Politics

“I Don’t See the Last Four Years as This Journalistic Anomaly”

New York Times national political reporter Astead W. Herndon on covering Trump’s first rallies, the biggest mistake in early reporting, and when to use the word racist.

Astead Herndon.
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Photo provided by Astead Herndon.

This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.

Astead W. Herndon wasn’t surprised when Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for the 2016 election. He had barely graduated college when he attended one of Trump’s earliest rallies as a reporting intern for the Boston Globe. He talked to rallygoers, and saw firsthand how Trump encouraged a supporter who suggested that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim. A few years later, he became a national political reporter for the New York Times, where he continued to cover Trump rallies. In a phone conversation just after Trump left office, we talked about why his being with the Times didn’t dissuade many Trump supporters from talking to him, how being a freshman reporter gave him an advantage, and the biggest challenge facing reporters in the Biden era. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Aymann Ismail: Back in 2015, you had just graduated college and were at the Boston Globe, and you were reporting on one of Trump’s earliest rallies, the one in New Hampshire, and interviewed a handful of his earliest supporters. What do you remember from that time?

Astead Herndon: I remember going to that rally in New Hampshire and it was still in that kind of Trump Twilight Zone. I think there was a real belief among punditocracy that this couldn’t last, that this was a kind of a sideshow that was happening among fringes of the Republican Party. I remember being really challenged by the whole tone of the event. Seeing Donald Trump in person, I was shocked that he was a real figure. He’d existed in my head as this pop culture thing for so long. For most of those early months, the media was still shedding the celebrity Donald Trump and realizing the real political movement that was happening. I think it was a failure of imagination from political media to really believe that nativism was where the base of the party was. Birtherism had political salience with the Republican base. Once you talk to Republicans, you’d realize that was true. Some folks found it immoral. They thought it was inherently politically unpopular, and that was just a distinction that I really think blinded a lot of people to where that train was obviously headed.

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At the New Hampshire rally I went to initially, it was the one where someone had asked the question about Barack Obama being a secret Muslim, and having training camps throughout the country. I put that in my original piece from this rally and it was cut out. It was cut out as kind of like sensational. Honestly, I’m not even trying to sell out the Globe. I love the Globe. I’m just saying this because it’s indicative of the time. Then, the next day, Trump is dominating cable news—people were comparing it to when McCain shot down the same question. But originally, it was cut out of the story. I just think that there was a belief that the stuff was fringe and that frankly highlighting it was worse than acknowledging it.

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So your first experience with political reporting was covering Trump. That’s wild.

I think that one thing about being a reporter forged in the Trump fire is that I don’t have much of the sheen of the “this can’t happen here” stuff. I don’t think I have much of the deference to the political norms that have guided reporting for a long time. My personal opinion is that Trump has largely been consistent on the things that he has cared about since the day he came down that escalator. The chaos has been consistent in how he’s gone about it, too. And so if you were to reorient yourself into recognizing the forces that were motivating him, I don’t think anything’s actually been all that surprising. I think these four years were a kind of a manifestation of what he promised to bring upon the country. So, in that way, I don’t see the last four years as this journalistic anomaly that will never be replicated again. I think that it is one piece of what is a larger conflict in America. And I think that a risk is that a Biden administration that is better at norms, that is better at the kind of baseline stuff that people have come to get outraged about, will blind people to the forces that led to Trump in the first place.

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If you could, would you change anything about the way that you wrote about Trump, especially in the beginning?

I went to Trump rallies and I wrote about Trump from a base level. I wrote about white grievance in the Republican Party. I wrote about conspiracies and violence. And I think that those things have held up. What would I have done differently? I think that that first year and a half, there could have been much more grounding, rather than feigning shock at every tweet. The real inadequacy of writing about Trump is when you write from the top down. What I liked about the last two years was I think there’s been an increasing willingness to write about Trump from the bottom up—how it was affecting people, rather than who he is as an individual leader. I think there was too much top down for too long, and I include myself in this. I think it took some folks until coronavirus to really think about how Trump impacted everyday people. And we could have more clearly communicated that for the Muslim ban, for Hurricane Maria, etc. There was too much written about Trump’s disorganization, his unwillingness to deal with facts, his unwillingness to constitute the mechanics of government, and not enough about the consequences of his actions.

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I think there’s a lot of legitimate palace intrigue with Trump, who is a unique figure. That wrapped up political reporting in a Washington-centric, individual-centric mode. And so when I talk about bottom-up Trump reporting, I’m talking about how supporters, how communities, how people are changing because of politics, and then affecting the political scene. I am not talking about individual actors in Washington and what they say and what they do as being a real central thing. So I think in the first year and a half, he had a lot of focus on D.C. Then there’s all of these things that have happened, there was a big racial justice movement last year, there was this huge pandemic that changed our day-to-day lives, which I think have made the last two years really focused on bottom-up, or regular folks, and then how the changes among those people were coming to Washington. And I think that that is actually really valuable.

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So Trump talked a lot about the New York Times. He called it the “Failing New York Times.” He would try to convince his supporters that it was falling apart, that the newspaper was losing subscribers, hemorrhaging money. And he made the Times a target. In the middle of all that, in 2018, you accepted a job there as a national politics reporter. That was around the same time Cesar Sayoc, the Trump super fan, mailed pipe bombs to some of Trump’s opponents. Did you hesitate at all before accepting a job there?

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No. I think The New York Times is the best day-to-day news outlet in the world. And I don’t think that anything Donald Trump says changes that. What Trump says about The New York Times is somewhat annoying. But, one, it’s not true. Two, as someone who goes to his rallies and talks to his supporters, it sometimes comes up, but usually they’ll talk. It does require some building of trust, but I don’t think that’s any different than when I used to work at the Globe and go to Black and brown communities and try to get them to trust us when media had done horrible things to their communities for a long time. And so, I think that the process of gaining people’s trust and having them tell their story is one that’s universal. On the right, there’s an intentional disinformation and misinformation machine about the media, and about specifically the Times. But I think that some of the work we’ve done in the last two or three years is a testament to how you can still go to those places, get those people to talk, and get those people to be explicit. As a Black person who works at The New York Times, I can show up to Trump rallies in St. Cloud, where they’re trying to ban Somali immigrants, and see rally after rally with both the same explicit language and their support of Trump.

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The Times did catch a lot of flack for saying “racially charged” instead of just saying “racist.” Do you have a stance now on that as it relates to Trump?

The use of euphemisms to talk about race exists throughout the industry at large, and at the Times, it’s been eradicated. I know that we have guidance in our building now not to use that stuff, partly because people like me and others were saying that one, it’s not clear, and two, it just tells you, the reader, that they won’t say the word racist. We have standards about when we use racist, mostly for individual actions or rhetoric, rather than a person. But I got to be honest with you, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. My stories very rarely use the word racist. And I actually don’t think you need that moniker to do the work of reporting about, and writing about, even folks who are using what we would call a racist language. I used it in one spot because the guy said the N-word, right? That’s racist. I used “nativist” when they were talking about banning immigrants. But I think that I have found that this question over-represents the importance of the word. You can write in ways that clearly communicate to readers what this is, and you actually don’t need the description. What you should not do is use those descriptors that are bad and unhelpful, like “racially charged” and the rest of them. Avoid those, and write in a way that clearly communicates with folks what is necessary. I actually don’t think the individual moniker of “racist” is the most important thing.

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One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is how Trump changed me as a journalist. One thing that I’ve noticed on my end was there was more interest in my work on Trumpworld and my point of view, because I’m a journalist of color. And I wonder if you experienced something like the same. Did you feel any special significance to your work as a person-of-color journalist, or did you feel like maybe you had a special responsibility at all during the Trump era?

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I feel that weight and responsibility, but it’s not because of Donald Trump. It’s that our communities deserve truthful and accurate reporting. And that is what I feel a responsibility toward. I don’t consider being a person of color journalist as being oppositional to Trump. I think of being a Black journalist as being pro-truth, pro-accountability and succeeding the tradition of Black journalists who have pushed the industry on what that looks like. Also, racism isn’t true. It’s false. And so as a journalist, it’s worth it to me to expose it as false, not as spite toward any one political actor. Trump certainly has changed the landscape, but my commitment to reporting does not change in a Biden era, because it’s not like a more norm-abiding president has any monopoly on facts. It obviously changes how we’re going to work, but my commitment to journalism will ground me much more than any type of resistance.

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I guess I feel a little out of place at Slate because I didn’t go to journalism school. I didn’t go to an Ivy League college, and I sometimes feel like an imposter, or an affirmative action hire. Like they needed a Muslim guy, and I got lucky. Do you ever feel that way at the New York Times?

I think that is a reflection on the institutions that have taken too long to change. But whether I would be here without Trump or not, I’m here. And you’re here. And so let’s do the work for the communities who deserve accurate reporting. I don’t think that we can rid ourselves of other people’s perception about us, because that’s how under-representation functions. That’s how power replicates itself. It requires minimizing the work of people of color and Black journalists and the value that they add to these organizations.

Man, that was very uplifting. How do you think your approach to your reporting will change during the Biden administration?

I think we need to retrain ourselves. And I think readers do too. This is going to be an administration that clears the very low bar of norms and guard rails that the Republicans blew up, right? It’s not going to be Sean Spicer in that room. It’s not going to be nonstop tweets and whatever. But there will be tension in the Biden reality, and that’s going to be in the substance. I think we have to retrain readers to care about substance. And that’s what I expect from my work. I’m not in Washington, and I don’t plan on spending much time there. I spent inauguration in Charlottesville. I think that for the next four years, reporters will be finding stories that speak to the moment but are not the literal moment. And we’ll see how it goes, and adjust if we need to.

This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.

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