“I don’t work for The New York Times. I work for ‘the failing’ New York Times.”
With that, acclaimed op-ed columnist Frank Bruni, MS, set the stage for his counterattack on President Donald Trump’s criticism of the media before a crowd of 200 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) on Feb. 28. As the second speaker in UMB’s President’s Panel on Politics and Policy, Bruni defended the Fourth Estate, stressed the importance of social justice, and seared various elements of the Trump administration while never losing his sense of humor.
UMB President Jay A. Perman, MD, made mention of Bruni’s “provocative and witty opinion pieces” in his introduction and the speaker did not disappoint.
“One of the great paradoxes of Donald Trump’s campaign and the beginning of his presidency is I cannot think of a presidential candidate or certainly a president who has vilified the media to the extent Donald Trump has and yet I cannot think of a president or presidential contender who was as accessible to the press as he was,” Bruni said.
“You will find no small number of reporters who have or had his cell phone number. That may have changed recently for security concerns, but he loves the press. It is his stage, his microphone, his magnifying glass — but he doesn’t love anything but one version of events about himself. What he’s trying to do in a very sustained and deliberate fashion is nullify and delegitimize all the press that isn’t holding up a mirror that shows him as his reflection of himself. The only ones with access going forward will be the press that rewards him with flattering coverage.”
Prodded by questions from Perman, Bruni told the audience at the Southern Management Corporation Campus Center they should care a great deal about Trump’s actions on the Affordable Care Act, deportation, and much more. “A narcissist like him wants to feel love coming from the room. But of course when you govern you make choices and you decide to do things some people like and other people oppose and you cannot be beloved by everyone and he’s learning that.”
Bruni’s career at The Times spans more than 20 years and includes stints as a White House correspondent, the chief restaurant critic, the Rome bureau chief, and a staff writer for the Sunday magazine. He came to The Times from The Detroit Free Press, where he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for a narrative profile of a convicted child molester.
He admitted the media has itself to blame for some of the criticism Trump has heaped upon it.
“Do those of us in the media sensationalize the news too often? Absolutely. Do we get caught up on little gaffes and scandalettes that don’t deserve the attention of the nation? Absolutely,” Bruni said. “But, at the end of the day, without us, who is writing the report card on these officials? Who is watching closely in an enterprising, investigative way in real time to tell people that no government official, not just Donald Trump, but whether it’s Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton — those officials aren’t going to give you the unvarnished truth about selling their programs and selling themselves. And you need a counterweight to that. Let that counterweight go away and you basically have all propaganda all the time. And in Donald Trump’s case you have the making of a demagogue.”
The Times' first openly gay op-ed columnist, Bruni said the “outlook is bleak” for various social justice movements that were gaining ground under Obama and earlier administrations such as reproductive freedom, same sex marriage, and transgender rights.
He fears Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch could be the first of three conservative Supreme Court justices appointed by Trump, citing Anthony Kennedy’s willingness to retire once his former clerk, Gorsuch, comes onboard and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s failing health.
Bruni said the stopgap Democrats need to block Trump’s assault on social justice is to take back the House of Representatives. “Deny him one chamber of Congress. … The Democrats need to be ruthlessly pragmatic like the Republicans have been when you have a president as erratic as Donald Trump.”
Liberals did themselves no favor last week naming former Labor Secretary Tom Perez to head the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Bruni said. He spoke of “dream candidates” who have vast intellect and military service. Then he mentioned Pete Buttigieg, the 34-year-old second-term mayor of South Bend, Ind., who, in addition to intellect and military service, is gay, Bruni said, and a concert pianist. “He has a fascinating cluster of attributes,” Bruni said, naming him the perfect DNC choice. “It’s important for Democrats to send the humble signal that they are ready to turn the page and look at things in new ways.”
Calling Trump’s Cabinet picks “a big mess from various different angles,” Bruni said Americans find Trump to be offensive in his comportment but support some of the things he is advocating. Bruni also said politicians from unconventional backgrounds could be a wave of the future. “We live in a culture that is increasingly celebrity-driven. In some cases it could bring us bizarre candidates and in some cases inspiring candidates.”
The President’s Panel on Politics and Policy was launched to examine issues important to the UMB community that are likely to be affected by the new presidential administration and Congress. Bruni took questions from a long line of UMB faculty, students, and staff who came to the microphone at the end of the event. Topics touched on the need for precise language, governors and Trump, labor law, voter burnout by 2018, white women voting for Trump, the president’s lack of comment on the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, student activity in politics, and more. A faculty member from psychiatry was teased “you must be having a field day,” by Bruni.
Another audience member asked how she can discuss politics with friends and family “who don’t think like us. It’s hard and painful and I don’t want to offend anyone.”
Bruni replied he and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed are friends who break bread together “and we disagree on so many things. … If you’re realistic and rational and respectful, it’s not that hard to talk to each other.”
Read more about the UMB’s President’s Panel on Politics and Policy.