On journalistic books and withholding information

Even before Donald Trump lost the presidential election in 2020, books about him and his administration—covering the chaos and turmoil at the White House, Trump’s impeachment trial, his tangled relationship with questionable characters like Steve Bannon, and morehad already become a cottage industry. (Bob Woodward, the legendary reporter for the Washington Post, is responsible for three of them, one with Post colleague Robert Costa.) In one of the latest in this genre, entitled Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show, Jonathan Karl—the Washington correspondent for ABC News—chronicles the post-election intrigue inside the White House. Karl’s book, released on Tuesday, details a New Year’s Eve memo written by Jenna Ellis, a legal advisor to the Trump campaign, about how Trump might be able to reject the results of the election and have Mike Pence declare him the winner—a new Trump revelation that has since driven a short, memo-focused news cycle.

It says a lot about the Trump administration that this wasn’t the only such memo that circulated at the White House. In Peril, released in September, Woodward and Costa reported that John Eastman, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, wrote a similar memo outlining how Pence could simply disregard the electoral votes from states that Trump didn’t win and then use the Republican majority in Congress to ratify his “victory.” For some critics, these two memos also had something else in common: they represented potentially critical information about the health of American democracy that should have been reported when it happened, rather than saved for the publication of a book.

Steve Inskeep, an NPR host who recently interviewed Karl about his book, responded on Twitter to some of these arguments by saying that, as a society, “our most pressing need is for context, careful reporting, understanding. It’s not to file stories instantly on every incremental tidbit.” Reporters like Karl and Woodward, he suggested, need time to put things into context, especially the chaos of the Trump White house. “When journalists report the very latest bit, that may serve the audience well, or may not,” Inskeep added. “Our demand for instant answers is not often consistent with wisdom.” Erik Wemple, the media critic for the Washington Post, defended Woodward along similar lines when he was criticized for withholding information—specifically, a sustained Trump lie about the severity of COVID-19—for Rage, his second book on the Trump presidency.

The implication in both defenses is that it’s better to wait for some pieces of information than to know them immediately. This may often be true, but is it always? Some argue that it wouldn’t have changed anything to know some of the details in either book. Writing last year about Woodward’s Rage and Trump’s COVID deceptions, my CJR colleague Jon Allsop said that some of the anger at Woodward was clearly misplaced. “The idea that Woodward could have saved lives by going public sooner is highly hypothetical,” he wrote. “And his revelation doesn’t fundamentally change a fact that we’ve always known—that whatever Trump said in private, he did nothing to stop the coronavirus.”

Not everyone buys these justifications, however. “The idea that we had to wait for the Trump books to get the full context, and the holy-crap tidbits they contain, is pernicious,” Dan Gillmor, a journalism professor at Arizona State University, replied to Inskeep’s post. “Journalism could readily provide context as the story develops. It chooses not to.” Allison Hantschel, a journalist and author, wrote earlier this year about Trump-book disclosures and argued that, at a time when trust in journalism is falling, “it absolutely defies explanation why reporters… would proudly present major revelations as blockbuster book excerpts instead of breaking the news in real time.” None of the arguments defending this approach, she said, “have anything to do with readers, the public interest, or the purpose of keeping democracy from dying in darkness that we hear so much about.”

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post and a former public editor for the New York Times, interviewed Woodward about his decision not to report Trump’s comments on COVID-19 when they were made—well before a lot was known publicly about the coronavirus and its health risks. Woodward, defending his decision, told Sullivan that he didn’t know whether what Trump was saying was true or not, and needed to continue reporting out the book. But Sullivan came to a different conclusion from her colleague Wemple. “I don’t know if putting the book’s newsiest revelations out there in something closer to real time would have made a difference. They might very well have been denied and soon forgotten,” she wrote. “Still, the chance—even if it’s a slim chance—that those revelations could have saved lives is a powerful argument.”

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Here’s more on Trump and journalism:

  • Conscience: Charles Pierce of Esquire was not a fan of Woodward’s choice to keep his Trump details to himself for his book. “The president knew and lied because he wanted to get re-elected. Woodward knew and kept it to himself because he had a book to sell. Who’s worse?” Pierce wrote. “As someone who in his own small way practices the same craft as Bob Woodward, I have to wonder how Woodward watched the president lie for six months as the body count ratcheted skyward without his conscience tearing out his heart. I have to wonder if, in some small way, journalism as public service died as collateral damage.”
  • Book fails: In the aftermath of the Woodward’s Rage, Constance Grady wrote for Vox about the deluge of ethically-questionable books by former White House insiders and Trump confidants. “In theory, book-length reporting is supposed to function as the home of the very best of journalism: not as the home for breaking news where time is of the essence, but for the most thoughtful, most rigorous, most carefully sourced reporting in the industry,” Grady wrote. “But in practice, book-length journalism often fails to perform that duty, perhaps because book publishers generally don’t consider the ethics of journalism to fall within their purview.”
  • Milley time: In Peril, Woodward and his co-author reported for the first time that General Mark Milley, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took the unusual step of reaching out to his counterpart in China directly, in case Trump decided to do something rash. “If these accounts concerning Gen. Milley are true, a good argument can be made that they should have been reported in the pages of the Post in October or January or as soon as the information was known and verified,” Joe Concha wrote in an op-ed for The Hill. “If Milley was acting inappropriately… lawmakers and the public had the right to know.”

 

Other notable stories:

  • Danny Fenster, an American journalist who was freed earlier this week after nearly six months in jail in Myanmar, arrived in the US on Tuesday and had an emotional reunion with his family, the Associated Press reported. Fenster, who had been sentenced to 11 years of hard labor by the military government in Myanmar, was handed over Monday to former US diplomat Bill Richardson, who helped negotiate the release. Fenster is one of more than 100 journalists and publishers who have been detained since the military took over Myanmar in February, according to the AP. Fenster said his release was “a moment I had been imagining so intensely for so long,” and “surpasses everything I had imagined.”
  • ProPublica said it is now free to report on search warrants and other documents related to a child pornography investigation against Denny Sanford, South Dakota’s richest person, after the state’s Supreme Court ruled in ProPublica’s that such documents should be available to the public. The nonprofit newsroom said that the records, which were kept under seal for more than a year, confirm its reporting from last year about Sanford. “This is an extraordinary victory for press freedom and the public’s right to know how the government investigates society’s most powerful,” ProPublica’s general counsel said.
  • The Marshall Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit newsroom, says it is launching a news operation in Cleveland in 2022 with the support of the George Gund Foundation, which announced a significant grant for the project this week. “The Cleveland news team will report on and expose abuses in Cuyahoga County’s criminal justice system, producing investigative, data and engagement journalism with the support of The Marshall Project’s national newsroom,” the nonprofit said. The new operation will serve local audiences, including those “directly affected by the criminal justice system, who are often neglected or mischaracterized in media coverage.”
  • Kyle Pope, CJR’s publisher and editor-in-chief, writes about recent revelations that the so-called Trump dossier was likely fabricated. “To me, the dossier is a useful stand-in for the media’s coverage of Trump in general,” he writes. “While there was an enormous amount of impressive investigative work around Trump and his many misdeeds, there was also, especially on cable news, a lot of nonsense and misdirection. Like Trump himself, we tacked to the extremes. When the right place to be, as always, is in the messy space in between. “
  • Google’s third North America Innovation Challenge—part of the Google News Initiative—has just ended, with 25 projects chosen out of a total of 190 from Canada and the US. The winners will get a share of more than $3 million from the search company. According to Google, the selection process “involves a rigorous review, a round of interviews and a final jury selection effort.” The successful applicants include Documented, a nonprofit newsroom from the Brooklyn Community Foundation, and Minnesota-based news startup Sahan Journal, which is collaborating with three community media outlets on a project to check in with the communities they collectively serve.
  • Substack, the subscription-newsletter publishing platform, has expanded its health insurance program to all writers who make at least $5,000 a year through its service, The Wrap reports. The health insurance program is being offered as a partnership with insurance marketplace Health Sherpa, and eligible writers can apply annually for a $500 stipend. “The health program is a part of several offerings Substack has been providing to select independent writers, with other pilot programs including training workshops and legal support,” The Wrap writes. Substack recently announced that it has one million subscribers signed up to receive newsletters published on its platform.
  • Rupert Murdoch renewed his pattern of attacks on Google and Facebook during News Corp’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday, Reuters reported, accusing the tech giants of trying to silence conservative voices and calling for “significant reform.” Murdoch cited a lawsuit filed last year by 10 state attorneys general, accusing Google of monopolizing the digital ad market and allegedly conspiring with Facebook to manipulate online auctions. “Let us be very clear about the consequences of that digital ad market manipulation,” said Murdoch. “Obviously, publishers have been materially damaged, but companies have also been overcharged for their advertising.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.

TOP IMAGE: President Donald Trump looks away while answering a question from Jonathan Karl, ABC News chief White House correspondent during a news conference with the Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)