Former New York Times Editor: An Independent Press is More Necessary than Ever

Bill Keller delivers the 48th Hays Press-Enterprise Lecture

Bill Keller

Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times, discussed “The News Media in the Age of Trump” in the 48th Hays Press-Enterprise Lecture. Photo by Carrie Rosema

RIVERSIDE, California – At a time when “alternative facts” thrive and the president declares U.S. media “the enemy of the American people,” an independent press is more necessary than ever, former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said at the University of California, Riverside on March 6.

“We’re now six weeks into the new order, and we all, journalists and non-journalists alike, have become students at Trump University. We’re still trying to make sense of a presidency that speaks with many loud but often contradictory voices,” Keller told a crowd of more than 350 people as he delivered the 48th Hays Press-Enterprise Lecture. “So what should we have learned so far about the practice of journalism in the Age of Trump?”

One lesson the media needs to comprehend quickly is to avoid the urge “to stay on the crest of the wave,” a practice that “also makes it easier for a master showman like our president to change the subject,” said Keller, who now is the editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that focuses on crime and punishment in the United States. “… Time and again, President Trump tweets his way out of trouble by saying something outrageous, and we fall for it every time. Before we chase the next presidential tweet, before we assemble a panel of talking heads to predict ‘How It Plays Out,’ maybe we should force ourselves to linger a while over what happened today, and why, or go back to yesterday’s story and dig a little deeper.”

Journalists should rethink their love affair with data, he said, with the caveat that sophisticated data is essential in investigative and explanatory reporting. When it came to the 2016 election, however, polls failed to capture the breadth of Trump’s support in the rust belt, and data showing the country to be prosperous and safe convinced journalists that Hillary Clinton would win the election.

“On average those numbers were right, on average the country IS in good shape, but outside of Lake Woebegone not everyone is above average,” Keller said. “Jobless rates and trade figures told us things were getting better, but we didn’t account for the back end of the bell curve where people felt left behind. Crime rates are near historic lows, but the FBI Uniform Crime Reports don’t measure fear of crime. One reason the press failed to see the Trump train roaring down the track may be that we failed to interrogate the data.”

Journalists also must rebuild public trust and vigorously defend their credibility, Keller said. “That means doing our job well, checking our facts, correcting our mistakes promptly and ungrudgingly, and resisting the temptation to play the role Steve Bannon has chosen for us: the ‘opposition party.’ Tone is important. The more our tone sounds dismissive or snide or confrontational or morally superior – that is, the more we sound like Donald Trump – the less our readers will trust us.”

The Trump administration’s war on truth is profoundly worrying, Keller said. “I just find the discussion of what it means for the press a little self-absorbed, unless you put it in the context of what it means for American democracy. … A White House staff that makes stuff up is going to sow mistrust among allies and convince adversaries that we don’t mean what we say. Who’s going to trust us to abide by arms agreements, trade deals, and mutual defense pacts if we are famous for thinking the facts are fungible? That, to me, is more worrisome than the impact on the press.”

The Hays Press-Enterprise Lecture series was established in 1966 by Howard H “Tim” Hays Jr., the former longtime owner and publisher of The Press-Enterprise newspaper, to explore issues in journalism.

The text of Keller’s speech follows.Watch the lecture here.

The morning after Election Day I got a phone call from my friend Jim Schachter, vice president for news at WNYC, our NPR affiliate in New York. He said his newsroom was suffering a kind of existential gloom about the state of journalism, and he asked if I would come talk to his staff. I’m not sure what qualifies me to play the role of Dr. Phil – but of course I said yes, and that afternoon I found myself on a stage in WNYC’s event space, sitting alongside Brooke Gladstone, the host of “On the Media,” and facing a crowd of reporters and producers who were wallowing in self-doubt. How did we not see this coming? they wondered. How did the best journalists in the business fail to foresee the biggest political story in a generation?  Why didn’t voters believe us – we told them about the bankrupt casinos and the unpaid contractors and the fraud at Trump University and the groping and the lies, but they voted for him anyway.

How do we now cover what promises to be the most press-hostile White House since Nixon, at least – and most of the people in that room were not old enough to remember Nixon. We have a president who, as a candidate, delighted in whipping up angry crowds to harangue reporters covering his campaign – and who, as president, described the press, in a phrase generally associated with the French Reign of Terror and the Bolshevik Revolution, as “the enemy of the American people.” Several of the assembled radio journalists wanted to know – does this idealistic notion of journalism as an impartial, empirical, open-minded undertaking make sense anymore?  Maybe we should have been out ringing doorbells for Democrats instead, or marching in the streets. Maybe we should drop the pose of objectivity and be partisans.

I resisted the temptation to quote my 14-year-old daughter – “build a bridge and get over it.” I mean, don’t these people listen to their own pledge drives? In truth, our business has much to account for, and we ARE in uncharted waters, and it is an unsettling time. But it is also true that we have an immense and complicated news story to cover, and a trustworthy, independent press is more necessary than ever. I told the anxious journalists at WNYC that I know a lot of advocates for different causes, and I don’t think one of them would recommend you give up an audience of 30-some million listeners to ring doorbells.

We’re now six weeks into the new order, and we all, journalists and non-journalists alike, have become students at Trump University. We’re still trying to make sense of a presidency that speaks with many loud but often contradictory voices. So what should we have learned so far about the practice of journalism in the Age of Trump? Tonight I’d like to suggest a few lessons.

The first lesson seems to me to be pretty obvious: Journalists are pretty good at telling you what has happened, and the better journalists are pretty good at telling you why it happened, but are not so good at telling you what will be. After November 2016, any speculation by a journalist about what happens next should come with a warning label. By that I include anything I say tonight that strikes you as speculative.

Unfortunately, the urge to prognosticate is powerful. In the digital age, the accelerated pace of everything and the shortened attention spans of almost everyone create a tremendous pressure to move the story forward, to get ahead of the curve, to tell us “how this plays out.” The imperative to predict, to anticipate the next news cycle, takes us beyond reporting into guessing, which means we get things wrong, which means our credibility suffers.

The urge to stay on the crest of the wave also makes it easier for a master showman like our president to change the subject. About 10 days ago CNN reported that President Trump’s chief of staff tried to persuade the FBI to call reporters off-the-record and knock down stories about contacts between the president’s top aides and Russian intelligence. This could be construed as interfering with a federal investigation, and deserved to be a big story. But the next day, it was overtaken by events. Trump denounced the so-called “fake news media” and the White House stopped a few reporters from attending a press briefing, and then the president announced he would not attend the annual silliness called the White House Correspondents dinner, so today’s mini-sensation overshadowed yesterday’s real news. It happened again this week with Jeff Sessions exposed as lying to a congressional committee. There were more tweets, and who remembers Jeff Sessions?

Time and again, President Trump tweets his way out of trouble by saying something outrageous, and we fall for it every time. Before we chase the next presidential tweet, before we assemble a panel of talking heads to predict “how it plays out,” maybe we should force ourselves to linger a while over what happened today, and why, or go back to yesterday’s  story and dig a little deeper.

The second lesson: We should rethink our love affair with DATA. Now, at The Marshall Project we have an excellent data guy, Tom Meagher, and I don’t want to give him an aneurism, so I should be clear. The sophisticated use of data is an indispensable tool of investigative and explanatory journalism. You can’t tell the story of climate change, or the economy, or education or health care without reliable data. At The Marshall Project, where the focus is on the criminal justice system, we depend on data to track patterns in crime, policing, courts and prisons, and we are frustrated when the data is secret or unreliable. But metrics should be regarded with skepticism. Our data guy calls it “interrogating the data.” And this is particularly necessary in the slightly squishy science of politics.

Political journalism used to be more like anthropology – relying on field work and long, in-depth interviews. Political reporters like the great R.W. Apple and Lou Cannon and David Broder would embed themselves for a while in Iowa or North Carolina or Florida and listen – not fishing for 20-second sound bites, but really listening and engaging patiently, digging down to bedrock worries and aspirations. If you spent enough time, you could plumb the mood of the electorate – including things they wouldn’t necessarily tell a pollster. I worry that that kind of reporting is now too often regarded as merely “anecdotal.” I imagine the voice of editors: Okay, Mr. Apple, you filled a notebook with soul-baring interviews, but where are the metrics? What’s trending?

Well, the metrics of 2016 were not really helpful. The polls failed to capture the breadth of Trump’s support in the rust belt. I suspect that’s because a lot of Trump voters were not eager to tell some smarty-pants kid on the phone that they planned to vote for a pussy-grabbing, immigrant-bashing, reality TV star. But it wasn’t just the polls. The media’s confidence that Hillary Clinton would win was based on metrics showing the country to be in good shape, prosperous and safe. On average those numbers were right, on average the country IS in good shape, but outside of Lake Woebegone not everyone is above average. Jobless rates and trade figures told us things were getting better, but we didn’t account for the back end of the bell curve where people felt left behind. Crime rates are near historic lows, but the FBI Uniform Crime Reports don’t measure fear of crime. One reason the press failed to see the Trump train roaring down the track may be that we failed to interrogate the data. So I’m all for data, but we shouldn’t be slaves to it.

The third lesson I take from the school of Trump is that we in the news media have to rebuild public trust – but not by pulling our punches. If you study the polling on public attitudes toward the news media, you’ll notice an interesting complication. Yes, when you ask how people feel about “the media,” we rank down with pond scum. But when you ask whether they trust the particular media they regularly consume, you get a much more positive response. It’s the same thing with Congress, by the way: hate the institution, love my local congressman. By the way, a Quinipiac poll last month asked voters whom they trusted more “to tell you the truth about important issues.” Fifty-two percent said they trusted the news media. Thirty-seven percent said President Trump.

Still, our credibility is our most important asset, and we should defend it vigorously. That means doing our job well, checking our facts, correcting our mistakes promptly and ungrudgingly, and resisting the temptation to play the role Steve Bannon has chosen for us: the “opposition party.” Tone is important. The more our tone sounds dismissive or snide or confrontational or morally superior – that is, the more we sound like Donald Trump – the less our readers will trust us.

It seems to me there was an evolution of mainstream coverage in the final months of the 2016 campaign. It went from “Trump says X, Clinton says Y,” to “Trump says X, but actually Y,” to “Trump says X, he’s a liar.” I don’t object to using the L-word when it’s clearly warranted, and I think calling out falsehoods in real time is a healthy development. But we want to be careful of language that confirms the suspicion of Trump voters, including 45 percent of Riverside County, who believe we’re out to get him. Speak truth to power, but speak it in calm, confident voices. At the same time, it’s not enough to fact-check. We need to report patterns of falsehood, because they speak to character and judgment, and because they have important, dangerous consequences. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Back in 2004, when I was running a newsroom a little bigger than the Marshall Project, we started a conservative beat. The idea was greeted with some derision – the right thought it was patronizing, the left thought it was pandering. But conservatives were then in the ascendant, and our understanding of conservative America was, frankly, a little shallow. As a newspaper headquartered in the bluest of cities, with editorial and op-ed pages that were predominantly liberal, we knew liberal America pretty well, but we sometimes treated conservatives as an alien species. So we assigned a great reporter, David Kirkpatrick, who was genuinely curious about the various strands of conservative America, from the grass roots to the religious and intellectual leadership. David, and after him Jason DeParle, made us smarter about the Tea Party, the evangelical right, the neocons and the libertarians. That work also had another effect: it won a little bit of trust from readers who regarded the NYT and the mainstream media in general as condescending. Before, they simply didn’t see themselves represented in the coverage, except as caricatures. I don’t think winning the trust of Trump voters is as simple as assigning someone to cover the alt-right or the discontents of rural and rust-belt America, but it wouldn’t hurt.

Glenn Greenwald, who’s best known as the journalist who helped bring us the Edward Snowden story, is a passionate advocate who makes no pretense of being neutral. He is scornful of journalists who keep their opinions to themselves. Glenn and I once spent 5,000 words debating the virtues of journalism that tries to be impartial versus journalism that declares a stance. You can find it on the NYT website if you’re suffering from insomnia. I read a lot of advocacy journalism, and I had a couple of stints writing commentary for the Times’ op-ed page, so I am not anti advocacy journalism. But I still believe in the discipline of impartiality – reporting that applies skeptical inquiry to all sides of an issue. I don’t advocate equal time for points of view that can’t withstand scrutiny – climate change deniers, for example – but I find journalism more credible if it starts with an open mind and follows the evidence. That’s the ethos we’ve tried to cultivate at The Marshall Project, and I think it becomes more important, not less, when you have an administration that treats the truth as fungible.

This is not to say journalism can’t have a sense of purpose. Most journalists I know will tell you they believe – as Tim Hays believed – that journalism is the oxygen in a democratic ecosystem. The Marshall Project has a more specific mission than most news outlets: “to create and sustain a sense of public urgency about the criminal justice system.” Our sense of purpose is a little more immediate than the New York Times. But ultimately all journalism – especially watchdog journalism, accountability journalism, investigative journalism, call it what you will – aims to lay bare problems in the hope that someone will fix them. We want to make a difference, not by pressing a specific agenda, but by making people pay attention.

The last few years have been a national wakeup call on criminal justice. There are several reasons for that: charismatic voices like those of Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson; the high-profile deaths of young black men, beginning with Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown; a younger generation that has grown up with low crime rates and sees the subject without a cloud of fear; the attention of major philanthropists; the common ground carved out by conservative and liberal reformers. And journalists, who have taken criminal-justice coverage beyond lurid crime stories and perp walks. We’re years and years away from declaring Mission Accomplished, but we seem to have gotten the country’s attention.

So, back to life under Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is not the first president to loathe the press. Thomas Jefferson famously said he would rather have newspapers and no government than a government and no newspapers. But that was before he became president. After his inauguration he, less famously, said, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” And five years after leaving office, he said, “I deplore with you the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them.” I’m grateful to The Washington Post for digging out these quotes. The press in Jefferson’s day was partisan, sensational, personal and often just mean-spirited – more Breitbart than Press-Enterprise – but for all his annoyance, Jefferson never suggested, as President Trump has, that a free press was anything but essential to the functioning of a democracy. Our current president describes the press as “out of control,” and you have to wonder what would “under control” look like? Under whose control?

Thankfully, I sense that the post-election media malaise is beginning to lift.

A former colleague of mine, a congressional reporter at the New York Times named Carl Hulse, used to joke, when Congress did something egregious: Bad for America. Good for Carl.” I think the new administration’s demonstrated indifference to the truth is bad for America. But in some ways, the administration is, in fact, “good for us” journalists.

First of all, for most reporters who cover it, this will be the biggest story of their lifetimes. I can tell you from experience, there is nothing as thrilling as a story that has the world’s attention and profound consequences. You can feel it even in our little newsroom at The Marshall Project, as reporters and editors confront the real possibility that President Trump and his cabinet intend to reduce federal oversight of police, challenge states that have decriminalized marijuana, and undertake a colossal law enforcement campaign against undocumented immigrants.

Second, it’s healthy and invigorating to be challenged. If the information delivered from the podium of the White House press room is not credible, reporters may be inclined to stop publishing it, get off their butts, and do real reporting. Watergate, for better or for worse, spawned a generation of Woodward and Bernstein wannabes. Under President Trump, we’ve already seen a boom in fact-checking and investigation. The Times and the Washington Post are on fire, and so are many of the other so-called legacy media.

Third, Trump’s attack on the so-called Establishment, including millions of civil servants who work for him, is already generating a festival of leaks. Bureaucrats leak in defense of their work. White House insiders leak to score points against rival factions. Leaks are not always good for America; they are often a symptom of failures in the system. But they are a reporter’s friends.

Fourth, as news outlets from The New York Times to, yes, The Marshall Project have discovered, the new administration’s hostility has brought a surge of new subscribers and donors – a Trump bump – in effect, readers voting for the news outlets they trust. The media critic Jack Shafer, writing in Politico, says that Donald Trump’s presidency “may be the greatest gift to Washington journalism since the invention of the expense account.”

I don’t want to sound complacent about the Trump administration’s war on truth. I think it’s profoundly worrying. I just find the discussion of what it means for the press a little self-absorbed, unless you put it in the context of what it means for American democracy.

Go back to the day after his inauguration, when President Trump rode out to visit the CIA. Remember that day?  He stood before a wall honoring fallen intelligence agents and spoke of his “running war with the media. He accused journalists of inventing a rift between him and intelligence agencies and of deliberately understating the size of his inauguration crowd, all patently, demonstrably untrue. The following day his counselor Kellyanne Conway would introduce the notion of “alternative facts.” What most reports missed about this bizarre encounter was the message it sent to an intelligence community for whom the facts are literally matters of life and death. The message was, “Don’t bring me bad news. Just tell me we’re winning.” Inviting your intelligence agencies to reinforce your delusions is not conducive to national security or good governing, to say the least.

A White House staff that makes stuff up is going to sow mistrust among allies and convince adversaries that we don’t mean what we say. Who’s going to trust us to abide by arms agreements, trade deals, and mutual defense pacts if we are famous for thinking the facts are fungible? That to me is more worrisome than the impact on the press.

I worry that the public will grow weary of sorting the facts from the alternative facts and tune us all out – and I worry that for some of the president’s circle, that is exactly the intent.

One of my amazing young reporters, Eli Hager, recently took a vacation in Cuba, and when he got back he sent a note around the newsroom. “I wanted to send a quick email to say that I just got back from a country where there are no dependable facts, and it’s a very bad thing. You go to a museum, and realize after a few minutes that all the information is rotten. You open the newspapers, and it’s such a distorted view of the government’s actions that you don’t know what’s up and what’s down.

“I knew all of this existed, of course. But it’s still completely disorienting to have the actual feeling of not knowing where or how to find the truth. Even worse are the government’s bizarre self-aggrandizement even as poverty and corruption persist, the utter inability of the press to respond, and the proliferation of such a range of false views of reality among people on the streets. Just a reminder of how vital to a country it is to have rigorous, dependable sources of information. And of how the absence of such information isn’t just wrong in a theoretical sense, it literally leaves people powerless.”

Those of us who have worked in countries with authoritarian regimes know how that plays out.

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