In This Episode
Is the media in the early stages of repeating the same mistakes it made when it piled on to manufactured GOP scandals like Benghazi and EMAILS? Biden’s vice presidential documents, Balloonghazi, the debt ceiling “debate”—all of these have been like bat signals to journalists who thrive on false equivalences. But conveying reality isn’t as simple as making sure that the facts you report are true and passing them along. At some point you have to use subjective judgment about language and story placement and sheer volume of reporting. And yet, journalists keep pumping out a rash of stories that normalize aberrant Republican behavior and abnormalize Democratic behavior in order to appear neutral. Does the media take enough responsibility for its role in this democracy? Has the national media learned any lessons from their fateful mistakes in the run-up to the 2016 election? If that doesn’t make American political journalism rethink its practices, what will? Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’s former public editor and one of our best media critics, joins host Brian Beutler to talk about how we can fix the media, or at least improve it.
Brian Beutler: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Positively Dreadful with me your host, Brian Beutler. If you think back honestly to 2016 and all the factors that contributed to Donald Trump becoming president, the mainstream media’s fixation on emails, so that’s Hillary Clinton’s email practices and hacked Democratic Party emails that should loom largest or at least very large. The hurt effect of the media, the sheer volume of coverage entirely out of proportion to the importance of either those stories on the merits to the stakes of the upcoming election. What probably looms less large is the email saga’s connection to an earlier media fixation, and that is on the terrorist attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya in 2012. Or to be a bit more precise on the Republican Party’s various characterizations of the attack in Benghazi. It’s not that Benghazi was a nothing burger, sort of far from it. It was clear from the outset the Republican interest in Benghazi wasn’t rooted in some sincere and consistent concern about the loss of American lives in foreign war-zones. At that point, thousands of Americans had died tragically and preventively in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were interested in it because Hillary Clinton had been Secretary of State at the time, and they viewed it as an opportunity to damage the Democratic Party’s frontrunner for president. And so they did what I think they often do, and they sort of feigned anger and fanned conspiracy theories and tried to turn it into sort of a Watergate sized scandal in the minds of as many members of the public as possible. Eventually, the returns on their Benghazi obsession diminished. Clinton herself testified credibly on a subject for 11 hours before a House panel dominated by Republicans who hoped she would self-destruct. And ultimately, there was just no scandal there, just a tragedy that merited an after action report untainted by politics, reforms to American foreign policy and just how we deploy our forces and government officials around the world. But it was through the multitude of Benghazi investigations that Republicans got wind of the Clinton mail server. So the media hurting around Benghazi gave way to hurting around e-mails. And the rest is history. So I’ve had an uncanny feeling over the past few weeks that we’re living through the early stages of something similar to emails and Benghazi. It’s not one thing, but a few things. The biggest probably was the revelation that Joe Biden’s legal team had discovered classified documents among his vice presidential records. And that was like a bat signal for journalists who indulge false equivalences and treat perception. By which I mean how the public interprets or misinterprets facts as more important than the facts themselves. Why? Because Donald Trump is under criminal investigation for hoarding classified documents. And the Biden documents disclosure provided reporters an opportunity to prove they’re sort of equally tough on both parties. And that could take the form of classic both sides do it journalism, or it could take the slightly subtler form of couching false equivalence in the language of optics. So here I’m quoting one reporter. One of the most significant costs to Biden of the documents case is the opportunity cost. That’s New York Times reporter Peter Baker. Democrats will now have a hard time using Trump’s mishandling of classified papers against him, even though the particulars of the two cases are markedly different. So right there is the acknowledgment that the most important thing about the Biden documents imbroglio is that the two cases are markedly different. Evidence suggests Trump stole specific classified documents and lied about it, refused to return them to the government when subpoenaed to do so. By contrast, the little evidence we have suggests the classified documents in Biden’s records got swept up by happenstance during the Obama Trump transition. That’s consistent with why it turns out Vice President Mike Pence had some classified documents in his records, too, but that hardly mattered, apparently because Republicans would falsely treat the two cases as somehow comparable. And so the Biden documents story must be covered aggressively out of proportion to its material significance. And in a way that created the, again, false impressions that the two stories were equally significant. More recently, just this past week, really, there was Balloonghazi, or Balloon-gate, where mainstream reporters allowed Republicans in Congress and on Fox News to lead them around by the nose with I don’t know how else to put it, just plainly affected outrage over the discovery of a Chinese surveillance balloon over U.S. territory. And then there’s the through the eyes of babes coverage of the Republican Party’s taking hostage of the debt limit. There’s mainstream media’s stenographic coverage of the House GOP new so-called weaponization committee. There was a big New York Times piece about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ crackdown on the teaching of Black history and the banning of certain books in classrooms, which bore the headline DeSantis takes on the education establishment and builds his brand. So here we are again, a rash of stories that in effect normalize aberrant Republican behavior, that add normalized Democratic behavior to create a false balance between the parties and that treat one party’s systematic efforts to mislead people as inherently unnewsworthy. What could be more worth digging into than that question? Right. And I want to be clear here, even though it probably doesn’t sound this way, that my purpose isn’t to do any special pleading for Democrats or to shield them from warranted scrutiny. It’s just to say that conveying reality isn’t as simple as making sure that the facts you report are true, or that the analytical points you make are logically coherent. So you at some point have to use subjective judgment about language and story placement and sheer volume of reporting so that news consumers can easily gather where various stories fit into the pecking order of, I’m inventing a new word here, consequentialness. If a hostile alien force invaded the planet, that would warrant more alarmist coverage than literally anything else on Earth. If two cases are markedly different, to use Peter Baker’s terminology, treating them as similar becomes misleading. If one party threatens to force the country to default on its debt unless the other party adopts its agenda, describing it as a quote unquote fight over the debt limit doesn’t accurately convey what is happening. After the 2016 election, there was at least passing debate among practitioners and critics alike over press failures in covering that election and whether the national political media would learn any lasting lessons from those failures and then make changes to their professional habits. And I worry that the evidence of the past few weeks, if not since, say, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan or maybe before that, suggest the answer to that question is no. And that, to me, raises a pretty troubling further question. If that couldn’t make American political journalism rethink its practices, what could? One of the best critics of those practices was also a journalism practitioner. Her name is Margaret Sullivan. She was a respected and fearless public editor of The New York Times in the last decade, which is how I first encountered her. But before that, she reported for and edited The Buffalo News, and more recently has written a memoir called Newsroom Confidential that examines some of these very practices and the question of whether they can be improved upon. And she is my guest this week. It is great to talk to you again, Margaret.
Margaret Sullivan: Thank you, Brian. It’s great to be with you.
Brian Beutler: Congratulations on the book.
Margaret Sullivan: Thank you very much.
Brian Beutler: So one of the most shocking revelations in it is that you once wrote a column supporting Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon.
Margaret Sullivan: [laughs] Yes, so of course—
Brian Beutler: Can you explain yourself?
Margaret Sullivan: Yes, I can explain myself, because I was 15 [laughter] and I was or maybe 16, but I was writing editorials for the Nardin Academy Kaleidoscope. And, I don’t know, I took some controversial stands, I guess.
Brian Beutler: [laughs] So do you still stand by the the conclusion you drew?
Margaret Sullivan: No, I don’t think it was, nope. [laughter] Nope. I think I don’t I don’t like that point of view. I’m not sure where it came from. I think I was possibly influenced by one or more family members who thought it would be calming for the nation to have this happen. But I try to think for myself now.
Brian Beutler: I mean, I think I—
Margaret Sullivan: Ever since I turned 17, I’ve tried to think for myself.
Brian Beutler: I wasn’t alive quite yet. But I think I mean, it wasn’t just your parents or if it was that they presumably got that sensibility from what was then a more concentrated mainstream media, where I think that sort of became the conventional wisdom at the time.
Margaret Sullivan: Probably so. And there certainly was a more concentrated mainstream media, which you know was in our household. It was two daily newspapers, the Buffalo Evening News and the morning paper, The Courier Express, but also the evening newscasts. You know, with I don’t know, I guess, Huntley-Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, all those people. And and in the background, even though we were not daily subscribers to The New York Times or The Washington Post, but they were certainly involved in setting the agenda.
Brian Beutler: So some day we have to have you back to sort of talk about that, like how your parents came to accept the wisdom that pardoning Richard Nixon was prudent, wise and just how they picked that up, sort of ambiently—
Margaret Sullivan: Mm hmm.
Brian Beutler: —maybe not even intentionally from what they what they were just hearing and reading.
Margaret Sullivan: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: In their day to day lives. But for now, I want to talk about your book and the themes of the book. I don’t want to spoil too much of it for our listeners, but I think it’s fair to say that you weave the story of your career, of your experiences in what you call reality based journalism, together with specific critiques of how reality based journalism has operated in practices and how its failures have contributed to a collapse in trust in mainstream journalism, per se.
Margaret Sullivan: That’s right. I mean, it’s a memoir. People have called it a memoir slash manifesto, but I think it’s actually more of a memoir slash critique. So it it. It does use my career and my history as a way to look at these things. And some of it is, you know, sort of war stories from a newsroom or several newsrooms. But some of it is trying to make sense of what’s happened to, for example, public trust in the news media since since the time of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers when some 76 or 75% of the public thought that the news media was pretty trustworthy. And that has just declined and declined and declined so that it’s actually, well, well below 50% now.
Brian Beutler: So you address at various points in the book and at the end the question what leaders and media can do to lift that number back up to sort of restore public trust in media. And and as I read the book, I kind of divided the forces you identified, driving the distrust in journalism into three, maybe maybe three and a half categories. One is sort of like act of, act of God forces where, you know, there’s been a society wide collapse of trust in all kinds of institutions. Relatedly, the Internet and social media inundates people with all kinds of information. A lot of it’s bogus, but it fosters almost just by the sheer volume of it, confusion about what to believe. The second category is, is, you know what you can really lay at the feet of journalists and and media outlets, which is, you know, failure on their own term. And there have been multiple high profile instances of over recent decades of fabulism and plagiarism and just getting big stories like weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, wrong. Category three is confined, I think, to the realm of political reporting, or at least that’s where you see it most. And so it’s divided politically. On the one hand, you have a systematic, decades long effort by the conservative movement writ large, I think, to to convince conservative Americans, at least that journalists are. Elites, corrupt Democratic Party propagandist, whatever you want to call it. And that they shouldn’t be trusted and that you should get your source of information directly from us or from our approved sources. On the other reporters have sort of responded to those consistent critiques from the right with big, showy displays of being tough on both sides and in doing so misleading people about really sort of basic, important things like what’s at stake in an election or which parties or politicians are more extreme or corrupt or dishonest. Is that do you accept that sort of breakdown or.
Margaret Sullivan: Yeah, I mean, yes, when you when you look at the I guess the last part of it, which is what’s wrong with politics reporting today, know, it is partly that there’s a whole culture there that, you know, you’ve you’ve described somewhat of this kind of, you know, defensive, wanting to look fair and so therefore bending over backwards to be like performatively neutral. But there’s also the and I’m not sure if this was part of one of your categories, but there’s also the the power and the influence of the right of right wing media and the way that it has really, you know, to some extent brainwashed people and served as a very effective partner with conservative. If we want to accept that term. Right wing politicians and and and office seekers and so on. So it’s kind of two things. You know, it’s kind of twofold. It’s like the right has this sort of megaphone very powerful one, the left not only doesn’t have that and I wouldn’t want to see the mainstream media do that, but they also tend to sort of cower and not even do their legitimate job correctly because they’re afraid of being called a liberal or something or spouting DNC talking points and all that. And I mean, there is a real I think I know this, that there is a real fear on the part of a lot of mainstream journalists, news leaders, corporations that run media companies to be somehow branded as leftist or sympathetic to the DNC or, you know, leaning toward the Democrats. They they don’t want that. So they do everything they can. The problem is, no matter what they do and how much they move to the right, it will never, ever be enough. I mean, that’s that that’s the that’s the setup. It’s intended to make them move to the right. And when they do, that’s not enough. Now you have to do it again.
Brian Beutler: Right? There’s it’s sort of like an appeasement strategy that never works and never has worked. I didn’t actually mention that the size and power of the right wing media and just thinking about it as you were talking, you know, it’s growth and the increase in its power tracks. I think with the evolution of how Republicans and conservative movement professionals have worked the refs and criticized the media. Right. Like I think when I even when I was coming up. But, you know, from from the Watergate era when Roger Ailes was like, we need to prevent something like this from happening to a Republican president ever again through maybe even like the early or mid 2000s. The critique was more like, you know, the media’s biased. You need to tackle the bias problem. You need to balance out liberal bias stuff with pro conservative stuff or whatever. And I think maybe in part it’s because they didn’t have, at the time, at least an alternative media apparatus to to drive their supporters to. But as Fox grew in power and a bunch of other media institutions flourished and and the Internet and social media like grew the megaphone of of conservative ideas and conservative rhetoric, they really could just say. Don’t ever trust these sources of of news. They’re always lying to you and get your news and information from. Any of these institutions Fox News, Breitbart, OANN, Newsmax, whatever. And—
Margaret Sullivan: Or directly from, directly from Trump or directly from—
Brian Beutler: Right.
Margaret Sullivan: —somebody on social media.
Brian Beutler: And and given that they could do that and really could drive tens of millions of people to do that, they could stop trying to, like, work the refs so much as just say we want to destroy mainstream media as a vocation or at least irretrievably poison faith in media among half the country.
Margaret Sullivan: Yeah. I mean, Trump, you know who is specializes in saying the quiet part out loud actually said to Lesley Stahl of CBS, You know why I do this, right? Meaning, you know, why I disparage you people and try to tell everyone that you’re fake news so that. And this, I think, is almost a direct quote so that when you write a bad story about me, nobody believes it. I mean, very upfront about saying if if I destroy trust in the news media, I don’t have to suffer the consequences of my own actions. And I think that we saw that happen over and over again, certainly during the 2015 2016 campaign and throughout the Trump administration.
Brian Beutler: So this gets to like the two of my questions are one that I’m really curious to hear your answer to. This is the first one. So whether journalism is accurate or not is something journalists can control, right? And so in your book, when you allude to like reporting failures and have suggested both as public editor and now as an author of this book, ways to reduce the chances that that kind of thing happen. Like that could work. I mean, I think it’s it’s pretty clear you go from A to B, but whether partisans try to undermine institutions that serve as checks in their power is not really in the control of anyone who works in media. And so I wonder if you think it’s even impossible for faith in media to be restored so long as Republicans and the conservative movement. Deem reality based journalism to be just a bunch of junk and corrupt propaganda. Like, they would have to have a change of heart, right? But to get the trust in journalism number up close to or above 50%. Right.
Margaret Sullivan: I mean, there’s never going to be a return to, you know, three. I don’t think there’s going to be a return to three quarters of the public, the American public saying, yeah, you know what? I pretty much yeah, I think the news media is pretty good that you’re not going to see that. But I do think that good journalists can make some changes about how they function to maybe improve trust or maybe just do their jobs better. You know, and a lot of it, Brian, comes down to things like how a story is framed, what words are used? To what extent are you going to parrot and magnify falsehoods? You know that that headline that you read about about Ron DeSantis. I mean, for people who follow the pitch bots, The New York Times [laughter] and The Washington Post pitched pitch bots on Twitter, which basically present this sort of exaggerated, sort of exaggerated ways that stories are are framed in a ridiculous way. I mean, sometimes reality totally measures up to those things. I mean, they’re just that and that’s one of them. You know, when you think of what’s going on in Florida with, you know, all of this stuff that’s happening and you see a headline like that, it is it is pretty it’s pretty bad.
Brian Beutler: So I think it’s bad. And I know that, you know, fellow travelers of ours agree it’s bad. And I thought it was bad when the cable news channels would air footage of Trump’s empty podium or lectern during the 2015 2016 campaign, I thought a lot of how they covered that. That election was obviously bad and like identified it before the election. Right. It was not only in hindsight that we realized that there was something amiss there, but I wonder how that translated down to the the broad center left of the population in the United States. Right. I think Democratic Party actors have obvious frustrations with the political press, but they’ve never tried to, like, systematically discredit MSNBC or CNN or The New York Times. But I think somewhat perversely. Liberal Americans became more trusting and protective of the press after the failures of 2016 because Trump and the right were so openly bent on destroying journalism as an institution, as a vocation, that the, you know, the the resistance or the broad opposition to Trump thought that now was the time to defend these institutions. Subscribe to newspapers. And that was salutary at the moment. But it I don’t see that the failures that you alluded to in like, you know, just uncritically echoing lies and distortions or whatever it is, has translated into public distrust. It seems to have coincided with an increase in trust, at least among that faction of the country.
Margaret Sullivan: Well, there was a little bit of an uptick right after Trump was elected that in in in the level of trust overall. And it in it did reflect exactly what you’re talking about. The people felt like, oh, you know, we need to be well informed about this and same thing that’s happened. And we need to subscribe to The Washington Post because democracy dies in darkness and all that good stuff. But I think that has I think as. It seemed so closely related to Trump. And as Trump has sort of become less surprising to us and we kind of have his number as a country, which doesn’t mean people won’t vote for him. I, I don’t think that’s an animating reason anymore. And I and I have seen the numbers that ticked up also come back down.
Brian Beutler: Okay.
Margaret Sullivan: So, you know, yeah. I mean, and it wasn’t like it never was a radical change because it was a change only on one side of the aisle.
Brian Beutler: Right. Do you do you think that there’s a, you know, a plausible. Series of events like perhaps culminating in the election of Ron DeSantis instead of Donald Trump, somebody a little bit more polished and a little bit less, you know, openly hostile or violently hostile [laughs] towards the media where. The liberal half of the country or the more liberal half of the country. Says, all right, now we don’t need to rush to your defense this time and the numbers fall further. And that finally creates the reckoning that I think we both wish could happen after after 2016.
Margaret Sullivan: I don’t think so. I mean, you know, there’s another factor that we haven’t talked about here, which is the way the whole media ecosystem has changed over the years. And one of the big things that’s happened is that local newspapers have really dried up and almost gone away in some places. And so this kind of common understanding that you would have in a place like Buffalo or many other metro areas has has really diminished. So, you know, that’s really how people were getting a lot of their news and that isn’t coming back. I mean, that whole ecosystem has changed and is it’s not going to return. So I don’t really see that scenario playing out. I do think, though, that I mean, something I would love to see happen, and I think it’s a little unlikely, but something I would love to see happen is for newsroom leaders, top editors, top politics editors, news directors, people like that, to actually stop thinking for a minute or stop thinking as much as they do about engagement and about numbers and about profits and about ways to make sure we have the audience so we have the advertising, you know, the whole business imperative and to think more about what we’re supposed to be doing. I mean, it’s so basic. You know, we are in the only, I think, constitutionally protected profession that there is. So we ought to take that seriously. You know, we have a mission to inform the public so they can self-govern. And I don’t know I don’t hear a lot of talk about that. And I think it’s it’s not addressed. I think it needs to be actually front and center. And while it’s kind of assumed. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know that. Then you look at the reporting and you don’t see it reflected there.
Brian Beutler: You said unlikely, like possible, but unlikely. How how would you in it how would you set up a situation where you get that conversation started and it starts down a path that might actually end in changes like the ones you described?
Margaret Sullivan: Well, I think it has to come from individual top editors. And, you know, I I’m a I think the Joe Kahn at The New York Times, I’ve I’ve read him I’ve read his comments on things. And I think that he. You know, does get that. But, you know, he’s a pretty quiet, reserved guy. I don’t think he’s about to lead a journalism movement that is going to you know, he probably could because he’s the editor of The New York Times. But I think like so many things, it comes down to individual leadership at the top. And, you know, there are so many pressures on news organizations and leaders of newsrooms that I mean, I’m sorry to say that I don’t think that this thing we’re talking about is really rises to the top where they’re like having heavy talks with their staffs about what’s our mission and how can we get it across and how can we stop doing this stuff that we’re doing. I just don’t think that happens.
Brian Beutler: Do you think I guess maybe specifically at The New York Times, but I guess all these institutions have, you know, broad remit beyond American partisan politics. But do you think that that the leaders of those institutions, is it that they you know, they have foreign desks and investigative desks and culture, you know, it’s a big thing. And The New York Times does a lot, I think, of the other stuff exceptionally well. And so if you’re in the position of leading the whole thing, you know, you might look down at the total output of reporting and say, this is going pretty well. But you need to you need if you want to reform the things we’re talking about, you need to take special interest in the in the politics desk, which. Is you can view it as just one desk among many, but it’s the, you know, the most powerful in some sense.
Margaret Sullivan: Right.
Brian Beutler: In shaping the rest of our lives.
Margaret Sullivan: One of the things that I think is interesting to think about as a, you know, just a way to sort of do a quarter turn on how we think about this stuff is what if what if we started referring to politics or political reporters as government reporters? You know?
Brian Beutler: I like that from your book. I might steal it. [laughs]
Margaret Sullivan: I think that’s really. I mean, I think it’s a way to sort of go, oh, is that what we’re supposed to be covering? Not the palace intrigue, not the gossip, not that Democrats are in disarray, not how someone’s burnishing his brand by removing books from school libraries, but actually government. This is how we’re governed. And, you know, I also you know, I’m always talking about people as news consumers. And sometimes I catch myself and I say, you know, a.k.a. citizens, you know, this is actually what it’s about. It’s about government. It’s about. It’s about being a citizen. It’s about elections, voting and being informed. So, you know, it sounds a little dreary know, but and and, you know, I think there’s this sort of savvy style. Jay Rosen calls it the savvy style of of political reporting where you’re just a little bit smarter and more sophisticated than the electorate and then your readership. And so, you know, you take on this sort of smug tone, and I don’t like that.
Brian Beutler: So, you know, if you could hypnotize Joe Kahn [laughter] or just have a conversation, just have a conversation with him, you know, one thing would be to say, look like de-emphasized among your political reporters, this idea that they’re covering politics as much as government and you could try to persuade him that the sort of tools and tricks that political reporters use in their writing and in their in their fact gathering can create a distorted view of of what what’s really happening. And then the hope would be that that would kind of filter down to the desks themselves, and then we’d have just a better output that would just be easier to defend, harder for people wearing their critic hats like us to nitpick.
Margaret Sullivan: Right. I mean, I think that. Who do you appoint to be the top editor of the Politics Desk? And why do you appoint that person to that role? I mean, that that would make a big difference. You know, if you sort of set that, if you set up the job, as you know, we want it. We don’t want to do this kind of both sides do it reporting. We want to the gist of our reporting on elections and on politicians. And all of that should be public spirited, should be to serve the public, give them the information they need not to do all this other stuff that we’re talking about. I mean, I think that would be huge. And you can also say, well, The New York Times is not the problem. It’s everything else out there. But The Times is still even now very influential. And and it affects the whole system, I think. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: Okay. So I mentioned earlier that two of my questions in particular were I was very excited to ask you about this is the second one. Our mutual friend James Fallows wrote a book, a great and really impressively durable book about this topic in the 1990s called Breaking the News. So he’s been on to some of these problems for the better part of 30 years. And in his newsletter last year, reviewing your book, he wrote that he’s essentially lost hope. So like you think it’s unlikely he thinks that the chances are basically 0% that internal change like we’re talking about is possible. I’ll quote him. He wrote, I am learning to accept that our mainstream media will not adapt to the needs of this moment in our public life. Having talked and written about institutional bias of the sort for many decades, I’m beginning now to accept that they are not going to change. This is how it’s going to be. I don’t need to keep pointing this out.
Margaret Sullivan: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: Why is he wrong?
Margaret Sullivan: Well, he’s not wrong that he’s he’s right. But I tend to be a little bit more optimistic. And even if I’m not truly optimistic, I’m hopeful. And there’s a difference. And, you know, you can try. You can. You can try to make it better even at the margins. And I believe in doing that. I don’t really like to give up on these things, which is why, you know, I thought when I left The Washington Post in the summer, just this past, you know, less than a year ago, summer of 22, I was like, well, that’s good. You know, I’ve been 40 years in journalism and I don’t need to do this anymore. And I’m tired of beating my head against the wall. But I got the opportunity to start writing a column for The Guardian US recently, and I realized, you know what? I actually am not done. I, I want to keep sort of hammering away at this stuff because I think it matters. And I also think that people who are well-intentioned and who are smart and do good work need to have the help of having it constantly explained and sort of put out there and have the argument made. I mean. I just I don’t I don’t want to give up, and I refuse to give up.
Brian Beutler: Jim’s next paragraph or a couple of paragraphs later that I didn’t actually—
Margaret Sullivan: And by the way, I mean, Jim is just great and he’s, you know, he’s so perceptive and he sees around corners and saw this coming pre-Internet, by the way. And, you know, I mean, I can’t I can’t argue with him [laughter] on on the facts, really.
Brian Beutler: I, I won’t know. No I feel the same way. But his his, well he says he’s sort of moved on to and I don’t really think these are like mutually exclusive means of trying to reform media is that people who are not currently part of those institutions should build new institutions that have the, you know, at least it maybe eventually in some or some institutions like just on their own, can compete with the sort of reality based journalism institutions that currently exist. And that. Either those could supplant what we currently have or that the example of doing it better might pressure. The older institutions to reform themselves in a way that just. You know, hit and run criticisms like they face now just can’t do.
Margaret Sullivan: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: Do you do you think that that’s a viable method of sort of evolving reality based journalism in a better direction?
Margaret Sullivan: I think that, you know, you have to do a lot of things at once if you want things to improve, and that certainly is something that should happen. I think another thing to do is to there’s a sort of management motto. Catch them doing something right. And I try to have I’ve tried to do that in my columns, you know, like find some place that’s actually doing the stuff that you think is good and elevate it, tell people about it, and hope it’s sort of contagious. I wrote about this Harrisburg public radio station that every time they I mean, they were doing this for a while. Every time they wrote about the Pennsylvania delegation, they would remind people that this legislator actually voted to invalidate the election. You know, like don’t don’t let people forget that this really kind of big thing happened or the way the Philadelphia Inquirer talked about the about audits you know supposed audits of of of the election, refusing to use the word audit because these things weren’t audits, you know. And so when you see people sort of making those kinds of decisions for principled and smart and good reasons, I think it’s really important to recognize it. So that’s perhaps a version of what Jim is talking about, which is develop new news organizations that are going to do it better and give up on the old ones. I just think you have to do a lot of different things, and I am not ready—
Brian Beutler: Right.
Margaret Sullivan: —to give up on the old ones.
Brian Beutler: Well, and you know, too, I think what I think what you’re saying is that if large numbers of people, people who have profiles themselves, identify and celebrate journalism, done, what we would call right, that it might be contagious among other outlets and other competitor journalists. And then ideally over the course of time, the if if it’s contagious enough, you end up with people doing the job better, getting promoted through the ranks, and that it might take years or even decades. But that process of sort of attrition will leave you with. Institutions are actually getting healthier instead of getting more set in their ways.
Margaret Sullivan: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I mean, I’ll strike a hopeful note here by saying that let’s not forget what happened in the recent midterm elections in which not only was there no red wave and all of that, but. But the elected officials, you know, people who were running for secretary of state, who could have been very bad influences because they would have been happy to invalidate elections or find votes or whatever it is that, you know, Trump was looking for the Georgia Secretary of State to do. They were largely defeated. I mean, how did people know enough to defeat them? How did people, you know, because of the news media, partially at least. So I think there has been some good stuff happening and and and there should be credit given for that.
Brian Beutler: So I, I have sort of tried to adhere to my own studious neutrality between the total hopelessness [laughs] and the like maybe maybe like it would take some hard work and maybe it’s not likely. But we can we we don’t have to give up entirely on legacy political media. There is one way I think we could maybe make some headway with just sort of direct interaction with the existing leadership of of. Some of the some of the biggest political news outlets in the country. So you wrote in your book about this sort of stubborn obsession many of those leaders have with this sort of fuzzy concept of objectivity. And I think understandably, when you challenge anyone, challenges the notion of objectivity in political reporting. Journalists and and editors like Marty Baron, to be specific in as as the person in your book who you write about their spidey senses go up. Right. They assume that these critics are just trying to recruit them to to thumb the scale for a favored party or politician or policy or whatever. And and I think some liberal or progressive journalism critics really are sort of just trying to work the refs the way Republicans 30 years ago tried to work the refs like. Just to make coverage more favorable to their team. But if I could get someone like Marty to chat with me in in this or any form about this question, what I’d say is that at the end of the day, there’s no objective way to make choices about what to cover, how to write about it, how much to write about it, where to place it in the in the publishing hierarchy. There’s only subjective heuristics, and the heuristics can be, you know what political actors are making a lot of noise about. And I think that that’s a really common tool editors use to determine where to allocate resources. But I think that that also just rewards, you know, whoever can be the most unscrupulous party or, you know, the, you know, just kind of create a shitstorm [laughs] about something and you’ll get it covered. Right. And what you were alluding to is like another heuristic could be like, what are people going to click on or what’s going to make them buy a newspaper? And that can be highly distortive in its own way. But. A third alternative would be for for journalists and editors to just accept, like we we rely on our reporting and our experience and expertise to determine the answers to those questions, like, what are we going to assign our reporters to cover? How are we going to place it? What kind of headlines are we going to write? And that doesn’t mean that everything that The New York Times, The Washington Post publish would be perfectly free of bias, but it would at least be something that they could then go out and justify, like we thought this was important for these reasons and more important than these stories for those reasons. And in a world like that, you would never have The New York Times committed to devoting equal column inches to, like all of Donald Trump scandals on the one hand, and then Hillary Clinton’s emails on the other. But I mean, I just went on for like 5 minutes trying to belabor my own point. It it’s not like a soundbite, right? Like objectivity gets tossed around in these sort of short—
Margaret Sullivan: Well, alright.
Brian Beutler: —pithy critiques. But but it’s a meaty concept. And I, I don’t know that they ever have really grappled with it in that way.
Margaret Sullivan: I think one of the things that happens is that, you know. I mean, what Marty would say in the situation is just let the evidence lead the way. Keep an open mind as a reporter, as a news organization, as a news leader, as a top editor. Go into these things with an open mind and let the reporting, you know, tell you what what’s true. So don’t start off with a point to prove, in fact, report against your own biases. And just as you would want a judge or a cop or someone else evaluating the evidence fairly and with an open mind. That’s what sort of what you want from the news media as well. I think another thing that happens is that people who are in charge don’t hear a lot, they more or less choose not to hear a lot of the thoughtful criticism out there. And, you know, I don’t think that they’re, you know, sort of perusing Twitter or laughing at the pitch box or saying, you know what, they’re right about that. I think it’s it’s like there’s a sort of they’re sequestered from it in a lot of ways. And I don’t know how to change that. I mean, one of the ways that it I think the idea of a public editor, which no longer exists at the Post or the Times or most places, it did sort of force people to say, okay, this is why we did this thing. And yes, we understand there are complaints. And then you have someone reasonably thoughtful like myself [laughter] trying to trying to trying to synthesize it and put it in the very news organization. They couldn’t really ignore that. You know, it’s in your own paper.
Brian Beutler: So I think in addition to too, just there being a lot of head in the sand stuff happening with with the leaders of these institutions, there’s a depressingly large number of them. And you pilloried I forget who it was, one of them just basically being like, well, we’re getting criticized by the left and the right, alike we must be doing something right. And I mean, it’s it’s a horrible and stupid trope. And I can’t imagine that if they devoted a moment’s thought to it, they would actually think it justified anything about what they were doing. But it’s widespread. And I think that when you hear someone say that you think you are impossible to reach, like I can’t persuade you because you aren’t actually engaged in any kind of reasoning. But but like what? Where what Marty would say or what you imagine he would say leaves me a little bit cold is that, you know, most of the reporting that that the Times and I believe the Post also did about the Hillary Clinton email stuff was, you know, not factually wrong. There were some errors, I think, but it was mostly correct.
Margaret Sullivan: It was just so overdone.
Brian Beutler: Yes.
Margaret Sullivan: So vastly overdone.
Brian Beutler: Like the volume of coverage in the decision. You know, I don’t know if it was conscious or not, but just like we need to have dedicate as much space in our publication to writing stories that are critical of both candidates is like, there is no objective way to do that. That is not an objective thing, right? Like Marty would say, go let the facts take you where they take you. But then you come back with the facts and you you have to decide. How important is this, right? Like, how important is it that there were also classified documents in Joe Biden’s vice presidential records? Is it as important as the fact that Trump had a bunch of classified documents because he stole them? And I mean, I laying that out here with you right now, I think the answer is obviously no. And if I ran one of those institutions and my reporters came to me with this information, I wouldn’t say let’s bury it. But I would say let’s not treat this as equivalent to the Trump story. Let’s not give it screaming front page treatment. And let’s make clear in the story that we’re going to pursue this wherever it leads, but that the differences between the Biden case and the Trump case are so important that nobody should be misled into thinking that they’re evidence of similar kind of criminal activity.
Margaret Sullivan: Right. And and even when even when and I think the media did a pretty good job of saying these cases are very different. Trump did this. You know, there were many more documents t he he he tried to hide them. He had to be subpoenaed to turn them over. And that wasn’t the case with Biden. It wasn’t so much about that because that was pointed out. These are very different. But it had to do with, as you say, the sort of amount, the display, the level of sort of glee with which it was it was greeted. I mean, two of the three evening newscasts led with Biden’s classified documents supposed scandal when it first broke. I mean, that’s a good maybe you think, oh, no one watches those. But actually 25 million people watch it every night. It’s and it’s an incredible sort of lens on what’s the mainstream point of view. So if they’re leading their broadcasts with it, they’re making a big deal of it.
Brian Beutler: Right, they are saying without explicitly saying, we think this is just as important as the right. And that’s—
Margaret Sullivan: Exactly. Or we think it’s, we think it’s very important. And even though these cases are different, which we will tell you about, the fact is you come away with it. You know, a sort of viewer who’s making dinner at the same time as sort of like, yeah, I guess Biden did that too.
Brian Beutler: So I mean, right here. We think this is important. Like that’s there’s nothing objective about we think this is anything, right. It’s just a an assessment. It’s it, subjectivity is baked into it. So if I—
Margaret Sullivan: It’s news judgment. It’s news judgment.
Brian Beutler: Yeah it’s news judgment. Right. Like, that’s what we have. That’s what we as reporters bring to our work that hopefully artificial intelligence [laughter] can never replace from us. Right. And if so, you know, if I went to to Marty and laid out my thinking on this and he said, what what you said, just objectivity means you go out and you find the facts and you follow them where they lead, and then the rest takes care of itself. And I say, well, no, like your judgment has to come in at some point and it can’t ever be fully free from subjective decision making and you know, there are political biases in everyone’s heads. But do you think he would accept that? Do you think he would like chew on it at least?
Margaret Sullivan: Sure. I mean, you know, and I guess I’d like to say I don’t like to set myself up against Marty, because I probably admire [laughter] admire him more than any other—
Brian Beutler: I also do, I also do.
Margaret Sullivan: —news figure of the past couple of decades and I mean, when he retired, I said and it was quoted in The New York Times that the country owed him a standing ovation. So let’s just, you know, let’s just put that on the record. But I think what he would say and what many people would say is, yes, I, I of course, I have to of course, I have to use news judgment to decide, in essence, what goes at the top of the home page, what goes on the front page, what gets the emphasis, what’s at the top of the broadcast, etc.. And my news judgment is based on having an open mind and assessing the facts. It’s a little circular.
Brian Beutler: Right. Yeah. You know, it is. It’s a snake eating its own tail.
Margaret Sullivan: Don’t try to argue with it.
Brian Beutler: I won’t.
Margaret Sullivan: I’ve got news judgment, I’ve got the facts. I got evidence. And that’s the way it is. [both speaking]
Brian Beutler: I am picking on Marty because I think he’s an exemplar of this. And he’s about as best as we could hope for to lead a major newsroom like like The Washington Post. If he can’t be brought around to the View that like, look, there’s no way to make these kinds of choices in a purely objective fashion. And so we should just fall back on our you know, when we justify coverage decision, we should just use the fact that we’re reporters and we have a lot of experience doing this to to determine where we place things and—
Margaret Sullivan: And that’s and I don’t think he would disagree with that. And, you know, one of the ways that, you know, one example is when January 6th happened, how were the protesters or mob, how were they characterized? Did you know were they called demonstrators or were they called members of a violent mob? I mean, those were decisions that had to be made in the moment based on all kinds of news judgment and the facts and what was going on. And I mean, you rely on people who are making those decisions to be you know, to have a certain amount of wisdom in the way they characterize these things.
Brian Beutler: So and and I guess the proof is sort of in the pudding that, you know, looking back on 2016, at least as far as the Hillary Clinton email stories go, is is that is viewed, I think rightly in hindsight is something that that trickled down from The New York Times and The Washington Post didn’t sort of fall prey to the same kind of hysteria.
Margaret Sullivan: Right. And I mean, the Post, you know, to its credit, put out a book written by two of its reporters in, I think, August of 2016, so months before the election, which was called Trump Revealed. And it was like all about all the problems with Trump. So it wasn’t as if. But and the and the email thing, you know, I mean, the the way to look back on that is if you’ve ever seen and I think a lot of people have these kind of graphics which show what are the words that were most associated with these campaigns. And the Hillary Clinton one, the hugest word was email. And with Trump, it was like, oh, immigration, presidential, speech, you know leader, all this stuff. I mean, that’s that was an analysis. That’s a sort of a graphical proof of what was being talked about and what was getting across to people. So, you know, I think you have to it wasn’t just the news media that made that happen, but a lot of it was.
Brian Beutler: That word cloud kind of haunts my dreams [laughter] even seven years later.
Margaret Sullivan: It’s really very, very bad. And it’s—
Brian Beutler: It’s so shocking.
Margaret Sullivan: And the fact that there hasn’t really been a reckoning with that coverage that I know of. And I have asked the question, you know, a true like, you know, industry wide or even New York Times specific reckoning with what went wrong and how we can never let this happen again the way there was, by the way, with the weapons of mass destruction coverage.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Margaret Sullivan: I see that as a problem.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, I do, too. Yeah. You wrote about Amy Chozick in your book, and I really don’t want to single out lots of individual journalism.
Margaret Sullivan: No, no.
Brian Beutler: But she wrote a book. I think it was her.
Margaret Sullivan: Yes. She wrote a book.
Brian Beutler: We’ll cut this if I’m wrong. Right. And she in it she was like, in hindsight, you know, I. I just got swept up in this and it was—
Margaret Sullivan: Right, no and I think Amy Amy did sort of in her book kind of fess up to it. But I’m talking about more of an institutional—
Brian Beutler: Right, right.
Margaret Sullivan: —point of view, which is, you know, Amy’s not doing that job anymore, but there now are lots of others who are going to cover the next election and there are editors. And have they you know, what have they actually learned from it?
Brian Beutler: Right. And, you know, and because there was no institutional accountability effort—
Margaret Sullivan: At least not a public at least not a public facing one.
Brian Beutler: Right. That leaves the rest of us who who cover and care about elections feeling pretty snake bit. And so, I mean, there hasn’t been that many presidential there’s been one presidential election since then.
Margaret Sullivan: Right.
Brian Beutler: But I think unless and until there is as elections approach, we all start to worry, you know, is this going to happen again? Are we going to see a repeat of what happened in 2016?
Margaret Sullivan: Right. And that’s why, you know, Balloon-gate and the classified documents and all this other stuff, you know, gives you pause, although I don’t think really that any of them will or could ever measure up to that.
Brian Beutler: I don’t think that we have found the you know, like the Hunter Biden email thing doesn’t seem like it’s or laptop thing does not seem like it’s got the same purchase as the Hillary Clinton email thing. But when the Clinton email thing broke, I was like, well, this is not a great story for her, but I can’t imagine that it’s going to decide the outcome of the election. And I turned out to be super wrong about that. So I think there’s an unknowable aspect to it. But like, do you do you think that it’s we should worry that it will happen again? And if we should worry, then, like, what’s the case for for hope?
Margaret Sullivan: I mean, I think that even though there might not have been a big reckoning and certainly not a public facing one or an editor’s note or any of that stuff, I do think that people recognize I think that journalists and top journalists do recognize that that story got way out of hand and that they probably do know that that cannot happen again. I mean, I think the way the Hunter Biden laptop story was handled by the mainstream press when it first broke is is an example of that. It was, you know, maybe to a fault sort of kept at arm’s length, then we’re not going to we don’t you know, a lot of skepticism applied. That may have been kind of a reaction.
Brian Beutler: All right. I mean, I buy that.
Margaret Sullivan: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: I can see that there there are now more countervailing pressures against getting swept up in a feeding frenzy like that than existed seven years ago. I’ll take it.
Margaret Sullivan: Yeah. Take the win.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, and I’ll leave it there, too. I want to thank you for spending so much of your time with us.
Margaret Sullivan: You’re very welcome. It’s fun to talk with you.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, you too. [music plays] So here’s a quick confession that’ll probably come as no surprise to many of you. I entered this conversation pretty aligned with the James Fallows view that the political desks of mainstream national news outlets are pretty well beyond fixing, and I’m honestly still pretty pessimistic that they could be fixed. It isn’t a coincidence at all that in eighteen years I’ve spent working in this profession I never joined a big media company’s political team, but I really liked Margaret’s point that it’s worth trying more things that might improve the way those reporters and editors approach journalism before just concluding that they’re beyond saving. Part of it is as a kind of law of physics thing. I don’t think it’s impossible to imagine political desks at The New York Times or CNN or anywhere else rooting their work in something more justifiable than false balance or maximizing eyeballs or anything else. Leadership matters. Staffing matters. The other part of it, or another part of it anyway, is that even if we ultimately conclude mainstream political journalism is beyond saving, it’s not going away anytime soon. And the better institutions that might replace them will take tons of time and effort and resources to build I know at least a little bit about that. And so before giving up or even telling the public, these institutions can’t be trusted to give the public the straight dope, it’s probably worth redoubling efforts to nudge those existing institutions in a better direction. And I think elected Democrats could take a leading role here. I know because I’ve tried very hard that influencing the how of political journalism from within as one voice among very few doesn’t get you very far. But politicians are a different matter. Like right now, as you listen to this, mainstream media outlets are preparing stories on how both sides are digging in to the debt limit fight when they know because it’s become a matter of routine that what’s happening is Republicans are threatening to destroy the economy unless Democrats enact GOP policy priorities. Democrats could play press critic about that. They could call that kind of coverage spineless and they’d be totally justified. And maybe it wouldn’t do anything other than make individual reporters or media outlets defensive. But I think it might leave an imprint on them. It might even make them more reluctant to repeat that misleading framing in their next stories. Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez, our producer is Olivia Martinez and our associate producer is Emma Illick-Frank. Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by the Vasilis Fotopoulos.