Public Editor

Washington Post public editor: The powerful have realized they don’t need the Post

October 20, 2020
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This month we learned that Tesla, a $400 billion public company run by one of the richest people in the world, has done away with its media relations department—effectively formalizing an informal policy of ignoring reporters. Though we should all be grateful for the chance to hear less about Tesla, we should also recognize this for what it is: one more glaring data point showing that powerful people no longer think they need the mainstream press, especially critical and ethical outlets like the Washington Post

This presents a problem. Because the mainstream press still needs powerful people—quite literally, in the case of the Post, as it’s owned by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, who is no fonder of difficult stories about his companies than any other billionaire. 

We are living through a historic, technology-fueled shift in the balance of power between the media and its subjects. The subjects are winning. The internet in general—and social media platforms in particular—have destroyed one of the media’s most important sources of power: being the only place that could offer access to an audience. When Elon Musk can say whatever he wants to forty million Twitter followers at any time with no filter, it is little surprise that he does not feel compelled to listen to unpleasant questions from some reporter who wants to know why he busts unions and wildly accuses people of pedophilia. 

As journalists, we all view this as a horrifying assault on the public’s right to know, and on our own status as brave defenders of the public good. And that is all true, for what it’s worth. But this is about power. We need to take some back, lest the rich and powerful run away from one of the last forces restraining them. 

Because journalism, particularly at the highest level, is about raw power. It is about bringing important people to heel, on behalf of the public. Politicians and officials and business leaders don’t want to talk to the press, subjecting themselves to the possibility of being made to look bad; they do it because they have always felt they had no choice. They felt that way because papers like the Post could offer the carrot of great exposure to those who needed it, but also, always, the stick of negative coverage to those who spurned them. There is nothing devious or ignoble about this; a powerful press, for all its flaws, is good for democracy, and tends to promote equality by holding the big shots in check. Anyone who has ever negotiated to land a contentious interview with a famous person knows that you only get those interviews when your subject fears what will happen if they don’t do the interview. Today, that fear is disappearing. We all need to figure out what to do about that. 

Trump’s incredible accumulation of power in the face of countless well-documented scandal stories is a proof of concept that will surely be used by smarter characters in the future.

The Washington Post and its competitors—the elite level of national news, the places that have traditionally set the agenda—are the most vulnerable to this shift. They are the relatively small portion of the media that is able to command both access and editorial independence. Politicians feel that they must deal with the Post, but the Post still feels like it can say what it wants, critical or otherwise. That state of affairs, which has been taken for granted for decades, is evaporating. 

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Donald Trump, unfortunately, looms large in this. His imperviousness to the usual blows from the press was evident five years ago. (One of my colleagues at Gawker got so exasperated with Ted Cruz’s accusation that the media was sitting on secret Trump scandals during the Republican primary that, in 2016, he wrote a story listing the many scandalous Trump stories we had already published—to no effect—with the headline “Ted Cruz, Please Help Us, We Have No Idea How to Stop Donald Trump.”) It turns out that being utterly shameless and uttering the words “fake news” nonstop, while having an entire right-wing media ecosystem amplify your message, really works. Trump himself, a pure creature of the New York tabloids, is too vain and dumb to realize that he could probably ignore the normal elite press altogether. But his incredible accumulation of power in the face of countless well-documented scandal stories in the Post and the New York Times and elsewhere—stories that would have brought down earlier presidents—is a proof of concept that will surely be used by smarter characters in the future. 

The question for the Post is: What are you gonna do about it? When the fear that was instilled in generations of politicians by Watergate wears off, and the federal government becomes ever more populated by officials who have discovered that no matter how meticulous David Fahrenthold’s reporting is, it won’t move the needle that much on entrenched public opinion? When the full flowering of the social media age turns even the most prestigious paper into just another midsize Facebook page struggling to catch up to the reach of Dan Bongino? 

I must admit I do not know the answer. All I know is that there is only one way the press maintains its power in society: by metaphorically putting the heads of powerful people on pikes. If the Post and all the other respectable media outlets lose their ability to do that, powerful people will, by extension, stop caring what the well-informed segment of the public thinks. Democracy dies in dumbness. 

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Hamilton Nolan is CJR's public editor for the Washington Post.