NY Times Circles The Wagons Over Trump Interview
December 29, 2017

People are really annoyed over yesterday's Trump interview in the New York Times.

The problem with classic Times journalism is that the reader seems... almost peripheral. If I had to guess, I'd say there's a mix of access journalism, boss-pleasing, and Pulitzer-wishing with their work. Their audience seems to be other journalists, not the reader.

When I was a reporter, I remained focused on two things: 1) that journalism was protected by the Constitution for a specific reason -- namely, to keep democracy healthy and 2) that voters deserved whatever information and context (especially context) I could provide. How they voted after that was up to them.

It wasn't as if it was easy. I covered a Republican county just outside Philadelphia, one that was referred to in poli sci textbooks as the suburban Republican equivalent of Richard Daley's Democratic machine, and far too many of the reporters just coasted. (I remember filling in for the reporter who covered county government when he was on vacation, and when I asked a pointed question of a county official at a press conference, he looked at me and said, "When's Joe coming back?")

The difference is, when they said something like that, I wrote about it. I remember asking a township solicitor about an apparent Sunshine Act violation, and he responded by starting to sing "You are my sunshine..."

So I wrote about that. Readers were clear that not only were their elected officials ignoring transparency laws, they were so confident they could get away with it that they refused to answer questions.

The next time I saw that solicitor, he was very upset. "I can't believe you wrote about that," he said. "I thought we were friends."

"I'm standing here with a notebook, asking you questions and writing down your response. What did you think?" I said.

The politicians were a little bit afraid of me, which I enjoyed. It didn't seem to affect access, either. I got a couple of interviews simply because the subject knew if I had a story, they needed to get their version out there.

I made it my job to learn the ins and outs of government so I could ask the right questions. (And it was a lot harder then, because we didn't have the internet.) When I interviewed someone from the Justice Department about an obscure point of pension law, he said, "I think you know more about this than I do."

And I was persistent. I remember one time I got a tip that one township fabricated their FEMA application for snow removal after a massive blizzard, so I went to the municipal building and asked for copies. The township engineer told me it would be $10 a page. "You don't get to do that," I told him. "Courts have already ruled in favor of the public interest, but since I don't want to file for an injunction, I'll just sit here and copy them by hand."

It took me four hours, but I did it. I got that story.

I don't expect any more out of the Times than I would expect from myself. And I know there are many good reporters out there, but they are not usually the ones in the spotlight. They're out doing their jobs and not sucking up to their bosses.

Too bad the Times doesn't send assertive reporters like that to cover this administration.

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