Jay Rosen @jayrosen_nyu I teach journalism and direct the Studio 20 program at NYU, critique the press, direct @membershippzzle. 'Ambassador' for @decorrespondent's expansion. Aug. 09, 2018 4 min read

1/ Here I share some thoughts about what has become a famous phrase. It originates with Marty Baron, editor of the Washington Post, whom I regard as the unofficial leader of the American press, the tribal chieftain. His famous phrase is this: “We’re not at war; we’re at work."

2/ Baron is referring, of course, to Trump's "war" on the press. And he's reacting to statements like Steve Bannon's: “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”

3/ I am a doubter as well, but I have a lot of respect for @PostBaron's phrase. “We’re not at war; we’re at work" is a formidable adversary. It's great word smithing, a little gem of English composition. It has compression, rhythm, insight, alliteration. And it is memorable.

4/ More impressive is how Baron's phrase, "We’re not at war; we’re at work" captures the consensus in American journalism, striking his colleagues as the very definition of wisdom about how to cover Trump— and respond to his provocations, his insults, his trolling, his attacks.

5/ The latest to express admiration for the drop dead wisdom in Baron's phrase is Todd Purdum, an experienced political reporter, who wrote this in the Atlantic about CNN's Jim Acosta demanding that @PressSec disavow Trump's 'enemy of the people' language.  https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/08/cnns-jim-acosta-cannot-win/566990/ 

6/ In Purdum's disapproving tone toward Acosta a lot is revealed about the culture of the American press. You're supposed to stay cool. Letting your emotions show is unprofessional and unwise. The right pose to strike is unrattled, laconic. Serene and detached when under attack.

7/ If we click on it, like an icon on the desktop, "We’re not at war; we’re at work" displays its contents. He's trying to throw you off your game. Don't take the bait. And do not get caught up in the politics of the moment. You're not a hero of the resistance. Just do your job.

8/ Hard to overstate how seductive "just do your job" is. It combines the myth of taciturn manliness (Gary Cooper) with the appeal of the humble public servant (I'm no hero, ma'am, just doin' my job.) Very difficult to argue against that. Again: "We’re not at war; we’re at work."

9/ The problem, of course, is that there is war on the press being conducted by the president of the United States and his supporters. To say otherwise would violate a different commandment. Yes, it's imperative to keep your cool. It is equally imperative to state what is true.

10/ "We’re not at war; we’re at work" is genius. But its genius is incomplete. It doesn't speak to the problem @Acosta was getting at. If the press is the enemy, that crashes the whole premise of the White House press corps: that we're all trying to inform the American public.

11/ "We’re not at war; we’re at work" wants you to calm down. And when you have to get a story done, or ask a question under the lights, that is good advice. But its emotional intelligence — which is real — has limits, as well. No one in journalism is eager to speak about those.

12/ So I will. There is alive in the United States a campaign to discredit the American press and turn as many people as possible against it. It is led from the top. This campaign is succeeding. Before journalists log on in the morning, about 30% of their public is already gone.

13/ It is not easy to know what to do under these conditions. I certainly don't. But to say "we’re not at war; we’re at work" does not speak to the enormity of the problem. Somehow the press has to figure out how to fight back. Making fun of Acosta's emotional plea isn't helping.

14/ Here's the way I put it in @nybooks. "I think our top journalists are correct that if they become the political opposition to Trump, they will lose. And yet, they have to go to war against a political style in which power gets to write its own story."  https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/04/25/why-trump-is-winning-and-the-press-is-losing/ 

15/ So what happens if the 30 percent that rejects the mainstream press on principle becomes 40, or 45 because the campaign to discredit the institution is succeeding? Will "we’re not at war; we’re at work" remain as persuasive as it is today? Will it still be drop dead wisdom?

16/ Despite what I have said in challenge to it, I think "we’re not at war; we’re at work" conveys an important truth. Don't play his game. Don't get sucked into a tit for tat. Don't get distracted from your task. These are vital reminders. They make sense. They steady the ship.

17/ Finally... In the degree that "we’re not at war; we’re at work" synchs up with the emotional style preferred within the American newsroom, there is a risk that the wisdom captured in Baron's remark will be over-valued by that room's inhabitants. I write to warn you of that.

You can follow @jayrosen_nyu.


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