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Feb. 1, 2017, 2:22 p.m.
Reporting & Production

“I think that journalism needs to rediscover its roots as a blue-collar profession”

Top journalists from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, and the Nieman Foundation discuss the path forward for reporting in the Trump era.

Editor’s note: On Tuesday, some very smart and accomplished people from the world of media gathered in a packed Sanders Theater to discuss the role of journalism in what some, at least, label a “post-truth” era. Today we’re publishing transcripts of their talks and conversations.

Here, Nieman curator Ann Marie Lipinski leads a conversation with Gerard Baker (editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal), Lydia Polgreen (editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post), and David Leonhardt (op-ed columnist at The New York Times and coauthor of the recent 2020 report) on the language of “lying,” journalism’s treatment of the working class, and how to cover the new president. You can find transcripts of all the speakers and our other coverage of the event here.

Ann Marie Lipinski: When we first started planning this, we said: You think people are interested in what’s happening with journalism? And I think the evidence is abundant before us. I’m just in a slight panic, because it’s hard to be away from the news for two hours — god knows what has happened while we’ve been sitting here, so please those of you who are checking your phones, just shout out if anything major changes in the time that we’re up here and we’ll try to incorporate it into the conversation.

So, inspired recently by Harvard historian Jill Lepore, I was reading correspondence from Thomas Jefferson to a newspaper editor who had written to him seeking his advice about his work. And Jefferson’s advice was scathing. He wrote: “Nothing can now be believed, which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

And he wrote to the publisher that really the only path to reformation that he could imagine was a four-sectioned newspaper with the sections titled “truth,” “probabilities,” “possibilities,” and “lies.” “Truth,” he thought, would be the smallest of the sections.

It was just a reminder — reading this was a reminder to me, in many ways, that the official disdain for journalism has been ever thus. Jefferson’s characterization is one that could have come straight from the current White House. The language is not that different.

My question for all of you is: What is different about this period for journalism, and the challenges that we’re facing as we cope with a new administration and a new way of doing business with the federal government? And as we’ve been talking about this kind of “post-truth” phenomenon we’re living through, what has changed?

David Leonhardt: What I love about that quote is that Jefferson of course is the founder who was the great defender of the press. So just imagine what the other founders said. I would say that at least two things have changed, and I’d be really interested to hear what Lydia and Gerry would say about that. One is what Bill covered, which is this disintermediation and the rise, this small-d democratization of the media. I absolutely agree with Bill that it has more positives than negatives. It has huge positives and huge negatives, but that is an enormous change, that everyone essentially has access to a printing press now, and everything that flows from that.

And then I think the second thing that’s changed is this polarization — I would argue now, as an opinion columnist, this asymmetric polarization — between the parties that has helped lead to Trump and has helped lead to a political moment that feels more worrisome than any in my lifetime. And I would say those are the two fundamental changes. I actually agree with Bill that in the long arc of things, progress for both media and the country is still the better bet. But I’m more humble about that optimism than I was a year ago.

Lydia Polgreen: I’m both optimistic and pessimistic. One little tidbit of news, speaking of disintermediation — apparently Donald Trump is going to announce his Supreme Court nominee on Facebook Live. So the world will learn about it via this brave new technology.

I actually think that what we’re seeing right now is a collapse of empathy in journalism. I feel as though journalism has become a highly elite profession that feels extremely distant from the experiences of the people that we write about. There was a lot of handwringing after the election about, did we do enough to cover the sentiments that were leading people to vote for Trump. I feel like I read so much of that coverage.

The problem wasn’t that we didn’t write about them, it’s that we didn’t write for them. There are so many journalistic products that are aimed at highly educated, affluent people. I spent almost 15 years working at The New York Times, which produces the most marvelous journalistic product I think the world has ever known. But it’s speaking to a particular audience and I think that what it fundamentally comes down to is this question of audience and who you’re speaking to.

Having that ability to speak not just about, but really speak to, the experiences of people who fundamentally feel that the economic and political arrangements that govern our lives are unfair, is really a huge part of the problem. And I feel that institutions like The New York Times, institutions like The Wall Street Journal, have a hard time getting access to that audience. And there are very powerful institutions that call themselves journalistic institutions that are building products that are directly targeted at that audience. They’re organizations like Fox News and like Breitbart. So I look back to a period in the 1970s, when you had columnists like Mike Royko working, Jimmy Breslin — people who had a real deep connection to people who who felt disenfranchised from the establishments of power.

Who’s the Mike Royko of the gig economy today? Chances are it would be a woman. Perhaps it would be a person of color. But I think that journalism needs to rediscover its roots as a blue-collar profession, and find a way to get back in touch with empathic storytelling.

Lipinski: So Gerry is the editor of one of those elite publications —

Gerard Baker: That used to be considered a compliment.

Lipinski: I remember that.

Baker: Not anymore.

Lipinski: Do you share Lydia’s view? And also, what’s different in this moment?

Baker: I do, and actually I was going to say something quite similar. It’s very apt to begin as you did, Ann Marie, with reminding us that cynicism about journalism is very long-established. I’m English — as you can tell — by birth, but I’ve lived in the U.S. more than 20 years, but English journalists have been held in particularly low esteem for a very long time. My favorite bit of doggerel from the mid-19th century goes:

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there’s
no occasion to.

I totally agree with Lydia and I agree with David, too. I think two things I would say are particularly challenging right now, and perhaps have led us to this unfortunate — if it is that — pass.

The first is I think an erosion of trust. It’s an erosion of trust in so many of the institutions of civil society that we’ve seen over a very long period of time. It’s not just journalism, but it is government. On any measure you ask, you take these opinion polls that ask people whether they have a favorable or unfavorable view, whether they trust or don’t trust institutions, governments, big business (since the financial crisis in particular with the Enron scandals and other corporate scandals, confidence and trust in big businesses has taken a huge hit), the church (but many churches, religious institutions, particularly the Catholic Church in the last 20 years), many professions — the only institution actually in this country that continues to enjoy the level of trust that it enjoyed 50 years ago is the military.

That’s a pretty across-the-board decline in the public’s willingness or ability to trust. I think as it applies to journalism, it is particularly acute. I think these days unfortunately, because many journalists, including my colleagues, who do excellent work incredibly conscientiously, a lot of journalism just is not trusted. And this leads to this phenomenon that is hinted at, that President Faust talked about in her remarks that I think is in many ways the key challenge we face right now: which is this issue of post-truth — post-fact, if you like.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the great New York senator, was famous for when he was having an argument with someone, he would say to someone, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” That’s no longer true. In so much of political debate and so much of general public discourse these days, it’s extremely hard to get people to agree on facts.

If you talk to Donald Trump supporters, and you report facts about Donald Trump that we have every confidence and believe to be true, or facts about the economy that we believe to be true, or facts about the state of the world or terrorism or guns or anything else you want to say — many of his supporters will actually just not accept the facts. As a newspaper editor I deal with literally thousands of letters a week from people challenging our journalism, not on the basis that they disagree with the conclusions of our editorial page, or disagree with the editorial page — they just don’t accept the facts. And it comes back to this issue of trust.

We are in a particularly difficult environment, because these days people actually can choose their own facts, and they can ignore facts that are inconvenient.

Lipinski: That’s such an existential problem for journalism, as it is for other institutions in this country. How are you each thinking about that challenge, and what are you doing in your own practice, or your own newsroom, to try to solve for that — or at least address it? And it’s a question I get a lot from non-journalists, too — what are you guys doing about this? It’s a problem, even for people who are cheering and rooting for the survival of the industry.

Leonhardt: I’ll talk for a minute about the Times as an institution. I would guess that the Journal would say the same thing. The president talked in her opening remarks, about this idea of clicks above all, which has to drive so much media, simply because of the economics — that the only way for media to fund itself is essentially to attract an audience large enough to get advertising against it.

The New York Times is making a fundamentally different bet. We are not making a bet about clicks. We’re making a bet about building a paying audience of a few million people around the world who are willing to pay for our journalism, and what we have said in a few different strategic documents that are trying to guide the place, is that we are willing to forfeit clicks for subscribers. An article that appeals to subscribers and makes someone feel like, wow, that’s why I’m willing to pay you, because you put someone on the ground in Africa, or in upstate New York, or you have someone covering the Federal Reserve (which I promise doesn’t drive a lot of clicks).

That to us is more valuable than an article — and I’ll pick on myself — telling people to go a month without eating sugar. Which got more than a million clicks. But having the person on-the-ground in another continent is more valuable. So there has to be a fundamental optimism at the root of it. If we say that the truth is no better than falsehoods, then we’re done. We should just pack up and go and do a different line of work. We have to have an optimism that in this more liquid market for information, the truth will ultimately win out. And so the bet that we’re making is that if we provide people with journalism that they decide is worth paying for, in the end that not only produces a sustainable business, but it also is deeply consistent with the values that we all got into journalism for.

I’ve become a little bit less optimistic, when we start turning to journalism writ large, because that business model is not available to local papers the way it’s available to The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times and The New York Times. We’re sort of skimming off a paying audience around the country and around the world. But that’s what The New York Times is betting on.

Polgreen: That actually is a tremendous service to the entire ecosystem, right? I mean the fact that The New York Times is doing that means that The Huffington Post doesn’t have to. I mean, not in the sense that we’re going to aggregate and steal your traffic — but to me the tremendous gift that The New York Times gives to the world is that it does that work, and the rest of us can can do other things and react to it in a way that feels that it adds to the conversation.

Lipinski: One of the things that is particularly troubling at this moment is the way in which the basic building blocks of journalism and storytelling are — there’s so much contention around them. Words and the language we deploy to describe a political condition have always been debated. An example is: Are you a newspaper that describes a group as pro-life or anti-abortion, and are you making a political choice in choosing one of those?

But the new battleground includes everything. It just seems like everything is now up for debate, and it includes simple words like “lie,” which I think is one of the first sort of “bad” words you learn as a child. It’s a bad thing to do — we all think we know what it is. But now it seems like we don’t know what it is. And newspapers are making different decisions about that. Words like “fake news” — we thought we knew what that meant. Now it’s been co-opted to mean error, for instance, not just manufactured lies. And in the last 48 hours, use of “Muslim ban” and “majority Muslim countries” have entered the news lexicon and are also being debated.

Gerry, you last night wrote to your newsroom asking your journalists to stop using the phrase “seven majority Muslim countries,” and you wrote that it’s very loaded. The reason the countries have been chosen is not because they’re majority Muslim, but because they’re on the list of countries Obama identified as countries of concern. Can you talk about that decision in writing to your newsroom, and for all of you: Can we find a common language as at this point in such a divisive moment?

Baker: So to be clear, I didn’t ban the use of the words “majority Muslim countries” — I said that if we’re going to use that term, which we used repeatedly in multiple stories today, we do need to make sure that it’s not the only description of the countries involved.

If you describe an action taken against the country, that this action was taken against majority Muslim countries, the strong inference that a lot of readers will take from that is that it is because the country is a majority Muslim country. So what I was saying was, that we must absolutely use the words majority Muslim countries, but we must also explain, we must use other words, including that they had been previously identified by the previous administration as — I think the phrase was — countries of concern.

So it wasn’t about not using that term. It was about making sure that that term was being put in context, and it was understood — and this phrase Muslim ban has been thrown around — it’s not a Muslim ban.

There are, I think, 49 majority Muslim countries in the world. Seven were identified in this. There are, probably this weekend, thousands of Muslims who were able to enter the United States. There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who live in countries that are not affected by this ban, who are still completely free to enter the United States. This is very emotive.

I understand why people use it. It was initially obviously a phrase that Donald Trump himself used, but he subsequently retreated from that. We do need to be very careful about that language, and we do need to be very precise. I am an absolute stickler in all of our coverage for precision in language, because as you say, words are loaded. They have political meanings, they have cultural meanings, and they have identities that go beyond simple words.

The issue of “lie,” a simple word, which you mentioned — it’s a short word. I would challenge whether or not it’s a simple word. There are many many different types of lies. There are multiple types of lies. When someone goes before a court of law or an inquiry and is asked if they did something, and they say 50 times, “I don’t remember, I don’t recall.” Is that a lie? It’s very probably an untruth. It’s probably an attempt to deceive.

If someone says goes out and says something one day and then says the next day, I didn’t say that thing, that’s much more clearly identifiable as a lie. If somebody goes and says, “I saw thousands of thousands of people celebrating on the rooftops of New Jersey on 9/11,” that is clearly something that we can challenge and test against all the known evidence and the facts. Is it a lie?

To say that something is a lie requires a knowledge of the state of knowledge of the person when he said that thing, and also a state of knowledge of the moral intent of that person that it was an intent to deceive. That’s an incredibly high bar for reporting.

We speak to people for our newspaper, probably thousands of people a day. I suspect that some of them tell untruths some of the time. If we’re going to try to read their state of their knowledge at the time they make those statements, and their moral intent when they make those statements, we are setting ourselves a frankly impossible burden.

But what we can do, what we should do, and what we have done repeatedly, is if Donald Trump or anybody else for that matter says something, we can say, this is not true, it’s false. A perfect example is when he went before the CIA and said that this whole thing of the dispute between him and the intelligence community was all got up by the media. He’d actually said at his press conference a week or so earlier that the CIA, the intelligence community, was treating him the way the Nazis behaved in the 1930s. So we were able to say that was a false statement.

Again, is it a straight lie? That’s something that requires a knowledge on my part, of what he knew and of what he intended to say.

Look, we’re all reluctant to use the word lie. The New York Times, which just started using it in headlines and I think maybe has used it twice, and I don’t believe that anybody here thinks that Donald Trump has only lied twice in the course of the the last two years. So we are cautious about using the term. What we’re not cautious about is the truth, telling the truth, finding out the truth. And when someone says something that is not true, saying that is not true.

Polgreen: I mean, I guess I would like to just come back to this question of the Muslim-majority countries, because I think that there are a lot of different ways to describe the seven countries. One possible description is, this is a group of countries that has never produced a terrorist that has killed anyone in the United States.

If I as the editor of The Huffington Post used that as the description for these seven countries in our routine coverage, I think people would rightly call me out and say, that’s ridiculous. That’s a tendentious way to describe things; you’re taking sides.

But my challenge to my colleague, Mr. Baker, is that it’s really about power. The administration is setting the terms, and setting the language with which we’re talking about a highly, highly contentious, unorthodox issue that is deeply emotive, and gets right to the core of our identity as a country. And to simply, and I think blithely, use that language without interrogating it, and without saying, this is really a fundamental shift, to me feels problematic.

So the fact that it’s a Muslim-majority country, and the fact that these are countries that were on some list that the Obama administration had made — those are facts, and they’re relevant facts. It’s also a fact that none of those countries had actually produced a fatal terror attack in the United States. [Audience applauds.]

For me what it comes down to is, am I taking my facts and ordering them and prioritizing them based on who’s in power at the particular moment. Or am I stepping back as a journalist and thinking about this in the context of our country’s history, our country’s traditions, and our fundamental values. And I think that’s our job as journalists — not to accept the language that’s given to us by power, but to interrogate it at every turn. [More applause]

Baker: I agree completely. And that is exactly what we did in our coverage of the ban when it was announced from Friday all the way through the weekend.

We looked at exactly that issue — that there had been no attacks from any of these countries, that no national security experts really believed that you could really draw a line between these applications probably from these countries and the likelihood that they would be terrorist attacks. We reported that extensively. We reported on the damage that could potentially be done to U.S. national security by the fact that these people from these countries were being barred from coming to the United States, and the image of the United States that would percolate through the Muslim world and through the rest of the world, where there’s been great hostility to the decision.

We reported on exactly the challenge that it represented to American traditional policy and openness towards immigrants and towards refugees, and the damage that would do to the United States. We reported on the damage that it would do to the U.S. economy, by the fact that various companies would now be limited in their ability to have employees from these places. It would be wrong to say that we simply reported — not that one can figure out what the administration is saying, because it changed so many times between, you know, 4:00 Friday afternoon and 7:00 on Sunday evening. But we reported that. But we absolutely tested all of the administration’s claims, all of the reasons for doing this, against all of the evidence, against all of the reporting that we could muster, and we reported all of that and laid it out very cleanly.

I don’t think anybody reading The Wall Street Journal’s coverage this weekend would be left in any doubt as to the potential damage that would result from this decision.

Lipinski: David, we’re living with a set of conditions that, in some way, were supposed to be among the answers to the trust problems posed in journalism. And it was this sense of the democratization of journalism — that mainstream media would take their place alongside a proliferation of new websites and new channels, and the dawn of the citizen journalist who was going to right some of the wrongs, create new levels of trust.

So there’s certainly more noise, and there’s certainly more content. But has that addressed any of the trust problems? And sort of: How’d that work out for us?

Leonhardt: I don’t know whether it’s addressed the trust problems, but I do think at this moment it’s very difficult to remember that there actually have been positives from this small-d democratization of media. Because we’re at this very fraught period in our country.

But the media and that sort of disintermediation of media did not create, by itself, this moment. And even at this moment I think it’s important to remember that there really are some positives from these developments.

I’ve told this story before. I was an intern at the Washington Post in the summer of 1994, and I wrote this capstone story at the end of my summer that I was really pleased with, that got stripped across the top of the metro page of the Washington Post, about the negotiations to build a downtown sports arena in Washington. It’s now called the Verizon Center. And all these big players in Washington business were involved in it.

The one problem with my story was that it had one factual mistake. I spelled someone’s name wrong. And I had the misfortune of spelling the name incorrectly of Katharine Graham — for future reference it’s K-A-T-H-A-R. That somehow got through my editor and my copy editor. The way I found out about this mortifying mistake was a week later, there was an item in the Washington City Paper, that said “there is a special place in the dungeon of The Washington Post for David Leonhardt.” The Washington City Paper is the alternative weekly in Washington.

Now think about what happens if a Washington Post reporter makes that mistake today. It is corrected on Facebook or on Twitter within minutes. And the humiliation still happens, but the error probably never even makes it into print.

Now that’s a relatively small error in the scheme of things. But let’s expand it to an article that gets something fundamentally wrong about the Federal Reserve’s interest rate, or an article that says someone won a state that the candidate didn’t win. Or maybe more importantly, an article that gets the economics or the politics of something wrong, or says that a candidate lied — or to use Gerry’s words — didn’t use a falsehood, when in fact the candidate did use a falsehood. Imagine some really important mistakes.

In the past, those mistakes would take days to be corrected. They would be out there for a long time. If it was a matter of some subjectivity, you might have to persuade an editor, a letters editor at The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, that in fact you deserve to be heard about what you believed was this inaccuracy, this incompleteness.

Now it is much, much easier for our readers to say, you got this wrong, or you got this incomplete. And I do think that there are real benefits to that. Maybe that doesn’t help the trust of the media, but I would argue that even if it doesn’t help the trust of the media, it can help the quality of discourse, which is ultimately even more important than whether people like us are trusted.

Lipinski: So there’s been a lot of self-reflection among our colleagues for our behavior in the reporting of the election — because somehow it was our responsibility to let people know that this was going to happen, is the basic notion.

I think underlying that notion is that we’d convinced ourselves and the public that the shiny new toys were more highly functioning than they really were. That polling was better and more accurate than it really is. That data was the same as fact or understanding. And it turned out that neither of those things really was true.

I also think there’s another element of — it’s certainly our job as journalists to speak truth to power, as Katie reminded us earlier this afternoon. We spent a lot of time and a lot of important resources discovering wrongs and pointing those out and trying to correct those wrongs, which is one of the purposes of the project that Katie talked about.

But it also feels like maybe we’ve not as an industry done a very good job of articulating and explaining the way that things actually work, and when things work and why they work. Success stories in government or in our communities. And I don’t mean “positive news,” but actually explaining how things function at a higher level. A question I have is: Did we in part create the conditions, a portrait of a nation in need of being made great again? Have we overstated the sort of Blade Runner notion of the problems that one of the candidates set out to to solve?

Polgreen: I think we need to be real about the fact that this country has very serious problems. Inequality like we’ve really never seen —

Lipinski: You don’t think we are, Lydia — we explore that —

Polgreen: I think we do, but I think that there’s a tremendous amount of distance and complacency to the way in which we write about these things.

Globalization was supposed to increase the total size of the pie, and everyone was going to get a bigger slice. It didn’t work out that way. Technological progress was supposed to mean that productivity would grow ever larger, and everyone’s slice would get bigger. It didn’t work out that way.

As my former colleague David wrote, my generation is the last that has a better than 50 percent chance of out-earning our parents.

So this notion of ever-expanding prosperity and possibility is really under attack, and we’re facing a time of deeply diminished expectations.

I don’t actually feel like we’ve done a great job of telling that story in a way that feels true to the people that are actually experiencing it. I feel like we’ve been descriptive, but to our audiences, rather than to the people that are experiencing it.

Baker: I totally agree with Lydia.

I mean just the data are there. You’ve got the fact that since the financial crisis — since the recession induced by the financial crisis — growth in the United States is averaging just about 2 percent. Given the scale of the decline of GDP in the recession after the financial crisis, that’s a historically incredibly weak performance. I’m not pushing blame here, but just as a matter of fact, that is an extremely weak performance.

On top of that, you’ve had a much longer-term weakness of performance particularly with regard to median incomes. Again there are measurement issues and we can argue about hedonic indexes and all this kind of stuff, but the general picture is pretty strong, which is that for people on median incomes in this country, they’ve not seen any significant improvement in their standard of living for the last 20 years.

This is not something that Americans are used to. It’s the longest period of stagnation of median incomes since we started keeping serious records of these things back in the 1930s.

And this point about inequality — and I do think this is so much an important driver of the support for Donald Trump and indeed for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary — inequality, the explosion of inequality, has become really one of the most striking economic and political and social phenomena that we’ve seen in American history in at least the last 50 years.

And my favorite statistic which I will give you once, I’ve used it on multiple occasions in public fora, but I will give you again here:

50 years ago in 1967, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company earned on average total compensation 20 times that of his or her average employee. That number today is 320 times. The average CEO of a Fortune 500 company earns 320 times the average income of his or her employees.

I pass no normative judgment on that. I can explain all of that in terms of stock-based compensation and globalization and the importance of technology and the challenge to traditional labor models. But that is an extraordinary phenomenon. There has been an extraordinary enrichment of the very top people in this country, which has been literally unparalleled in this nation’s history.

And that has not been shared, not even remotely shared, by the vast majority of the people in the country. And I think we at The Wall Street Journal did focus on a lot of this during the campaign. We wrote a particularly memorable series called The Great Unraveling which looked at these technological, trade, social, cultural, and political phenomena that were creating this tremendous alienation on the part of many working class, middle class people in this country.

Particularly interesting, we wrote about Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Michigan and Ohio and Iowa. These states, all of which voted for Trump. I fundamentally disagree with your premise. There is a profound set of economic and political challenges in this country. Some people think Bernie Sanders is the answer. Some people may think Donald Trump is the answer. But there’s clearly a lot of discontent, and people are crying out for change.

Leonhardt: There’s a tension here. I agree that we in the media do have this bias toward the negative. We just do. The bar for getting a story on the front page, if it’s a negative story, is a lot lower than if it’s a positive story.

And I actually think it should be lower, because we don’t want to write a story every day like, “The sun came up today.” But I do think the distance is too great. And I think we do have too much of a negativity bias, and I think some of the rise of so-called explanatory journalism, like what Jonathan Cohn who works with Lydia does, who’s just fabulous, or like what the folks at Vox or like Slate do, which was really ahead of the curve — I think part of the reason people have been drawn to that, is that a lot of that journalism is willing to say, hey, this is working and that’s news. Or, that this bit of bad news that you’re reading about on the front page The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal actually isn’t important.

So it is true that we have this bias that I think we should struggle against. I don’t think that explains the anger. To quote Bill Kristol again, we are less powerful than we think. What explains the anger is not that our stories have been too negative. It’s the reality. It’s the fact that as Gerry just described, we’re in an economic slump for most of this country that’s unlike anything before. But it’s not the way the media is writing about that slump.

Polgreen: Just to build on that and bring it back to to the media: I think that with this kind of untethering of this group of people who are doing much, much better than everybody else, there’s a set of media organizations that are not necessarily thriving but I think have a much better chance of surviving, because they cater to the group that’s succeeding, and everybody else is just left to mass media.

Some of it is OK, some of it is really lousy. But I think you’re seeing kind of untethering happening in the media space, just as it is in every other space. It’s happening in education, it’s happening all over.

So I think we really need to think about the relationship that elite media, the quality media, have to the broader population, and the people who aren’t ultimately going to become New York Times subscribers or Wall Street Journal subscribers — because that distance I think is becoming much too great.

Lipinski: I want to talk a little bit about what’s happening with the White House. There’s been a lot of focus on what’s happening in the briefing room. We care a lot more about what’s happening in the briefing room now.

David, you’re recalling the horror of misspelling Mrs. Graham’s name. We all have a memory of something — a bad fact that we put into a newspaper or on air. For me, as a young reporter, covering my first — what in Chicago would be known as a heater story — a crime story, somebody in a position to know in the prosecutor’s office lied to me about something. He said DNA evidence proved one thing, when in fact we would later know that it did not.

And I put that into the newspaper. And when I found out that I had been lied to and had put this into the newspaper, I was course horrified. But I also did something that would be very common to all of you: I stopped trusting that person as a source, and I didn’t quote that person in the newspaper — maybe ever again.

We’re in a situation now where we are watching paid government officials — sometimes — go before the press corps in the briefing room and say things we know not to be true. And yet we keep airing these moments, and they’ve become now very much a part of the kind of national panoramic of what we’re seeing about our government.

I think a lot of non-journalists are asking the question: Why are we still talking to some of these people? Why are we still airing some of these encounters? Kellyanne Conway got a lot of attention for the phrase “alternative facts.” I actually thought there was a sentence in that interview that was more startling and of concern to me, and that’s when she said, “These are the facts that I want the press corps to cover.” Which is, to be clear, not how it works.

Baker: But there’s nothing new about government spin, about wanting to spin, about wanting to focus on one set of facts rather than another set of facts —

Lipinski: I know, I understand that. But this has become just this national theater now, and we’re watching this. And I think a lot of really concerned people, non-journalists, are saying: Why are we in that conversation? Why don’t you stop talking to people who you know to be lying or manipulative? [Audience applauds.]

Are there fundamental changes to way to the way we cover Washington or cover the White House that we need to think about embracing?

Leonhardt: So I would say that there are things that aren’t new. We’ve all been lobbied by the Obama administration, the Bush administration.

But this is new. I agree with Gerry about the fact that news stories should be quite conservative about using the word “lie,” because it implies intent. I don’t think we should be conservative about using “untruth” and “falsehood.” And we have never had a president or an administration that has been as comfortable promulgating falsehoods as this one in its first ten days. It is qualitatively different from either the Obama administration or the Bush administration. And the list could go on.

I think we do have to think about how we deal with that. I think one way we have to deal with it is really to think about when…and the answer is different for each medium — television has some challenges, right, because you can’t ignore the President of the United States. You just can’t. The notion that we’re going to ignore the president — I think, again, it ascribes too much power to us.

If we all got in a room and said, we’re going to ignore Donald Trump, well, he’s still the president. And that’s not going to happen anyway. I think the key is to remember — and there’s a lot of political science research on this — that if you are putting falsehood out there, and then saying in the sixth paragraph it’s false, you’re not doing your job right. A headline that says “Trump calls for voter fraud investigation” is a disservice to journalists. It’s hard to write a pithy headline but it’s, “Trump promulgates a falsehood about voter fraud and calls for an investigation.”

I think that’s the tension that we really need to do, because this administration is trafficking in untruths in a way that we have not seen in decades.

Baker: As someone who’s worked in both the British media and the American media, one of the things that is striking for British journalists about the American press and the way you cover the White House is, there is a tremendous amount of deference shown to the American political leadership.

And it’s tricky because you notice especially with the president — the president is the head of state and is entitled to some dignity and deference. But at the same time, you know, the famous line of another British journalist, his approach whenever he was interviewing a politician was: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” And that more or less has captured the posture of British journalists.

I think it is very striking in the run up to the Iraq war in 2002, 2003, British journalists were much, much, much more aggressive about challenging what was being said about the intelligence showing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I think there was much more political division in Britain that came about as a result of the fact that the British press were much more skeptical.

I don’t disagree with what David said about this White House. Your question is why do we even bother to talk to them, listen to them. Well, they are still the government. They have control over tremendously important parts of our lives, including the ability to wipe us all out if they want to. So I think we probably do need to listen to them.

But again, as David says, when they tell us things that are not true, we need to point that out. We need to make sure that we are not being deferential.

We may be polite and respectful to them, but we need to not be cravenly deferential towards them, in a way that I think frankly sometimes the press bench has had a tendency to be.

Polgreen: One of the most heartening things that I’ve seen is the way in which journalistic institutions are are really beefing up and rising to the occasion and making really, really big investments and big bets on the best of journalism.

Jay Rosen had a piece the other day with some 20 things that journalists should do to survive the Trump era. And one of them was, send the interns to cover the briefings, and ignore the theater, go get down whatever Sean Spicer has to say for the record, but save your big guns and your most fruitful efforts to uncovering things that you’re not going to find in the briefing. I mean no good stories come from briefing rooms.

Lipinski: That’s been eternally true, and yet there we are. I mean, The New York Times brought Peter Baker back — he’d been covering the White House and they sent him to Jerusalem for about 10 minutes and then brought him back after the election to go back to the White House. And I am concerned that the folk doubling down on 1600 — that there are stories we’re going to miss while we’re so focused on the drama of the sort of passing reality show.

Why not send a group of junior journalists to have a live feed that anyone can look at. Why are we spending so many of our dwindling resources on that space.

Leonhardt: But The New York Times didn’t recall Peter Baker to go to the briefings. If you read the stories that Peter wrote that drove the Obama administration totally nuts, if you read his wonderful 600-page book about the Bush administration, what you see is Peter, like many other White House reporters, the fundamental job is not going to the briefing. It’s doing reporting around the briefing. The stuff that is in the stories that the best White House correspondents do, almost none of it comes from the briefing.

And so I’m sympathetic to the send the interns idea. I just want to make sure that we’re not equating what great white house reporters do — it is a hard beat where every day you go to work and basically told you’re scum by the people you’re covering — I don’t want to equate that with stenography.

Polgreen: I think everyone forgets that the Obama administration, in terms of prosecuting leaks, in terms of giving access to all of those things…I mean obviously I’m not equating it to the Trump administration, but let’s not all have amnesia about the halcyon days of covering the White House during during the last eight years.

Leonhardt:If you want to know — and I’ve never been a White House reporter — what some of the day-to-day combat of being in some of those jobs is like, watch some of the TV after a sporting event. The tension and the disdain that you see between athletes and journalists is not so different from a lot of what a lot of our colleagues experience who cover Congress and the White House.

Lipinski: So I wanted to ask a last question of you all. I was rereading former President Obama’s last interview in office, and one of the things he said to a group of podcasters is, “My instinct is everybody hates media right now. Everybody knows that the political culture doesn’t work. So that has to be an opportunity.”

I have this very intense feeling that, in this very difficult time, I share his view of it as an opportunity. I know we’ve been dwelling on a lot of the problems here, but it seems that the good news in media being scrutinized so intensely is it’s also a chance for people to take a look at us for a second time.

I do think there are people concerned now about the future of journalism that maybe had tuned out the questions that we were dealing with. It wasn’t that long ago that the group of us sitting here would have been here to talk about the death of the business model and what we were going to do about that. But we’re refocused again on some very, very fundamental questions about the future, the very essence of journalism, and the future of a democracy with journalism at its center.

I’m wondering if you are feeling a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty, and what you would tell people who ask — and I’m sure they’ve asked you, as they’ve asked me — what do you want us to do? What can we do on behalf of journalism?

There’s a facile answer, which is make sure you’re paying for all the things that you’re reading. Subscribe to them. But that’s that’s not enough. In this moment, it’s great that subscriptions are up — but that’s not sufficient. So Gerry, is this an opportunity?

Baker: I continue to see the glass as one-tenth full rather than nine-tenths empty. [Audience laughs.] So I’m very optimistic.

I think we can get a little carried away. There is lots of great journalism out there, and lots of it is done by the organizations represented on this stage. Lots of it’s done by lots of institutions that aren’t.

There’s a lot of people who dedicate themselves — it’s not a particularly financially rewarding life — but it’s intellectually and I would argue ultimately emotionally rewarding to pursue quality journalism. I think there are a lot of people out there who do it. And by all means support those people who are doing it — support good-quality journalism, subscribe to good-quality news organizations. I don’t think we should get too carried away.

And look, there are lots of challenges and we haven’t talked about the business model. And I do completely agree with Lydia on the cultural gap between too many journalists and particularly the way this has become true over the last 50 years in which journalism has gone from being a craft to being kind of a profession — I think that has led to an enormous gulf between journalists who largely live in the major metropolitan areas, who went to the same universities (including this one), who all move in the same circles, who’ve never really seen anyone with a gun, who sort of live in a post-religious secular environment.

They don’t know what’s going on in much of this country — they really don’t. And that is a problem. Journalists need to go out and do it. But I think that’s one of our biggest challenges. We have to be more willing to get out and to go and actually find the stories.

But I think as long as people need good quality information that they can rely on for decisions that they make in their own lives — social, civil, business decisions — they are going to treasure quality journalism and they are going to be prepared to evaluate and they are going to be prepared to pay for it. We can be very gloomy but I think in the end there is a demand for this kind of journalism and there’s a need for this kind of journalism, which is going to be met.

Polgreen:I would agree with all of that. And I think that I would even go one layer deeper. I mean, let’s not forget Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than Donald Trump did in the popular vote.

Lipinski:That’s not what I heard from the White House. [Audience laughs.]

Baker: At least President Trump got much bigger crowds for his inauguration —

Polgreen: And if those illegal voters hadn’t voted. She lost three states by a very narrow margin.

There’s a lot of freaking out going on right now, and it’s completely understandable. But we have to remember that there were a significant number of people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012, and then voted for Trump in 2016. What that says to me is that this country is not divided into rabid, heartless bigots and dreadlocked, beanie-bag…my references are all hopelessly outdated. I’m officially over 40 now. That’s what we used to do back when we went to protests.

That’s not the reality. I think that there is a vast group of people who are being very poorly served by journalism, who fundamentally are persuadable. And I think that what we’ve seen is this fragmentation, almost kind of like a parliamentary system-style fragmentation of the electorate, and kind of a freak weather event that has led to the electing of a demagogue.

I think my hope, and the part that I hope to play, and I think that all of us need to play, is by renewing our commitment to civic engagement. I think that we have had a kind of abdication to assumptions about growth and prosperity and that things are just going to get better and that we can outsource the management of our democracy to the professionals and everything’s going to be OK.

I think that the civic reengagement needs to happen in a much deeper level than just the information layer of it. I think we all need to wake up and realize that this is our country, and it’s our responsibility to go out there and take actions that forge bonds between people.

And that sounds like Kumbaya. But I really do think that we’ve been through this period where there has been this abdication, and where people are going about their lives and not really thinking about their role in civic life. And it’s not on journalism to fix that.

We can help we can help get there, but it’s not our job to fix it. We just need to renew that social compact.

Lipinski: Can we just push on just one thing? So how are you going to close that gap between those voters and of you thinking of their candidate as a demagogue? Like, how do you push past that?

Polgreen: I mean I think one of the things you do is listen. One of the great advances social media has brought to journalism is the ability to be in a constant conversation, and for it not to just be us handing down information from tablets from the mountain, but actually listening and engaging with our with our audience.

In the pages of The Huffington Post, are we every day saying that Donald Trump is a demagogue? Absolutely not. But I think that we can write in an empathetic way about the lived experience of people who voted for Donald Trump, in a way that I think will be meaningful, and will help to create this sense of fellow feeling. It’s not an easy task, but I think it’s one that we have to take on.

Leonhardt: Lydia used the word engagement, and you ask what should what should readers do. People are wondering, what should they do. Particularly with media, it actually makes me — if I may have a personal anecdote — of my father. Which is, if it got to be 8 a.m. in the morning and my dad hadn’t read The New York Times, he would just be basically shaking. And by 8:30, he’d found about five things in it that he was complaining about.

So that’s what I would say to all of you, which is subscribe. Pick a newspaper, pick a couple, and pay for it. And then find some things in it that you don’t like, and engage with it in that way, and put on Facebook when you think the media falls short.

When you think the media’s coverage of, say, the WikiLeaks email scandal is subpar — and I would argue that as a whole, our coverage of the WikiLeaks email scandal was really subpar last year — let us know. When we do good stuff — let us know. It’s not simply, “Please pay for what we do and give us money.” It’s, pay for the things that you think are best, and tell us what works and what doesn’t work. And that is really what is different about this age: You have your own printing press. And as much as we pretend not to listen to you, and as much as the first reaction you may get from the media is, eh, bugger off. We do listen.

And just like the politicians we cover, we are affected by the criticism that we hear. And that’s what I would ask for from everyone.

Photo of the panel — from left, Ann Marie Lipinski, Gerard Baker, Lydia Polgreen, and David Leonhardt — courtesy Lydia Carmichael/Harvard Magazine.

POSTED     Feb. 1, 2017, 2:22 p.m.
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