The Washington Post media columnist and former public editor of The New York Times Margaret Sullivan recounted her experiences critiquing journalism during Donald Trump’s presidency on Tuesday night in the Student Activities Center as part of the School of Journalism’s “My Life As” lecture series.
As he introduced Sullivan, School of Journalism Dean Howard Schneider joked that he was happy he had failed to bring the “watchdog of the watchdogs” in as a speaker in previous years, since her job in Washington has made her position more fascinating than ever.
“I have tried for several years to lure Margaret here to speak, but now I’m happy we waited,” Schneider said. “I can think of no more appropriate time for her to be here than in the midst of one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of the Republic and the news media.”
The former editor of the Buffalo News left The New York Times to take her current job in the nation’s capital in early 2016. While she spent her early months covering a variety of topics, Sullivan said her job became dominated by the coverage of then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump around the time of candidate nomination conventions.
Since then, Trump has continued to dominate the media spotlight. Sullivan said she finds his combative relationship with the press paradoxical, since he seems to thrive on their coverage and gives the media more access than many of his predecessors.
“The president commonly talks about the news media as the enemy of the people,” Sullivan said. “He’s referred to reporters as the scum of the Earth. And yet, he actually loves the press in many ways. He thrives on the attention, he enjoys the interplay and he knows how to work the media.”
Though she said any one story on Trump from a major media outlet tends to be unbiased, Sullivan said the sheer quantity of media coverage Trump receives gives some merit to his claims that he is being covered unfairly.
“Sometimes I look at major news sites and it seems as though every headline is about Trump, especially if the opinion content is kind of mixed in with the news content,” Sullivan said. “It comes off as sort of a groundswell of negative coverage. Is each one of those stories or opinion pieces solid on its own? Maybe so. Does it add up to something greater than the sum of its parts? I think it might.”
Sullivan said her colleagues as a whole had failed to take Trump’s campaign seriously, and were caught off-guard when he won the election.
“Many journalists thought that it was kind of a sideshow,” Sullivan said. “That ‘how could this reality TV star who had no political experience, no military experience and had been a developer in New York City, how could he possibly be president?’ Because many journalists thought that it would not be a good idea for him to be president, they somehow transmuted that into ‘and therefore he can’t be president.’”
The columnist was particularly critical of CNN’s coverage of the Trump campaign, which she felt was more motivated by a push to attract viewers than a desire to inform the public.
“CNN essentially supported his ambitions to become president in every way they possibly could,” Sullivan said. “I mean, they filmed the empty podium before he came out and gave his speeches at his rallies. Trump has called himself a ratings machine, and he is. And CNN wanted those ratings, so they covered him in a very credulous way.”
Since Trump became president, Sullivan said she is troubled by the frequency with which journalists covering the Trump White House publish anonymously-sourced stories, likening the thrill of an off-the-record exclusive to an addiction.
“It’s almost an addiction among reporters to get their stories, to get that access to the powerful people,” Sullivan said. “To protect their people by allowing them to speak anonymously.”
Sullivan feels this oversaturation of anonymously-sourced stories has hurt the public’s trust in the media.
“When we talk about anonymous sources, very often news consumers think that means that even the reporters themselves don’t even know who these people are,” Sullivan said. “This is not the case… but nevertheless I think that it cuts into our credibility when we use anonymous sources too much.”
Former Houston Chronicle opinions editor James Gibbons, who lives in Miller Place and sat in on Sullivan’s talk, agreed with Sullivan’s assessment of anonymous sources after the lecture.
“I particularly agree with her point that journalists should be very reluctant to go off the record and use anonymous sources,” Gibbons said. “Beat reporters have to come up with the story before their competitor does, so they’re likely to do anything.”
Near the end of the lecture, when an audience member asked Sullivan how the media could regain the public’s trust, she implored the media to listen to their readers’ concerns and to try to be as up front as possible about the reporting process.
“I think we have to do our jobs better, we have to figure out how to deal with this new environment, which is all digital,” Sullivan said. “If we could form a closer relationship with our readers and listen to them more, and also be more transparent about how we do our jobs, then that might help.”