Q&A: National Press Club president on Trump, trust, and diversity in journalism

Photo © Tony Powell. Jeff Ballou Official National Press Club Portrait.

Friday marks the final day of President Donald Trump’s first year in office. It’s also the final day of Jeffrey Ballou’s one-year term as president of the National Press Club. Ballou, a news editor at Al Jazeera and the first African-American male to lead the 110-year-old, Washington, DC–based professional organization, calls the past year a “uniquely intense” one to have served as an advocate and spokesman for an industry under attack from the highest office in the land.

Ballou speaks about the responsibility he felt as the leader of the organization in a time in which the press has faced significant pressures, both from politicians and the public—though he gives most of the credit to his team. Though the stress of the job left him with a hiatal hernia and an ulcer, Ballou calls his year in office “a once-in-a-lifetime thing, to be chosen by your peers, to be a spokesman for the profession.”

Ballou spoke to CJR about Trump, trust, and the importance of diversity in newsrooms. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

As you look back on the past year, what’s been the biggest challenge?

To step up strongly and be the counterweight to the president’s pointed attacks on journalists. Typically, National Press Club presidents have had to address attacks on the press in other parts of the world or, on occasion, things that may happen on the state or local level with some politician going off the rails and booting a reporter. But the ethos that the president of the United States ushered in, throughout his campaign and definitely when he assumed office, it sort of greenlit everybody everywhere to declare open season on journalists. The United States is supposed to be the living symbol of a free and independent press, and Trump has been doing his utmost to undermine that in every way, shape, and form.

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I’m not inside the man’s mind. But I guarantee you that there are people in power in every corner of the earth that felt free to harass, censor, jail, or outright kill journalists, because they thought, “Well, if Donald J. Trump thinks it’s OK, it must be OK.” That’s something I have spent almost every waking moment of my presidency trying to rail against, because I had colleagues literally in harm’s way because of the words and actions of the president of the United States.

 

That impact around the world—whether it’s the Philippines, Myanmar, wherever—seems to be getting more attention recently.

It’s everywhere. You look at the reports, whether it’s CJR, Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, index after index, report after report, say that attacks on us are up worldwide.

That’s something that—for the American people and people worldwide who believe in freedom—it should strike us to our core. Undermining a free and independent press has consequences. If you shut out reporters, ordinary people are shut out from seeing how their government works so they can have safe streets, safe drinking water, police who they can count on, and so forth. If you can’t hold power accountable, because governments decide they’re going to obscure journalists from asking questions, then you’re in a no-win situation as a citizen.

RELATED: Assessing Trump’s press freedom record, one year on

Turning the lens around a bit, what have you seen from the press, whether its journalists in the field or professional organizations like the National Press Club, in terms of a response? Are there things that make you optimistic?

I am optimistic that the attacks on the press have actually rallied us. They’ve brought us closer together as a community. We at the National Press Club have locked arms with the other press groups I mentioned earlier, including the White House Correspondents’ Association, and we’ve fought together. It’s important that we fight for access, that we call out those who are trying to undermine a free and independent press. I’m optimistic that the strengthening of these relationships isn’t a flash in the pan. 

We have seen lots colleagues, in every medium, do incredible work. This wake-up call has forced us to do even better, stronger, more focused, impeccably accurate journalism because, when we’re under attack in the way that we have been, we have an enormous responsibility to cross every t, dot every i, check every fact to make sure we get it right. This is an environment where, when one of us slips, it blows up in the entire profession’s face. The foes of press freedom use it as a bludgeon to say, “See, these guys are nothing but fakes and liars.” So it has forced us to become better professionals, and that’s a good thing.

One of the biggest, deepest concerns I have are interlopers. There are tons of people out there who are purporting to be journalists. I’m speaking of those who are using partisan methods and outright attack machines that are full of lies. It’s confusing to readers, listeners, and viewers, and we have a responsibility as journalists to make sure not only that we get the story right, but to point out the imposters in the room. We have a responsibility to guard that gate and say, “Not everybody gets to play in the pool and call themselves a journalist.”

 

You touched on this a bit, but one of the things we see, in poll after poll, is a lack of trust in the media. Beyond simply getting things right, are there proactive steps that journalists and industry organizations should be taking to help audiences understand the work and why they should trust what they read, hear, and see?

One of the things that is so desperately missing is a fundamental understanding of basic civics and how we do our job. Journalists themselves, and those of us who represent the profession, are having to re-educate the public, and we have to step those efforts way up. The more we provide a window into our world, the more citizens understand. As we do this, both individually and collectively as a journalism community, it will help repair the frayed fabric of civility that has been so badly torn.

 When people see that the person speaking about these press issues looks like me, and has the gavel of the world’s leading professional organization for journalists, people say, “If Jeff can do it, we can do it, too.”

You are the first African-American male to serve as president of the National Press Club. Diversity is an area where news organizations have long fallen short, and it continues to be a concern. Do you see progress on that issue?

Newsrooms are missing something when they don’t reflect the communities they cover. If you don’t have people at the editorial decision table that reflect the people in the communities being covered, stories will invariably be missed or misinterpreted. Diversity is not just a question of race; it’s rural-urban, it’s making sure people from different political points of view are represented; it’s age, and it’s gender. You have to have folks at the table who can say, “Hey, this story is right,” or “That story is wrong,” or “We’re missing that story,” because if there are outlets that don’t reflect the community, there’s not going to be trust from the community.

As the first African-American male president of the National Press Club, an organization that’s been around for more than a century, I embraced the symbol that I am. African Americans weren’t admitted into the National Press Club until 1955. Women weren’t admitted until 1971. The industry has, likewise, been slow. Women and people of color have, in many cases, have had to sue their way into being admitted to work, let alone getting equal pay.

We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Report, which laid out the notion that newsrooms have to reflect their communities or else communities will not trust their newsrooms. That lesson was important then, and it remains important now. That’s why I’ve spent a fair portion of my presidency on the speaking circuit, doing interviews, talking to student groups, appearing at journalism conventions. When people see that the person speaking about these press issues looks like me, and has the gavel of the world’s leading professional organization for journalists, people say, “If Jeff can do it, we can do it, too.” I hope that engendered a spirit of optimism.

 

Has diversity become an especially pressing issue because of the manner in which President Trump has continued to play on racial divides? We saw this come up again with Trump’s “shithole countries” comment last week.  

It has, because if you don’t have representatives of the communities that are being assaulted at the table, then who’s going to raise their hand and say, What the president of the United States reportedly said is a really big problem that needs to be addressed. Newsrooms have gone through decades of missing these stories because their leaders because they didn’t think they were important or the stories got shoved off into what was commonly known as the race beat.

You have to have the people around the table who can appreciate the nuances that can be missed if you have nothing but white men making decisions. So you need women, you need people of color to help decide what’s a story and how that story is covered. That enhances the coverage and enlightens the public, which is what we signed up for as journalists.

 

Part of what you signed up for seems to have been a lot of stress. You mentioned in your farewell letter that you were recently diagnosed with a hernia and an ulcer. What effect has being at the forefront of these battles over the past year had on you?

I think it’s pretty clear that, although the job has been a humbling one, an honor and a privilege, it’s taken its toll on me. I guess I’m the kind of person that doesn’t feel stress, but clearly my body did. When I got the results back after getting poked and prodded in December, I was like, “OK, this is not good.” All jokes aside, self-care is critical. One of the things we forget to do—in many professions, and journalism is no different—is self-care. Covering health care, one of the biggest stories of our time, does us no good if all we’re doing is running ourselves into the ground. So, I’ll be at the spa on Saturday.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.