Marvin Kalb is the author of the new book Enemy of the People: Trump's War on the Press, the New McCarthyism, and the Threat to American Democracy. His many other books include The Year I Was Peter the Great and Imperial Gamble. He spent many years as a correspondent for CBS News and NBC News, and is the Edward R. Murrow Professor Emeritus at Harvard's Kennedy School. He currently is a senior advisor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
A: Donald Trump made me write this book. After he pronounced on February 17, 2017, that the American press was the enemy of the American people, I thought he went way over the top.
He’d been critical of the press before, but now he resorted to using an expression that no other leader of a democratic country had done before. Only dictators from the 20th century had done so—people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong.
I was pretty sure that he didn’t know the historical origin of the phrase. I understand he got it indirectly from Pat Caddell, the once-liberal political consultant who helped Jimmy Carter become president in 1976.
And he probably thought it was politically helpful to him. But the effect was to demean and belittle the press, to rob it of its essential role as one of the foundational underpinnings of our democracy.
To weaken the American press is to weaken our democracy. I felt I had an obligation to break my own 60-year-long dedication to objectivity. I had to speak up, and I did so in Enemy of the People.
Q: This book marks something of a departure for you in that, as you mentioned, you're stepping out of your role as an observer and expressing more of your own feelings. What was it like to take that approach this time?
A: It was not easy to break a tradition that in my case lasted more than 60 years. I have always believed in the essential decency of the American press. I’m convinced that so long as we have a free press, we will have our democracy. I now intend to do whatever I can, starting with this book, to help the American people understand the essential role of a free press.
Q: In the book, you discuss Edward R. Murrow and his reporting during the McCarthy period. How would you compare that period to the politics and journalism of today?
A: Murrow was a pioneer in radio and television broadcast news. He was, in the early 1950s, the most prominent newsman in the country.
Because he covered the rise of Hitler in Germany in the 1930s, he was always terrified at the thought that American democracy could be weakened by the rise of an authoritarian leader in the U.S.
Senator [Joseph] McCarthy represented, in Murrow’s view, the possible emergence of such a political threat, and he was determined to do what he could on radio and television to underscore the threat he saw in McCarthy.
Murrow’s influence in those years was so great that after his famous broadcast against McCarthy on March 9, 1954, McCarthy’s popularity in the country slipped from 46 percent to 32 percent, and he never recovered.
That showed the power of the press to point a spotlight of truth on a political danger, and stop it in its tracks.
Q: So how does that period compare to today’s journalism?
A: Unfortunately, there is no Murrow today. And the news business, from a financial and technological point of view, has changed profoundly. Can the press today do what Murrow did then? I want to believe the answer is yes, but truly, I’m not sure.
Q: And how would you compare the politics of the McCarthy era to those of today?
A: There is a similarity between McCarthy’s tactics and Trump’s. They both thought that by using and abusing the press, they could accomplish their political aims. We know McCarthy failed.
The question today is whether Trump’s war on the press can achieve his political aim. So far, he has persuaded the majority of Republicans to believe that the press is an enemy of the American people.
But an overwhelming majority of Democrats and independents do not agree, and the future of American democracy will now rest with their judgment.
Q: What do you see when you look ahead, both for this country and for journalism?
A: I have a deep faith in the concept and practice of freedom of the press. History has shown that when a nation enjoys freedom of the press, it has a superb opportunity to live in a democracy. When freedom of the press is imperiled, it opens the door to despotism.
I want to believe that most Americans share my view and will therefore make the right decisions.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. I'm proud to say that Marvin Kalb is my father! Here's an interview we did about The Year I Was Peter the Great.