Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said President Trump’s attacks on the media are in stark contrast to the “deep respect” President John F. Kennedy, her uncle, and Robert F. Kennedy, her father, held for the journalism profession and its role in safeguarding democracy.
Both worked as international correspondents for newspapers, and both maintained strong friendships with reporters and editors while they held political office, Kennedy Townsend said during the Alfred Friendly Foundation’s annual gala on Sept. 7.
“There is always some tensions between the press and the politicians — and I speak from experience,” the former lieutenant governor of Maryland said. “But it doesn’t have to be so virulent. How my family interacted with the press — there were plenty of ups and downs, but it was a profoundly different experience than the one we’re having today.”
Kennedy Townsend said a prime example was a telegram that JFK sent to Alfred Friendly in 1968 congratulating The Washington Post correspondent for winning the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the the Middle East War.
“It is perhaps the highest tribute that can be paid to a member of your profession,” Kennedy wrote from his Indiana hotel. One month later, Robert Kennedy was assassinated.
Kennedy Townsend read the telegram to the audience at the National Press Club and said “it was a mark of deep respect, for the reporters and the press, born of my father’s deep appreciation of constitutional protections and affinity for reporters. He got it. He knew it was important.”
Robert Kennedy’s understanding also had roots in his own experience covering Israel’s fight for independence in 1948 when he was 22, she said. RFK was assassinated by a Palestinian/Jordanian immigrant on the anniversary of the start of the Arab-Israeli war that Friendly covered. “The Six Day War was very important to him in his life — I remember conversations we had. I think it was because of his support for Israel that he died.”
John F. Kennedy also wrote about international relations as a reporter for Hearst newspapers in the summer of 1945. He toured bomb-damaged Berlin, watched Joseph Stalin and Harry Truman interact at the Potsdam Conference and attended the opening of the United Nations.
“They knew the value of foreign correspondents,” Kennedy Townsend said. She was personally impressed by the comments at the gala by reporters from India and Sudan who spoke of their experience in the Alfred Friendly fellowship program and their career aspirations.
“They touched my heart,” Kennedy Townsend said of Samarth Bansal, Ankur Paliwal and Zeinab Salih. “You could see these are people who want to help their country and want to write about what’s true and expose injustices in our world and do it with great courage.”
But Kennedy Townsend added, “This is a trying time to welcome (Alfred Friendly) Fellows to the United States. We Americans have prided ourselves for so long about our free press and its importance in our constitution and our history. Yet, as you know, the press is under attack. The president has called the press the enemy of the people.”
Trump’s rhetoric has an impact in other countries, she said, and called Turkish President Erdogan’s railing against “fake news” a “chilling” example of how other leaders are using cues from Trump to legitimize attacks on the media.
“It’s our duty is to object and say this is wrong and must not stand,” Kennedy Townsend said.
She pointed out a few good trends, such as the increased circulation of national newspapers holding Trump to task and a recent joint editorial by a large number of newspapers stressing the importance of a free press.
“You members of the press, with each story, with each revelation, you are freedom’s fighters; you are on the front lines in creating a culture that says: truth matters; facts make a difference; lies will eventually be outed. This is true in the United States and its true around the world.”