’ a comment that shocked not only reporters but also anyone with even passing familiarity with recent world history,” he said.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin used “that loaded expression” when he arrested and killed anyone who disagreed with him, he said. Communist China’s dictator Mao Zedong used “enemies of the people” to divide China into those who supported his rule and those who didn’t. And German dictator Adolph Hitler denounced Jewish critics of his regime as “enemies of the people” before murdering six million Jews.

“When the president used this phrase, did he know the history of its use by these 20th century killers?” Kalb asked. “Or did the phrase just pop into his mind as an appropriate description of the American press?”

By making a habit of belittling and humiliating the mainstream press, he is doing more than playing to his gallery of supporters, who have a low opinion of the media, he said. Trump is trying to emasculate the news media. If he can persuade enough people not to believe the news media by calling it “fake” and “lies,” then he can govern any way he wants without a watchdog warning of corruption and incompetence, Kalb said.

“Trump’s ‘post-fact world’ is undercutting the foundations of American democracy,” Kalb said.

It’s a remarkable irony that Trump is fixated on the news media, even as he disparages it, Kalb said. And the news media helped launch his political career because he made such good copy. The more Trump says the news media is a bunch of liars, the more the circulation of newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times rises, he said.

“One day, Donald Trump will be gone, but the United States will still be here, a free nation,” Kalb said. “The free press will still be here too, the essential pillar of our democracy, carved into the First Amendment. A free press, if supported by the public, can still perform miracles, and it does so every day, Trump or no Trump.”

To watch Kalb’s speech, click here.