This week, we have witnessed two sides of the coming Donald Trump administration and its method of information distribution.
On Monday, the president-elect invited former opponents, friends seeking roles in his transition team and even TV executives to his New York White House, the Trump Tower in Manhattan. Nobody was allowed to report on the meetings. Everything, by agreement with Trump, was off the record.
The next day, Tuesday, the president-elect travelled across town to the offices of the New York Times, tweeting, “I have great respect for the New York Times. I have tremendous respect…”
He then answered questions for an hour and a quarter, in effect allowing the Times’ reporters to publish any and all his comments. During the meeting, journalists reported, among other things, that Trump would not seek prosecution of Hillary Clinton; he defended his chief strategist Stephen Bannon as not being racist, but a “decent guy”; and he backpedalled on his endorsement of torture, suggesting, according to the Times, that it would “not make the kind of difference a lot of people are thinking.”
I don’t think the democratic world has seen such manipulation or control of media, since 9/11, when then president George W. Bush told critical reporters, “You’re either with us or you’re against us.”
Or perhaps the more appropriate comparison might be the 1950s when U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy demanded that all government employees, military personnel and media workers sign “loyalty oaths,” disavowing any connection with the Community Party, which, of course, violated those workers’ civil rights to join a legitimate, chartered American political party. Bush and McCarthy each took advantage of the resulting media chill to criticize the media when challenged, and to choose moments to be interviewed or scrummed when it served his purposes, not the public’s right to know.
In Canada, we experienced somewhat similar information shortages during the era of then prime minister John Diefenbaker, who on at least one occasion attempted to muzzle CBC reporter Norman DePoe because the prime minister felt his reporting was one-sided. DePoe challenged Diefenbaker to make the same accusations outside the House of Commons without Parliamentary immunity and the PM backed down.
Then, there was the October Crisis in 1970, when then prime minister Pierre Trudeau imposed the War Measures Act, suspending most civil liberties – including freedom of the press – until the FLQ kidnappings of diplomat James Cross and Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte came to an end (the former released, the latter murdered).
War has a nasty habit of impinging the free flow of information at the best of times. Truth is often its first casualty. When U.S. armed forces went into Kuwait in 1990, for example, reporters got their information from one source only – the U.S. military. Yes, reporters were embedded, but that meant U.S. military units shepherded reporters around, staging engagements of their choosing to be broadcast to the world on U.S. Army terms exclusively.
I remember watching – ad nauseam – the evening newscasts in 1990 when the daily press conferences would be entirely controlled by the U.S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf. Each day, in the Gulf, the commander-in-chief would march into the press room, show staged videos, and tell the world what had happened in the war. Take it or leave it.
But let me tell you about attempted information control in a wartime situation that had a very different ending. As I learned last weekend during the funeral/memorial of a friend of mine, in 1941, Wilfred Pound left his family home in Brighton, Ont., to enlist in the Canadian Army during the Second World War. Shortly afterward joining up, he was posted to the Midland Regiment, whose route to training facilities at Niagara Falls coincidentally took him back through his hometown of Brighton.
However, strict military protocol did not allow Pte. Pound to contact his family en route. In fact, the train didn’t even stop on its way through Brighton. No matter. Wilf found another way to get a message to his family and friends without breaking national security regulations.
Aboard the train, he quickly grabbed an enamel saucer, wrote a generic message around the lip as well as the date and time. Then, as the train slowed while passing through Brighton station, Wilf lowered the window and fired the plate onto the platform, in hopes somebody might pass his message along.
“Hello, Brighton,” the message around the saucer read. “Saint John to Niagara Camp. All the boys are well. See you soon, we hope. Finder, please give our best regards to all our folks. Cheerio for now. Wilfred Pound, 1st Midland Regiment. Sept. 25, 1941, 21:40 hours.”
The finder, nearly struck by the flying saucer, did indeed pass the “all’s well” message along to all the local families concerned. No secrecy protocol was violated. But good old-fashion ingenuity had delivered essential personal information to the home front. Where there’s a will there’s a way.