Covering the election: A CJR roundtable

Though the presidential election hasn’t yet happened, the journalistic post mortems have already begun.

The past year has included some of the best moments in political journalism–reporting at the Washington Post, The New York Times and BuzzFeed have particularly stood out–as well as the most tortured: News outlets have struggled with the roles their reporters should take on Twitter, whether and how to call out Donald Trump as a liar, how far to go in reporting lurid sexual details.

To begin the process of making sense of it all, the Columbia Journalism Review convened a group of media executives on Oct. 20 to hash through the issues.

The conversation was moderated by CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope and featured Carolyn Ryan, political editor at The New York Times; Sir Harry Evans, editor-at-large of Reuters and former editor of The Sunday Times; and Howard Wolfson, a political adviser who served as co-chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

We began with the question: What do you think is the journalistic legacy of this campaign?

An edited transcript follows.    

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Sir Harry Evans: Well, I hope it’s not Harry Truman [laughs]. We all remember the famous front page, “Dewey Defeats Truman” in 1948, because Truman was finished. Truman was in the same place Trump is today. Everybody had written him off. That front page stuck in my mind forever, of Truman holding it up there.

I’m a big admirer of the American press. In this election, I must say I was very disappointed at the beginning because it seemed to me that more than a year ago it was apparent that Trump was going to be the front-runner. Where were all the investigative reporters then?

I think the job of journalism, if I may say so, is to expose lies all the time in pursuit of truth. Now, the lies you expose are only a small part of the truth. When I was editing politics in London, I was obsessed about who’s got it right.

I’ve got criticisms of the [New York] Times, but the idea that this morning, after the debate, you could go through the Times page, straight across the board, and every major fact was fact-checked, instantly, not waiting for Politifact in about three months time or whenever it is, but there and then. I thought it was a superb piece of journalism. The Times finally got going and did great stuff on the casinos, great stuff of course on whoever dropped off those income tax returns, and so on.

By and large I’m disappointed because I thought if the investigative journalism was started much earlier it would have been brilliant, and it could have started much earlier. Of course the big story now, that I hope everybody is on, is what the real connection is in cyberspace between Putin and Trump. This is the big untold story and it’s the most important thing in the election for me.

Carolyn Ryan: When I got to the Times it was interesting because, believe it or not, we had never done fact checks that reached any sharp conclusion. We would say, here’s a fact, and then we’d have a lot of paragraphs about it and commentary. But what we have created this year, and what I think you are responding to, is a very simple, concise, “No, that’s not true.”

Institutions sometimes move slowly, but to get this going, essentially you have to have reporters, who are the best experts in their fields, responding in real time, usually within five minutes. I was just looking at the audience numbers and it’s become even more popular than the main story [on the debate].

We’ve kind of created this platform that works and works really quickly. It’s somewhat addictive for our readers who just want quick, factual analysis.

CJR: We’re almost to the point when we can start thinking about this race in historical terms. What about this notion that the press missed the rise of Trump and the rise of the Trump support base, that it took a lot of people especially in this part of the world by surprise that there are all these people out there that felt the way they did. Do you think that’s a fair criticism, both in general and of the Times?

Ryan: Not of the Times [laughs]. I think there was a moment in 2015, right around Labor Day, when our sense of how real it was becoming, just from being out around the country, became quite powerful. There was one story that we did, right around Labor Day, that stands out to me, which was looking at the beginnings of the effect of Trump’s racial rhetoric on the rest of the field. You started to see some of the messages he was putting out there and how it was hardening other Republican candidates’ rhetoric.

And then we had two reporters spend a week just transcribing and watching every word that came out of Trump’s mouth. It ended up being about 95,000 words, and we went to historians and people who study demagogic patterns in language, and we did a quite powerful story capturing that part of Trump. So, some of the stories I feel like we were earliest on were sort of getting at what was happening around race and otherness and the kind of language that he was putting out there, and what that was doing more broadly in the campaign.

CJR: I’m really interested in this business of calling out lies, saying “This is a lie. It’s not a contested fact.” There was this moment when we picked up the Times and saw this story on the front page about Trump’s lies, and a lot of our jaws dropped with the notion that we’re in a new world now. I’m interested in the evolution of that decision. What can you tell us about that? 

Ryan: We had been talking about this for a long time, and sort of cataloging the way that Trump talked, and aggressively fact-checking. We started doing something where when we would write a story about Trump, we would do real-time fact-checking of his assertions.

What you’re referring to is the birther moment, where he came out and said Obama was born in this country, but blamed Hillary Clinton for starting the whole mishigas. We decided within about 40 minutes, Michael Barbaro, Dean Baquet, and I, that we were going to write something very straightforward.

I went to Dean Baquet and I said, “Can we call this the unwinding of a lie?” He understood the potency of coming out very directly and saying that, and that what Trump had done – a willful deceit – was far more egregious than some of the fabrications and stretching of the truth that we usually see in politics.

So he was firmly behind us, and I think a lot of readers reacted favorably. In the newsroom, it’s a fairly traditional institution and there were some suggestions that it was precedent-shattering and what does that mean, and how do we go forward when other people stretch the truth or say things that are untrue? This felt, to me, like the very definition and essence of lying, that it was more than inaccuracy, that there was a willful desire to deceive.

CJR: Just so I understand this: the time it took between you raising this and it going to Dean and the time of the decision was 40 minutes? 

Ryan: Yeah, so what happened was, if you remember that Friday, he gave that press conference that was bizarre for so many reasons. It was like a hotel tour and he was surrounded by military men, and then he came out. Michael Barbaro is a reporter who I’ve worked with for about eight years, so once we start putting something together, we knew exactly what we wanted to say and we knew how to say it. If you look back on the story, there’s a forcefulness about the language, and I think some of that was just the pent up feeling that we had covering him and being confronted with the way he is rather elastic with the truth.

CJR: Howard Wolfson, based on what [Carolyn] just said, what does the world look like going forward in the relationship between a candidate and the press?

Wolfson: Maybe it’s a little bit of back to the future. I remember my start in politics, [when] I was at one side of the Democratic Campaign Committee. We ran ads in maybe 40 or 50 different districts around the country. This was in 2000, 2001, and we spent an enormous amount of time thinking about what a newspaper would say in the fact check or ad-watch column about the ad.

There was an enormous fear that we all had, that if the local paper in the district in wherever-ville said that this was false, that this could be very damaging to the candidate that we were trying to help. You have no idea how much time we spent wordsmithing every word. Obviously we’re trying to support the candidates we were helping to elect, so we wanted to push the envelope. But, at the the same time, [we had] a real fear that somewhere someone was going to say that the assertion was false and that this could be used against us.

This was true when I worked for Hillary Clinton when she ran for senate in 1999 and 2000. I remember the Times would do these sort of ad-watches. You know, my god, if the Times said that an assertion in our ad was false, we wanted to jump off a roof. Not because we were so high and mighty in terms of our morality, but because we thought that it would hurt us in the campaign.

I think that the media landscape has changed significantly, and over the years that function has largely disappeared. Fewer and fewer papers [are] fact-checking these ads, which is the principal way that people communicate. Obviously, fewer and fewer [are] fact-checking what a candidate says. I do ads for Mike [Bloomberg]’s  super PAC, and we’re running ads now.

CJR: Is that mainly on guns?

Wolfson: Guns and the soda referendum and soda tax in California. When we think about what we’re going to say in these ads, I feel like it’s almost a nostalgic quaintness that I feel like somebody will fact-check this ad and say whether it’s accurate or inaccurate. Nobody’s fact-checking them. There is literally no fact-check function to anything that we’re doing.

CJR: I think you might regret having said that [laughs].

Wolfson: I don’t, because I still feel that the ads are accurate. I haven’t constitutionally gone away from that initial training that I learned. I don’t know exactly when people in your business decided when this is not a useful function, but I will tell you, in my business, back when it was a ubiquitous function, we took it very seriously. It actually affected our behavior around what we wanted to say and how we said it. I realize that your business is not necessarily to impact our behavior, but it kept us to a certain degree of honesty that, if you’re coming up in the political business now, you don’t really have to think about.

I was laughing about it with a political consultant who’s a little bit older than I am. He said, “We’re running ads in another state, and it’s literally the Wild West. There’s not a single arbiter that is engaged in the process of determining what’s truthful.” Maybe that’s partially because the public is less believing of neutral arbiters and their ability to be neutral. 

CJR: I think it also has to do with the decimation of local news outlets.

Evans: It’s very interesting. I grew up have a reverence for truth as the aim of journalism. It’s a very difficult thing to achieve, but my main concern is the open sewer of the Web.

Something that you think is an established fact is no longer established; it’s been covered in excrement. One side is congregating around one set of untruths and the other side is congregating around another set of untruths, and the two shall never meet. I think one of our jobs in journalism is somehow to get over this enormous thing and to restore the reverence.

Ryan: It is enormously labor-intensive. I don’t know if you have seen what NPR is doing during the debate where they’re essentially taking a real-time transcript and annotating it. From what I was told, there are about 50 people involved in putting it together. It’s enormously popular, but for us to devote 19 reporters, multiple editors, producers who are putting it together, Web designers, it is really expensive.

Evans: It’s been very good. Chris Wallace made a misstatement last night in one of his questions. He said. “Since the stimulus has been a complete failure …,” which is not true. There’s nobody to check the moderator. I thought who’s going to check the checkers?


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The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.