Trust but Verify

President Nixon had a special hatred for the press, which he called his enemy. Those foes included The Washington Post and CBS, and he had the power to break them by pulling the broadcast licenses the companies owned. In 1972, when the Watergate scandal broke and the Post aggressively covered it, Nixon struck back.

“The main thing is the Post is going to have damnable, damnable problems out of this one,” Nixon said, according to a transcript. “They have a television station.” Three years later the cross-ownership rules were passed, and the paper traded its station in Washington for one in Detroit.

But we need not exhume the remains of President Nixon’s paranoia and hatred of the media to know politicians still try to punish their “foes” on air and in print. Look only to last week’s revelations about Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s brazen attempts to have editorial writers at the Chicago Tribune fired. That was the price the paper’s owner, Sam Zell, would have to pay to have the state provide aid in the sale of Tribune Co.’s Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, also owned by Tribune. That this allegation came out one day after Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy was the sort of bitter pill that it would be hard for fiction writers to get us to swallow.

Not to get on too high a horse, but Nixon was right. When allowed and encouraged to do their job of afflicting the comfortable, the media are the enemy…of corruption, greed and abuse of power. And when the media are weakened, all of that is much more likely to go unchecked.

That Blagojevich tape reminds us again of why an active and aggressive press is vital, and why broadcast and print journalists want the new administration to remove the roadblocks to reporting that have been thrown up in the name of national security or fighting terrorism.

It is frustrating that news organizations—which have an approval rating only slightly higher than politicians—do not more publicly defend themselves from the constant flogging. The mainstream media, whether online or in print or on the air, are not the bogeymen and should not allow themselves to be marginalized, from within or without. (We actually heard someone point out that if the major media were really that irrelevant, Blagojevich would never have bothered to try to strong-arm the Tribune.)

The larger Blagojevich story, of course, concerns the governor’s apparent intention to sell Sen. Barack Obama’s now-vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder, or take it himself. This should be an opportunity to see how openly Obama and his advisers respond to the Blagojevich stench. The event is also a good test for right- and left-wing commentators to be as responsible as we want our President-elect to be.

We want to believe that Barack Obama and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and their aides had nothing to do with all of this. After the last eight years—and longer when you consider President Clinton’s classic ability to look right into a camera and deny the truth—America now needs to believe in someone. But it also needs an active, aggressive and unflinching media to make sure that belief is well-placed.