Truth in Our Times: Inside the Fight for Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts

By David E. McCraw

All Points Books

294 pages

President Donald J. Trump’s strafing of the press has, in some ways, reinvigorated it.

Cable news networks are flush. Books chronicling chaos inside the Trump administration have become best-sellers. The New York Times and The Washington Post are adding record numbers of subscribers and collecting journalism prizes like seashells.

But to be overly sanguine about the future of the press would be naïve. The president’s fake news-enemy-of-the-people rhetoric, a well-worn tool of authoritarian leaders, has clearly polluted American democracy. At the very least, it has shoved Americans deeper into their tribal corners. Recent polling data from Morning Consult/The Hollywood Reporter found that the credibility of nine major media outlets among U.S. adults had dropped 5% in the last three years, a decline driven mostly by Republicans.

What will President Trump’s lasting legacy on the press and press freedoms be? How concerned should we be?

In the fog of Twitter warfare, it’s hard to tell. But few people are better positioned to address those questions than David E. McCraw. As deputy general counsel of The New York Times since 2001, McCraw been a leader in the fight for press freedoms.

In his briskly paced professional memoir, “Truth in Our Times,” McCraw guides us to the front lines of those battles, bringing much-needed perspective to the dangers emanating from the current occupant of the White House. Through stories involving the toughest calls in journalism, he gives us an entertaining civics lesson in the First Amendment, deepening our understanding of how press freedoms have enriched our democracy. Crucially, he provides the context from which those freedoms sprang and suggests darker days ahead if we’re not careful.

McCraw’s name will be familiar to those in the media bar. He has lectured around the world on press freedoms and in recent years filed more Freedom of Information Act lawsuits than any other media lawyer in the country.

But McCraw gained wider fame during the 2016 presidential campaign following the publication of a letter he wrote to candidate Trump’s lawyer, Marc Kasowitz.  After Kasowitz had publicly threatened a libel lawsuit over a story about two women who said they were touched inappropriately by Trump, McCraw crafted the newspaper’s response.

The letter, just 17 sentences long, lit up the internet. No doubt, the letter’s popularity sprung from an antipathy toward Trump and a desire to see him get his comeuppance.

But the rabid response also sprung from an admiration for craftsmanship and press freedom, a deeply held American value. Many swelled with pride when McCraw deftly explained why the article in question had not “the slightest effect on the reputation that Mr. Trump, through his own words and actions, has already created for himself.” Also appealing: the cowboy confidence of the letter, expertly showcased with this killer closing:

“We did what the law allows: We published newsworthy information about a subject of deep public concern. If Mr. Trump disagrees, if he believes that American citizens had no right to hear what these women had to say and that the law of this country forces us and those who would dare to criticize him to stand silent or be punished, we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight.”

The lawsuit from team Trump never arrived but McCraw’s 10 minutes of fame did, as did a peg for a book. Lucky for us. The letter to Kasowitz is much like McCraw’s writing throughout his book: crisp, clear with just the right amount of zing.

Once a journalist, he’s also a good storyteller. We are treated with tales of working around the clock to spring reporters held hostage in foreign countries; internal deliberations about whether to publish secret information; and supplications from outside attorneys wanting a shot to represent newspaper in court.

It is enough to give just about any lawyer job envy. His work clearly matters, and his colleagues respect him.

Among the most compelling parts of the book are his discussions with reporters about blockbuster stories. Unlike the cliched lawyer seen in movies who is always fretting about liability, McCraw is a wise friend in whom reporters place their trust.

Not that he puffs himself up. Part of McCraw’s charm on the page is a Midwestern understatement and humility. He admits, for instance, that he did not fear a Trump presidency as much as other press freedom advocates did. When friends and colleagues were strategizing about how to prepare for expected combat with the Trump administration, McCraw wanted to wait and see.

“I held out the possibility that some balance would be restored, that the skirmishes between Trump and the press would ebb and flow but ultimately reach some sort of equilibrium, more Nixon than Obama, but within the range of acceptable,” he wrote.

McCraw’s hope may have been influenced by the sturdy legal scaffolding that for decades has protected media outlets from the well-heeled and powerful seeking to silence their press critics through intimidation. Armed with the 1964 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan decision and other precedents, McCraw has seen his share of litigation threats from public figures disappear into black holes.

But in the alternative fact Trump presidency, the courtroom may not be where the most important game is being played. McCraw writes that he has learned the limits of the law, a powerful conclusion that merits our attention.

“The law can do only so much,” he writes. “It can give the press the freedom to matter but it can’t make the press matter.”

And what if a free press, battered by constant claims of fake news, stops mattering to Americans? McCraw warns that a disregard for a free press can quite easily become a disregard for press freedom.

It’s a warning worth heeding.

Andrew Longstreth is a former legal journalist and head writer at the international communications firm Infinite Global. He is based in New York.