When Adolf Hitler came to power, after the Nazis had shut down all of Germany’s independent newspapers and magazines and ended press freedom in the country, Hermann Ullstein, a member of a highly regarded German publishing family, fled to New York and wrote a penetrating memoir of the rise and fall of his family’s media empire.
His father, Leopold Ullstein, a Jewish newspaper dealer, had founded Ullstein Verlag, the family publishing house, which at its pre-Nazi peak owned some of Germany’s most important publications, including the Vossische Zeitung newspaper. But when Hitler stole their press holdings, Hermann Ullstein and other family members fled, and by World War II, the Ullstein presses were being used to print Das Reich, a newspaper created by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
From his refuge in New York, Hermann Ullstein wrote critically of the failure of the German press to confront Hitler more aggressively when it still had a chance — before he came to power. In his 1943 book, Ullstein chastised the mainstream press in Germany for being too cautious in the pre-Nazi years, especially in comparison to the aggressive right-wing media that was rising during the late 1920s and boosting Hitler’s political fortunes. He lamented the weak response of “the loyal press,” his phrase for the pre-Nazi mainstream press “whose efforts were devoted to democracy, and whose failure was to a large extent due to mildness of language, to the tired and cautious spirit in which they fought.”
Hermann Ullstein’s criticism of the mainstream press of the pre-Nazi era would sound eerily familiar to anyone following the American media today as it tries to confront Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly castigated the American press as “the enemy of the people” and has brought his political supporters to such a crazed pitch that many of them now consider journalists to be traitors. Some of Trump’s backers even seem to think that physical attacks on reporters are acceptable.
Trump uses his Twitter account to maliciously attack individual reporters, and journalists covering Trump’s dark and fevered rallies are now being forced to hire security personnel to protect themselves from the crowds. Trump seeks to discredit the mainstream press at every turn, while granting preferential access to news organizations that traffic in right-wing propaganda and conspiracy theories.
He has pressured the Justice Department to launch a wide range of leak investigations of the press, and has politicized that process to such an extent that at least two of the first leak cases to be prosecuted by his administration have involved stories related to whether Russia has meddled in the American electoral system and whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to help Trump win the 2016 election.
Many in the American press today blanche at any comparisons between Trump and Hitler or other autocrats, and warn against overreacting to Trump. They also recoil at the notion that the press should go on a war-footing against Trump and eschew old-style journalistic crusades. They fear that such a confrontational approach will harm their credibility. Martin Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, coined a phrase that succinctly captured this professional ethic — “We’re not at war, we’re at work.”
To be sure, plenty of reporters are doing great work under enormous pressure. Many news organizations continue to engage in aggressive investigative reporting about Trump, and much of what we now know about Trump’s corruption and possible collusion with Moscow has come from the press. But while that investigative digging is underway, Trump’s daily efforts to denigrate and discredit the press continue unabated, and his subversive efforts to undermine the media have had an impact. A recent poll showed that nearly nine out of 10 Republicans disapprove of the way the media has covered Trump.
The press often seems uncertain on how to respond. The White House press corps in particular seems determined to try to cover Trump as it has previous presidents, employing the same American journalistic standards and practices used in the past. Some press critics now believe that approach is too passive in the face of Trump’s malevolent approach.
“When the most powerful person in the world declares war on journalism, you can respond in one of two ways,” writes Dan Gillmor, co-founder of News Co/Lab and professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “The first adds up to surrender. I’m sorry to say that some of you appear to have done so, by normalizing what is grossly abnormal and letting your enemies take advantage of the craft of journalism’s inherent weaknesses.”
It’s time to break with those civil traditions, other critics have added. “Journalists charged with covering him should suspend normal relations with the presidency of Donald Trump, which is the most significant threat to an informed public in the United States today,” argues Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University.
Some counter that Trump is only following in the press-bashing pattern set by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who both also used leak investigations to target reporters. (Believe me, I know about that. Both Bush and Obama came after me in a leak investigation that lasted seven years.)
But it is a mistake to see Trump as just another White House occupant following in a long tradition of presidential press-bashing. While the present-day U.S. is not Weimar Germany, Trump is not Hitler, and his incompetent administration has not come close to consolidating power in the way the Nazis did, Trump is nonetheless a dangerous demagogue who deploys some of the same tactics that Hitler did, and he has already gone further to attack the democratic institution of a free press than his predecessors did. He is seeking nothing less than the destruction of the legitimacy of the American press.
As Hermann Ullstein warned, such dangerous threats to press freedom are sometimes only taken seriously in hindsight. In 1964, the New York Times echoed Ullstein, writing that his family had made one critical mistake. “That was to believe that Adolf Hitler’s early statements of anti-Semitism were merely campaign oratory. They failed to turn the power of their papers and magazines against the rising Hitler until it was too late.”
Many in the American media believe that they are fighting back aggressively already. And indeed, in response to Trump’s attacks, hundreds of news organizations are publishing editorials about press freedom today. But that’s not enough. The response to Trump by the American press is still too tepid. Most American editors and reporters today disavow old-fashioned, crusading journalism, in which a news organization or even a group of news outlets throw all of their energy into an all-out assault on one story. They fear that crusades look partisan.
But crusading journalism is what is needed now. And there is a model to follow from recent American history. In 1976, Don Bolles, an investigative reporter with the Arizona Republic newspaper in Phoenix who had become well-known for his coverage of the Mafia, was killed when his car blew up. In response, investigative reporters from all over America poured into Arizona to continue Bolles’s reporting. In 1977, those reporters, working through what became known in journalism as the Arizona Project, produced a 23-part series on corruption in Arizona.
Today, more than 40 years later, American journalists should come together for a Trump Project.