Barbershop: Evaluating The Media's Role This Political Season
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's just the latest attention-getting confrontation between Donald Trump and his critics. And by extension, it involves the media, all of which has been a regular feature of this campaign. So even before this latest episode, we had gathered our regular panel of newsroom decision-makers that we've been speaking with throughout this unique political cycle to hear about the decisions they've made and will have to make going forward.
Joining us from Philadelphia member station WHYY was Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post - that's a progressive online publication - Susan Glasser, editor of Politico, David Brody, chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network - which is popular with evangelicals - and our own Michael Oreskes, senior vice president of news and the editorial director here at NPR.
We've put this group together because they represent print and broadcast and so-called legacy media and new media, and also media geared toward specific audiences. And I started by asking Ryan Grim about how he saw his news organization's role in covering the campaign so far.
RYAN GRIM: I mean, at the Huffington Post, we've done everything we can throughout the campaign to try to resist normalizing this candidate and to show that he's an extremist and he's kind of a unique threat to democracy, which is actually - that's a phrase that the Washington Post editorial board remarkably used I believe a week ago. Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama went so far as to warn about tyranny. He used the phrase homegrown demagogue.
And if you step back, that's a remarkable moment. This is one major party talking about the other major party's nominee in a way that calls into question their commitment to democracy. And I think that it's about time that that is happening. But for too long, the media kind of allowed him to be treated as somebody who is a normal part of the process.
MARTIN: Michael, what do you say about this? I know that you were particularly impressed with a piece by the New York Times public editor, Liz Spayd, where she says that readers who say they're not conservatives have complained that the Times is biased against the Republican nominee, and that she says that the perception that the paper has a liberal bent is very dangerous and can't continue.
But she also says it's kind of reflective of really a bigger problem, that people are increasingly turning to news sources with a definite liberal or conservative bent and that's really what they're seeking. What's - first of all, what's your takeaway on the question I ask? And tell me more about why you were impressed with Liz Spayd's piece.
MICHAEL ORESKES, BYLINE: Sure. I think it's very important, though, to think a lot about what happens now because everything that's happened up to now was a selection process. And you can even debate how much the media should have a role in selection. So there's a whole question about that. There's no question we have a crucial role now, and that crucial role is providing to all of the citizens of the country the information that they need to make sound decisions.
In my view, which is, you know, not the universal view among journalists, our role is not to lean into or away from any particular candidate, but to lean very hard into full-throated information - to reveal whatever needs to be revealed, to explain what needs to be explained.
And one of the reasons I thought that Liz Spayd's column was so important was it really highlighted the dangers of taking sides because once you start partisanizing (ph) your journalism, that's something that can last way beyond any one season. And one of the real tragedies of this election year would be if, in the end, the legacy of Donald Trump was to drive journalism even further into its corners.
MARTIN: Well, you know, David, you play an interesting role because you actually do something that Liz Spayd has criticized in the sense that you both report on the candidates, but you also write opinion columns. For example, you had a column scolding people for feeling that they could judge Donald Trump's - the depth of his faith, you know, for example. Now, the fact is there are evangelicals who are not of one mind about Donald Trump. How do you see your role in that?
DAVID BRODY: Well, to represent both sides. And so for example, there'll be articles that I'll write about how Donald Trump had a bad moment in Iowa - and I was referring to the time that he was mocking Ben Carson and his life story, calling him an OK doctor (laughter). So - I mean, there are certain times where he needs to be called out on certain things that he does. And at the same time, evangelicals are going about 30 to 35 percent for Donald Trump. That's an extraordinary number, and it's something I needed to explain.
MARTIN: But what about - what is the challenge when you have one candidate with an extensive public record and you have another candidate with an extensive record as a public figure, but less of a record as a political actor - none, in fact - but he does have high visibility in his performance of himself, OK? How - because there - as you know, I mean, the critique of - I think of much of the legacy media from a lot of people - let's say progressives - is that there's a false equivalency being set up here, that in its effort to be fair that the legacy media is really being unfair by making equivalent what is not equivalent.
SUSAN GLASSER: Can I just jump in there for a second...
MARTIN: Sure, Susan. Sure you can.
GLASSER: ...Because I feel like that is something we've heard from the very beginning of this. But if you actually go back and look at the record, there's been a lot of terrific reporting, important reporting, about Donald Trump - by the way, not just in this 2016 election year, but going really back decades to the beginning of his very public, very prominent career in New York in the late 1970s. It's also true that in the course of this campaign, we deployed a team of reporters to look at all of the words that he spoke in one week. We found roughly one falsehood every five minutes. Other people have done terrific work on this as well. So that's not the issue either. And...
MARTIN: ...What is the issue?
GLASSER: Well, I think there are a couple of things. Number one, it goes back to Trump's ability to use these tools, the same tools that you and - that we're using to have this conversation today, to his own ends. Donald Trump doesn't play by the rules of the road, of the First Amendment as it has been interpreted and expanded upon by our judiciary. He doesn't believe in the same basic sort of compact between politicians and reporters that have really governed how we cover politics in the country for a really long time. Donald Trump doesn't agree that you and I should do our jobs the way that we think we should do them.
MARTIN: So - but I just...
BRODY: ...I think one thing that is...
MARTIN: ...David Brody?
ORESKES: Go ahead, David.
BRODY: Yeah, let me just say one quick thing. I think the frustration within the media - and when I say the media, I'm talking about that traditional mainstream media that we hear so much about - is that Donald Trump is defying conventional norms. And there is a Teflon quality to him. And what normally would have been - had some sort of either reaction or maybe dip in the polls or at least people paying attention to what traditional journalism brings to the table is not working this time, or hasn't worked to the degree that I think other stories would have done in the past.
MARTIN: Let me stop you, though. Let me ask you, though - hold on a second, please - David, what you seem to be implying is that the media is frustrated because they are seeking a certain outcome which has not been achieved, which is to just - to stop his candidacy. And I just would question that assumption.
BRODY: Yeah, that's not really what I'm saying. What I'm trying to say is that traditionally, when a above-the-fold New York Times story is run on a candidate there seems to be some sort of effect that goes with that. In this cycle, that hasn't seemed to be the case. And that's my point.
MARTIN: Susan has made the point that he has, in fact, been thoroughly covered. So at this juncture, what is the task, Mike Oreskes? Is it to describe taste and tone? Is it to balance taste and tone against the conventional norms? Is it to evaluate policy? What's the job now?
ORESKES: It's a truism in politics that the primary season is very different from the general election. And I think that truism is true about journalism, too. We can talk a lot about what happened in the primaries. This is a different - the clock starts over. A lot of people who haven't paid any attention now start paying attention. I think our job - I can really only speak for NPR and for public radio a bit - our job is to provide as much material and information as possible so that citizens can decide what to do.
MARTIN: Ryan Grim, what do you think your job is now? Because you have said that you felt that it was the job of your organization to describe Donald Trump in a certain way. What is your job right now?
GRIM: I don't think anybody disagrees with what Michael is saying. The real question, though, is which facts do you provide? You know, the media has limited resources. There's only so much time in the day for NPR to broadcast. There's only so much that we can report on the Huffington Post. So we have to pick and choose, you know, what stories we're going to write. You know, we're going to choose to highlight moderate Republicans, other Republicans who are pointing out that Donald Trump is a unique threat to democracy flirting with fascism.
We're going to put those facts in front of the public. And if the public goes to the election and decides that somebody that's been described across the spectrum as a, quote unquote, "homegrown demagogue" is what they want, then that's what we want. You know, they're not going to cast their vote based on what we tell them to do. But we want them to go in with all of the information.
In other words, if the American public decided that invading Iraq in 2003 was the right thing to do given all of the information that they had, then OK. That's what they decide to do. But the media did not present all of the different facts. So I agree with Michael, but, you know, the media often fails to provide the facts that aren't necessarily fitting into whatever narrative is being pushed.
MARTIN: That was Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post. We were also joined by Susan Glasser of Politico, David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network and Michael Oreskes of NPR.
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