In the run-up to the Iraq War, a Bush White House official explained to me that 9/11 had changed the way we read national security intelligence. There was a relaxed way to read intelligence, he said, and there was an alarmed way to read intelligence. Sept. 11 proved that we had to read intelligence — say, on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction — in an alarmed way to avoid another disaster. Therefore, we had to invade Iraq.
I thought of that conversation amid the reaction to President Trump's latest tweet, showing him taking down CNN in a World Wrestling Entertainment video. There is a relaxed way to read the tweet, and there is an alarmed way to read the tweet. The media-politico complex is choosing the alarmed way, with a vengeance.
The relaxed way to read the tweet is that the president is — among other things — an entertainer. He was an entertainer when he was a real estate developer, he was an entertainer when he was a reality show producer and star, and he is an entertainer as president. That doesn't mean he is not other things — Trump Tower really was built, for example — but it means that he knows how to communicate in the style of an entertainer. That's what he did in the WWE tweet.
The alarmed way to read the tweet is that the president is inciting violence against journalists. That is the way that most journalists chose to see it. "The president of the United States is encouraging violence against journalists," tweeted Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg Sunday morning, reflecting what dozens of other establishment journalists were saying. CNN's statement in reaction to the president, plus that of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said much the same thing.
It's just an impression, but one could note that some journalists seemed more alarmed by the president's tweets than by other recent examples of violent political expression — Kathy Griffin holding what appeared to be Trump's bloody, severed head, or the Trump-as-Caesar assassination, for example. That is probably because many journalists are simply more worried about the prospect of right-wing violence than they are about the prospect of left-wing violence. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a favored source among some reporters, did not build up a nine-figure endowment by warning about violence from the Left.
Even with a real act of politically-motivated violence — the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, which turned out to be a left-wing attack — some found it less terrifying than the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords, which in a weird way was not politically motivated at all. Yes, all media outlets covered the Scalise shooting wall-to-wall on the first day, and on the second. But on the third? As Commentary editor John Podhoretz noted recently, "The news media focused on the Giffords shooting with little else in the mix for a week. Three days post-baseball field and they're moving on."
For those reasons — the fact that many journalists are more worried about the prospect of right-wing violence than left-wing violence, plus their belief that Trump is a threat to freedom of the press — many in the reporting and commentary world chose to read the president's tweet in the most alarmed way possible.
So back to Iraq. As it turned out, the most alarmed reading of the intelligence led to a disastrous mistake, the invasion of Iraq. That doesn't mean it's a bad idea to read things in an alarmed way. It just means it's hard to know at the time.