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Tweets, Palace Intrigue, and Tremendous Reporting

The Washington Post’s media columnist assesses a year of Trump and the press.

Margaret Sullivan laughs while seated at the Washington Post live space on  July 27, 2016. Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images.
Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post live space on July 27, 2016.
Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty Images

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist at the Washington Post, a former public editor at the New York Times, and the former executive editor of her hometown Buffalo News. Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss how the press should cover President Trump’s mental state, where the media has failed the American public over the past year, and the big changes underway at the New York Times.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: We have had almost a year of Trump in office. The last couple of weeks especially have seen some heightened interactions between Trump and the press. Where are we after a year versus where you thought we were going to be when he was inaugurated in terms of his relationship with the press and how the press is reporting on him?

Margaret Sullivan: I think it’s going in some ways better and in some ways worse than I had anticipated. The better part is that we’ve seen some tremendous journalism, great digging, good accountability journalism, and a lot of it, and the great much-talked-about competition between the Times and the Post, but certainly CNN and the Wall Street Journal and others have done some really good stuff. From a purely reporting and journalistic point of view, I’d say it’s been excellent.

From a point of view of trying to make sense of what’s going on in a way that really works for the reader or the citizen or the news consumer, that’s tougher. There’s this constant fire hose of stuff happening all day every day. I don’t think that we’ve been able to make sense of it or keep up with it very well. I mean, we keep reporting it. That’s great. But I wouldn’t say that the press has been able to truly make sense of it for people. It’s very chaotic.

When you say “make sense of,” do you mean put it in the context or giving an analytical framework to it?

I think that if you’re a regular news consumer, you would have to be constantly tuned in and trying to sift through all of this craziness, most of which is of Trump’s making, in order to have a really good sense of what’s going on. I also feel that we’ve paid probably too much attention to the distractions, the tweets—which are important in their own way, obviously—and less than we should have to the substance of what’s going on with real issues that matter to people’s lives. It’s not that it’s not there. It’s just that it gets buried under all this other stuff.

It seems to me that the things that are really important that are going on are what’s happening at the policymaking level, at the Cabinet agencies, and by executive order, and also the larger question about Trump’s personality, and the way he talks about racial issues, and all these things about who he is really do matter. A lot of the palace intrigue–type reporting has turned out to be irrelevant because it doesn’t really seem to matter that much who has the upper hand in the White House, because Trump is still Trump and the policymaking at the Cabinet level is still going on.

I’ve made a little bit of a specialty over the past year of talking to citizens about their media habits and their trust in the media. One of the things I heard over and over was that the palace intrigue doesn’t interest them tremendously, and it also strikes them as a way that the media is wasting its own time and the readers’ time. We—the inside-the-Beltway Acela corridor journalists—are very focused on that, and that’s part of why the [Michael] Wolff book has gotten so much attention because it speaks to our particular interests.

Have you read the Wolff book?

I have only read excerpts from it. I haven’t read the whole book.

Did you have a takeaway from what you’ve read other than what you were saying about palace intrigue reporting being overly emphasized?

I think that the large picture it paints is true from everything we know, and much of it has been reported before, but maybe not in as quite as dishy a way. I think that overall it’s true, but there seems to be quite a few things in it that are inaccurate. Maybe they’re small things, but it seems important to me to get all the small things right if you are going to truly be believed on the bigger things.

[Steve] Bannon has apologized for what Wolff says he said. That certainly is some kind of confirmation. With a few exceptions, I haven’t seen people doing too much denying of what’s there. Again, I think that the overall big picture of this chaotic and very poorly run White House seems to be what we’ve been reading in newspapers and news outlets for many months now.

I’ve definitely talked to people where the attitude was, Well, most of it is true, which very well might be true. But that seems like the wrong standard, and it worries me a little bit.

Well, of course it is the wrong standard.

Go on.

It’s the wrong standard, but if you’re going to look at what the big takeaways of the book seem to be, they probably are correct. But I agree with you that our standard can’t exactly slip to it’s mostly true so that’s pretty good journalism. I would actually don’t believe that.

There was a piece in the Times by Michael Schmidt, who’s done some incredible reporting on Trump, several weeks ago where he interviewed Trump, and there was a big brouhaha about Did he challenge him enough? He did get Trump to say some interesting things, but a lot of people were critical that he didn’t challenge Trump’s falsehoods. I was wondering if you have seen a way of interviewing Trump that you think is better than some of the interviews he’s gotten.

I think that the art of the follow-up question is important here. Michael Schmidt, as you say, has done some tremendous reporting and seems to be in the thick of every big story or many of them. I certainly give him credit for his scoop, and I understand the technique that he said he used, which was that it was important just to hear what Trump had to say and not be using up the time by interrupting him or challenging him. But I think that a very careful preparation and an insistence on returning to some key subjects with diplomacy and politeness, but with real determination, would be a good thing to do.

When you think back on the early interview that Lester Holt did with him in which he talked about why he dismissed [James] Comey, Holt, I thought, was well-prepared and did end up getting Trump to make some important news there, which was that he said that the Russia investigation was on his mind when he dismissed Comey. It doesn’t mean that you have to be shaking your finger in his face or being obnoxious, but I do think that following up effectively is extremely important.

I want to ask you a mental health question. Not about your mental health, I should say.

Good.

There’s been a lot of speculation about the president’s mental state. There’s also been some feeling that journalists are not doctors and should not try to diagnose someone from a distance. I was wondering what you think about speculating about Trump’s mental health in terms of straight news articles or even opinion pieces.

I’ve been thinking about this, and actually I’ve started my reporting on it, and I had a chance to talk to [New York Times executive editor] Dean Baquet recently and basically asked him what his guiding principle was on this very thing. What he said was that he doesn’t think it’s appropriate for reporters to be speculating about Trump’s mental health, but what’s appropriate is for reporters to be reporting. They can be reporting on what people close to him are saying. They can be reporting on what he’s saying and doing. That seems to be the most appropriate thing. However, as of a few days ago, when he really opened the door himself by talking about his own mental stability and calling himself a “very stable genius” in a phrase that will always be remembered.

One hopes, one hopes.

It’s sort of like he’s opened the door to talking about it in a more straightforward way because he’s talking about it. But I don’t think that speculating about it or interviewing psychologists about what they see from a distance is a good way to go.

I don’t disagree with what Baquet said. I guess I would just say is that reporters comment on the feelings or the behavior of people they report on. They use words like sad or angry to describe how someone is feeling, even if they don’t. They diagnose those feelings.

But it’s one thing to diagnose feelings, and it’s another thing to diagnose mental illness.

I guess what I was going to say is words like crazy or unstable may have medical meanings, but they also have common meanings in the way we talk. We would have a way of talking about our uncle who was tweeting at 3 a.m. about CNN or was calling himself a “very stable genius.” The way we would talk about him being sad or angry, we might say, “Oh, he’s acting kooky today.” Again, I’m not saying the media should do that, but I also don’t want to have a double standard for Trump because he’s behaving so erratically you tiptoe around what would otherwise be obvious, which is you describe how this guy is acting.

It’s a little bit like the discussion that went on a couple of months ago about whether traditional news organizations should use the word lie to describe Trump’s statements, because this was a bridge that had to be crossed one way or the other. It was a term that they were reluctant to use. Eventually the Times did use it in a headline, I think on Page 1 or certainly on a story on Page 1. You don’t see it all the time, but it’s the same kind of discussion. When you talk about lying, it goes to intent. Does the person know that what he is saying is wrong? While this question about mental stability is what we’re talking about here, it’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s also fraught. It’s not just like saying, “Well, he seemed flustered,” or something like that. It’s a much more serious kind of issue.

I heard you say that you think the phrase paper of record doesn’t apply to the Times anymore. Why is it? Just because the media environment has changed so much? Because trust in the press is down?

Paper of record seems to suggest that anything that happens anywhere will be noted and recorded in this paper. If you look at the way the Times covers, for example, metropolitan New York news, that certainly isn’t the case. If you look at how it covers sports news, that certainly isn’t the case. It actually has moved away from being that kind of documenter of everything that happens in favor of enterprising reporting, investigative reporting, and original reporting—not just what happened, but how can we bring something to this that no one else has?

When do you think that change occurred?

It wasn’t overnight, but it’s happened in the digital era. For one thing, there’s a lot more day-to-day, moment-to-moment competition for attention. If you’re going to survive, you better not just be giving the box scores but rather doing some sort of big, fresh enterprising reporting on something. I do think it’s unfortunate that local reporting by some of the big news organizations has fallen off, especially since local reporting is really troubled right now and really under siege, not only in the big metropolitan areas but all over the country. It’s a really big worry.

That would be my biggest complement and critique of the Times, and a lot of the newspapers now, is that the quality level between the big investigative 4,000-word front-page stories, which are more frequent and frequently fantastic (I mean fantastic in a positive sense, not unbelievable), and the more daily stuff—“We’re going to cover all these local news; we’re going to cover basic things that happened in 800 words; we’re going to give a good summary of every major book that comes out,” et cetera—seems to have fallen of a little bit in quality.

I do think it’s a business decision that says we really need to provide something that only we can do and that distinguishes us. If you’re headed to every municipal meeting, that isn’t the kind of work that’s going to distinguish a big newspaper.

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