Q&A: The Marshall Project’s Bill Keller on the future of criminal justice reporting under Trump

President Donald Trump on Tuesday repeated his false claim that the country’s murder rate is the highest it has been in 47 years. The same day, The Marshall Project won a National Magazine Award for general excellence in its coverage of our nation’s criminal justice system.

The irony is not lost on Marshall Project Editor in Chief Bill Keller, who says the president’s fuzzy math and focus on “law and order” policies make his outlet’s work “more necessary than ever.”

Since its founding in 2014, The Marshall Project has produced stellar journalism—often in partnership with other outlets—focused on the intersection of criminal justice with race, immigration, and politics. In 2016, Marshall Project writer Ken Armstrong won the organization’s first Pulitzer Prize for his collaboration with ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller on “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.”

CJR spoke with Keller, a former reporter, foreign bureau chief, and executive editor at The New York Times, over email about the future of criminal justice reporting under the Trump administration, the challenges and opportunities presented by a world of “alternative facts,” and his plans for the The Marshall Project going forward.

 

First, congratulations on the Ellie for general excellence. In accepting the award, you said, in part, “We’ll take this honor as a rebuke to the cynicism of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts.’” I’m sure the reference to the rhetoric coming from the White House was not lost on anyone. So, speaking generally and as someone with almost 50 years in journalism, what most worries you about the current approach that the new administration has taken towards the media?

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Thanks. A former colleague of mine used to joke, when Congress or the White House did something egregious: Bad for America. Good for us. I think the new administration’s demonstrated indifference to truth is bad for America. President Trump’s litany of falsehoods in his first appearance at the CIA sent a dangerous message to an intelligence community for whom the facts are literally matters of life and death. The message was, “Don’t bring me bad news. Just tell me we’re winning.” Inviting your intelligence agencies to reinforce your delusions is not conducive to national security or good governing, to say the least. And a White House that makes stuff up is going to sow mistrust among allies and convince adversaries that we don’t mean what we say. That to me is way more worrisome than the impact on the press.

In some ways, the administration’s approach is, in fact, “good for us.” First, if the information delivered from the podium of the White House press room is not credible, reporters may be inclined to stop publishing it, get off their butts, and do real reporting. We’ve already seen a boom in fact-checking and investigation. Second, I expect that Trump’s attack on the so-called Establishment, including nearly three million civil servants who work for him, is likely to generate a festival of leaks. Bureaucrats leak in defense of their work. White House insiders leak to score points against rival factions. Leaks are a reporter’s friends. And third, as news outlets from The New York Times to, um, The Marshall Project have discovered, the new administration’s hostility has brought a surge of new subscribers and donors—in effect, readers voting for the news outlets they trust. Of course I worry that some portion of the public will just tune out both sides. But I tend to think most people have pretty good bullshit detectors.

 

That’s a fairly positive response, both about where The Marshall Project is headed and how journalists will respond to the new administration. Not to dampen that enthusiasm, but what most worries you?

I don’t want to sound complacent about the Trump administration’s war on truth. I think it’s profoundly worrying. I just find the discussion of what it means for the press a little self-absorbed, compared to what it means for American democracy. Of course, the two things are closely related.

My worry about criminal justice reporting is that—because it’s complicated, lacking in transparency, often grim, and expensive to do well—it will fall back into a state of neglect before anything gets fixed. My worry about the press writ large is that I’m wrong about the average American’s bullshit detector, that the new president will sow widespread cynicism, and that people will tune out. Those of us who have worked in countries with authoritarian regimes know where that goes.

 

Part of what allows Trump and his team to attack journalists with such frequency and venom is that trust in our institution is so low. Where should we as an industry direct our focus to rebuild that trust?

I agree that we need to rebuild trust, but I think the extent of mistrust is overstated. If you ask whether people trust “the media,” we rank down with contagious diseases. If you ask whether they trust the particular media they regularly consume, you get a much more positive response.  (The same thing is true of Congress—hate the institution, love my congressman.) I think we can enlarge trust by doing our jobs well, correcting our mistakes ungrudgingly, and resisting the temptation to play the role Steve Bannon has chosen for us: the “opposition party.”

It seems to me there was an evolution of mainstream coverage, beginning last summer. It went from “Trump says X, Clinton says Y,” to “Trump says X, but actually Y,” to “Trump says X, he’s a liar.” I don’t object to using the L-word when it’s clearly warranted, and I think calling out falsehoods in real time is a healthy development. But I think we want to be careful of a tone that confirms the suspicion of Trump voters who believe we’re out to get him.

 

Over the past few years, there seemed to be a bipartisan consensus coalescing around issues related to criminal justice reform. The new president, however, has taken an explicit “law and order” line, both during the campaign and over his first weeks in office. Does that worry you? Will it at all impact the priorities of The Marshall Project’s reporting?

The bipartisan consensus is pretty much intact. More of its energy may be diverted to the states, but even in Washington it has not entirely lost force. The Republican leadership is going to be looking for a few bipartisan successes to convince voters the days of partisan paralysis are over. There aren’t many candidates, and justice reform is one.

At The Marshall Project, we’ve already begun to adjust our plans for the year. We’re amping up our coverage of immigration and deportation, which could well be the criminal justice story of the year—a massive mobilization of law enforcement, a push to essentially deputize police and sheriffs as immigration enforcers, huge dockets at understaffed immigration courts. We’ve done some good work at the intersection of criminal justice and immigration; to build on that we’re adding a staff writer and have contracted with (in my view) the country’s best immigration reporter [Julia Preston] to be a regular contributor. We’re also hiring a Washington reporter to keep a close eye on the Sessions Justice Department and to monitor reform efforts in Congress. Roughly 90 percent of criminal justice—policing, courts, jails, and prisons—happens at the state and local level, and we will continue to troll the country for interesting trends and experiments. But Washington sets a tone.

 

On Tuesday, Donald Trump again repeated the false claim that the murder rate is at a 47-year high. What impact does this sort of misinformation, coming from the highest levels, have on The Marshall Project’s attempts to provide an accurate accounting of what is really going on in this country?

It makes us more necessary than ever. We’ve spent a considerable amount of time fact-checking Candidate Trump and President-elect Trump and President Trump on his dark, dystopian portrayal of crime-ridden America. That’s important, but it’s not enough. We need to, and intend to, publish engaging, on-the-ground stories.

 

There have been several conversations recently around questions of journalistic objectivity, neutrality, and opposition. You’re at a relatively young organization that doesn’t bear the weight of legacy and institutional momentum that a place like the Times does, so how do you define The Marshall Project’s approach? Is there a level of activism involved? Should journalists be aiming for neutrality, or does the current reality call for a reevaluation?

Glenn Greenwald and I once spent 5,000 words debating the virtues of journalism that tries to be impartial versus journalism that declares a stance. I read lots of advocacy journalism (and had a couple of stints writing it for the Times’s op-ed page) but I still believe in the discipline of impartiality—reporting that applies skeptical inquiry to all sides of an issue. I don’t advocate equal time for points of view that can’t withstand scrutiny (climate change deniers, for example), but I find journalism more credible if it starts with an open mind and follows the evidence. That’s the ethos we’ve tried to cultivate at The Marshall Project, and I think it becomes more important, not less, when you have an administration that treats the truth as fungible.

The Marshall Project has a more specific mission than most news outlets: “to create and sustain a sense of public urgency about the criminal justice system.” Our sense of purpose is a little more immediate. But ultimately all journalism—especially watchdog journalism, accountability journalism, investigative journalism, call it what you will—aims to lay bare problems in the hope that someone will fix them. We want to make a difference.

 

Looking to the next few years, where do you hope to take The Marshall Project? Should we expect changes in coverage—whether in content, medium, or approach?

The last few years have been a national wakeup call on criminal justice. There are several reasons for that: charismatic voices like those of Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson; the high-profile deaths of young black men, beginning with Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown; a younger generation that has grown up with low crime rates and sees the subject without a cloud of fear; the attention of major philanthropists; the common ground carved out by conservative and liberal reformers. And journalists, who have taken criminal-justice coverage beyond lurid crime stories and perp walks.

The one thing we know about reforms of all kinds: Nothing good happens if nobody is paying attention. So our first goal is to make sure the story of our criminal justice system doesn’t fall off the radar because some shiny new issue distracts us. That means continuing to do solid, engaging journalism of our own, and to continue working with other media outlets as a partner and (we hope) catalyst. Beyond that, like any editor, I have a wish list.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.