Journalists play an ever-important role in the Trump era
On Jan. 28, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boarded a plane to Ukraine, where he met with members of both the United States and Ukranian governments. One notable person was barred from traveling with him, National Public Radio’s State Department reporter Michele Kelemen.
Keleman has been reporting for NPR for almost two decades, first as its Moscow bureau chief, and currently writes about Washington’s diplomatic corporations.
Pompeo’s actions were likely in retaliation for an interview that he agreed to with a different journalist from NPR, “All Things Considered” hosted by Mary Louise Kelly. During the interview, among other things, the Secretary of State used the F-word and claimed that the American people do not care about Ukraine.
After “All Things Considered” aired Kelly’s retelling as well as some sound clips, the office of the Secretary of State put out a statement: “NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly lied to me, twice. … It is shameful that this reporter chose to violate the basic rules of journalism and decency. This is another example of how unhinged the media has become in its quest to hurt President Trump and this Administration. It is no wonder that the American people distrust many in the media when they so consistently demonstrate their agenda and their absence of integrity.” The statement, which was posted on Jan. 25, ended with, “It is worth noting that Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine.” The State Department also published a different version of the interview on its website. Not included in the website’s publication of the interview were the sections where the Secretary of State swore or when he questioned whether Americans could even identify Ukraine on a map, as well as other parts that Kelly claimed occurred.
This is not the first (nor will it be the last) time that one of Trump’s officials disrespected a reporter or the press. Given that Pompeo, Trump himself and many others have distorted accurate reporting, there arises a question of whether it is effective and important for these interviews to occur at all.
From the very beginning of Mr. Trump’s campaign, he has waged a war against the media as a whole, and specifically called out The New York Times, CNN, and NPR. Trump’s presidency has provoked the question of the role a journalist plays in society and how they should do their work. There have been a number of times throughout this presidency that Trump has participated in an interview on the record and then either tweeted or commented that the news report using his own words from just hours before were incorrect. In one instance from last February, white house correspondents for The New York Times, Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker, along with the paper’s publisher A. G. Sulzberger, interviewed the president in the oval office. The interview was conducted on a range of topics including threats to the safety of journalists around the world. After the report was published, Trump started claiming that it was false, even though the interview was on the record. This was part of a long line of similar stories, not just from the president but also from administration officials and cabinet members.
Journalism is one of the most important institutions in a democracy, and it’s no coincidence that its freedom was consecrated in the first amendment of the constitution: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Journalists, through hard work and over the course of many years, have broken stories crucial to the integrity of the country such as torture after 9/11, the realities of the Vietnam War and, more recently, Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults. However, it is perhaps the time, given the current occupant of the White House and the election coming up in November, to rethink how journalists conduct their jobs. Is it worth it to directly question the country’s leaders when they are just going to turn around and lie about their interactions?
Each year a journalist’s work is celebrated with the Pulitzer Prize. During the Trump administration, every story that won the “National Reporting Prize” has come from investigative reporting rather than interviews. They include the staff on The Washington Post for their work uncovering President Trump’s secret payoffs to two women during his campaign who claimed to have had affairs with him in 2019, the President-elect’s transition team and his eventual administration in 2018, to David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post for reporting on Trump’s corrupt charities and his handling of money more generally in 2017, and finally the staff of the New York Times and The Washington Post for “Deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, and finally. These important articles were rightly recognized, and to me show the continuing necessity for this kind of reporting over others. When writing an investigative piece, a journalist has to confirm and reconfirm their stories with many different sources. Some may be anonymous, and some may have talked on deep background. Many times, investigative stories are asking and answering questions that the people in power do not want to get out. This is drastically different from an article that transcribes an interview, where, if the person being interviewed does not answer, then the story does not get reported.
While questions about the role of journalists and how they should conduct their work may have been magnified over the past three or four years, there has been talk surrounding the best ways to perform the job for many years. In his 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner speech, Steven Colbert, portraying the character that he played on the Colbert Report, ended it by criticizing journalists for being soft on President Bush towards the end of his eight-year term: “But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here's how it works. The President makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home.” He ended the section by suggesting that someone in the White House press corps should write a book about an “intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!”
Journalists must be able to effectively complete their work in order for a democracy to continue to function. When the powerful start to question their integrity, it is extremely problematic. Reporters have tools without needing to interview those officials, including investigative reporting. As this current administration hopefully comes to an end, journalists should continue to pursue the truth, without giving a voice to those who don’t deserve to have their voices heard by the media or by the American people.