Finding Truth in Politics
Last week, when Donald Trump threatened to sue the New York Times if it didn’t retract a story in which six women said the Republican presidential nominee sexually assaulted them, the prevailing emotion in the newsroom wasn’t fear or anger, according to Times national political correspondent Patrick Healy, A93. It was pride.
“We believe in the vigorous press. Our feeling is we’re trying to tell people’s stories,” Healy told a packed Distler Hall on Oct. 17 during a panel discussion on media and politics sponsored by the Tisch College of Civic Life.
Echoing a letter to Trump from New York Times attorney Marc E. Kasowitz, Healy said to a round of applause, “If you want to sue us, if you feel women with allegations shouldn’t have the forum to be heard—bring it on.”
During this turbulent election season, journalists have faced more scrutiny and backlash than ever, said CNN political commentator David Gregory, the panel moderator, who is a professor of the practice at Tisch College this semester.
The question at the heart of the current unrest is older than this election, Gregory said. “What is our job, what is our responsibility? The question is fraught. These conversations are going on inside news organizations all the time.”
The panelists, all in the news media, described how they are answering that question amid the new challenges they face this election season. Healy, who covered the primaries, conventions and debates, described the unprecedented pressure from readers to use stronger language when referring to Donald Trump, and the protracted debates inside the Times before ultimately deciding to “go big with it” and call Donald Trump a liar.
“I think our job is to be really thoughtful and deliberative,” Healy said. “It’s to be reporting as best as we can and as aggressively as we can about what we’re seeing.”
NPR political reporter Asma Khalid, who has focused on voters in swing states, recalled a woman in Ohio who yelled at her to get off her porch because she didn’t want a Muslim on her property. “This election has allowed for words to be spoken in the public discourse that I would argue would be rather unthinkable a few months ago,” she said.
Responding later to a question about whether the press has a moral obligation to discourage this kind of speech, Khalid said that is not her job. Neither is it her responsibility to label Trump as a racist, she said. “My job as a journalist is to inform as wide an audience as possible, and I don’t think labeling a person is ever helpful. Showing their actions is better than a label,” she said.
“One of our jobs is to hold a mirror up to the country,” Khalid said. “I think we held the mirror up, and a lot of voters liked what they saw, or really didn’t like what they saw.”
Jake Horowitz, co-founder of the millennial-focused news site Mic, spoke about a Mic reporter who broke the story about a Trump tweet that used a Star of David image taken from an anti-Semitic website. “The reporter that day faced tremendous bullying and harassment from Trump’s supporters,” Horowitz said.
Horowitz said it’s just that kind of “news with a voice” that makes Mic appealing to young people, who are often frustrated by traditional media’s refusal to take more definitive stances. “I like to think we represent our generation, and I think that’s different than the Times and NPR,” he said. “I find there’s an appetite amongst our readers to take some of those shots and break some of those rules.”
Still, Gregory noted, uncovering the truth is a responsibility for us all, not just journalists. In this era of social media and citizen journalism, the temptation to use news only to validate one’s own worldview is a danger. “It takes more work on the part of all of us, as consumers of news and information, to find good journalism and cut our way through the noise and the less responsible stuff,” he said.
Monica Jimenez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.