Frank Donze

When President Donald Trump denounces the press as “the enemy of the people,” he obviously has the big-time media in mind. Reporters covering America's city halls and local politics seldom have any call to point out, say, that the biggest liar who ever occupied the White House sure has some nerve questioning the veracity of his coverage.

It's the likes of MSNBC and The New York Times that get the presidential goat.

Still, the local and national press get tarred with the same brush and are cut from the same cloth. They recognize a mutual obligation to serve up the accurate and impartial accounts that some people, though not your typical, gruff beat reporter, would call the life-blood of democracy.

Certainly, no pretentious twaddle ever escaped the lips of former New Orleans reporter Frank Donze, who died last week, aged a mere 64. And none of the news he reported over four decades with the Times-Picayune was remotely fake. Nothing so belies Trump's calumnies on the media as the solid and impartial stories that Donze produced year after year.

Sure, that was his job. Although few do it so well as Donze, journalists know credibility is their sole stock in trade. They must be castigated for their errors, but unwarranted slurs are a disservice all round. That is why the example of Donze matters so much.

The notion that he represented what Trump calls a “dishonest and corrupt” institution is an absurdity, especially when it comes from a president who keeps The New York Times busy maintaining a running total of his whoppers and apparently views his office as a division of his business empire.

Foreign dignitaries and domestic lobbyists pay through the nose to be seen at his Washington hotel, for instance. The only honorable course was for Trump to divest himself on taking office, but he prefers to watch the millions roll in. Any public official who exploits his office for private gain will attract obloquy, but in Trump's case, that is balanced by messianic admiration of fans.

Those fans are evidently inclined to believe anything he says, however outlandish. Thus polls show that a majority of Republicans now regard the press as the “enemy of the people.” If Trump's repeated use of that phrase, with its totalitarian echoes, is calculated to incite violence against reporters, he just doubled down by lavishing praise on Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte for body-slamming one last year.

Trump a couple of months ago did backtrack slightly, tweeting that the “fake news,” not the press, was the enemy. Then he added that fake news was a “large percentage” of the media, so he wasn't conceding much.

Trump evidently views any journalist who disparages him as an enemy of the people and a purveyor of fake news. But it is reporters struggling to produce complete, accurate and fair stories who make up that large percentage.

Frank Donze, dean of the city's political reporters, dies at 64

Donze was unusual only in that he kept pulling it off as the mayors came and went. Dutch Morial was running City Hall when Donze started out and he had covered Sidney Barthelemy, Marc Morial, Ray Nagin and Mitch Landrieu by the time he left what remained of the Picayune after the digital revolution.

Reporters who dig deep will naturally unearth embarrassing facts, and rare is the diligent reporter whose guts are not hated somewhere. Having been his friend for more than 40 years, I know that Donze was that rare diligent reporter. He seemed to know everyone — that telephone number you needed as deadline approached was almost certainly in his Rolodex — and had posed countless embarrassing questions. But he seemed incapable of causing resentment.

Among those who knew from experience that Donze had diplomatic skills to match his profound understanding of what makes New Orleans tick was Audubon Institute President Ron Forman. Donze duly accepted an offer of a job at the institute and was still working there when he died.

He had a heart attack several years ago just after one of the racquetball games we used to play before work in the mornings, but his early death came as a huge shock nevertheless. He was a credit to a profession that the Founding Fathers trusted to keep the country safe whenever a demagogue came along.

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