President Trump’s characterization of much of the news media as “the enemy of the people” and “purveyors of ‘fake news’” has stirred considerable controversy.
But Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan — who since the 2016 presidential primaries has been covering “all Trump, all the time” — said that paradoxically, in spite of the rhetoric, this President who thrives on attention actually seems to “enjoy the interplay” and benefits from his relationship with the Fifth Estate.
“He is also much more accessible than a lot of other presidents have been,” she added.
Sullivan, who kicked off Fall 2018’s first “My Life As” Speaker Series Tuesday night in Stony Brook University’s Sidney Gelber Auditorium, was the first woman to serve as the editor and managing editor of The Buffalo News, the largest newspaper in Western New York.
Howie Schneider, founding dean of Stony Brook’s School of Journalism, which presents the series, described Sullivan when she was at The Buffalo News as “one of 12 women heading a major newspaper at that point,” adding, “I don’t think that number has changed much in the past 18 years.”
After retracing her journalistic path from The Buffalo News to The New York Times and eventually to The Washington Post, Sullivan fielded Schneider’s questions. He then opened the floor to dozens of students, staff, faculty and community members to ask questions of their own.
Although she did not shy away from criticizing Trump’s apparent lack of emphasis on freedom of speech or his thorny relationship with some journalists, Sullivan didn’t give Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, a complete pass, either.
“Obama used the Espionage Act to go after leakers,” she said, calling it a more aggressive stance than Trump has deployed so far.
During the course of the evening, Sullivan repeatedly lamented the press’ reliance on anonymous sources.
“Some people think that reporters don’t even know who these sources are,” she said. “The rule is that your editor needs to know who a reporter’s sources are. Otherwise, it cuts into our credibility.”
Sullivan said that she finds it especially bothersome that many reporters rely on anonymous sources to the point of overuse.
“We are addicted to these stories, so it is very hard for us to walk away from them. That would be like saying to our competitors, ‘You go after the great stories.’”
She said that the Trump presidency has created an exhausting news cycle. “Every week is so packed, it doesn’t feel like there is a weekend or a lid on things.”
When asked how she rated the press’ coverage of Trump, Sullivan said that it was flawed.
“We didn’t take him seriously. Many journalists thought he was a sideshow and how could he be president? The polls seemed to favor Hillary Clinton. Election night was a shocker for many journalists, myself included.”
She added that she hadn’t even prepared a column for a scenario in which he won.
Sullivan also faulted newspapers for blurring factual and editorial content. “If you are reading on your phone or laptop, everything is aggregated. You can’t say, ‘This is a news piece, this is an opinion piece,’” she said.
“The news media is very distractible. We are always chasing the latest shiny object,” Sullivan said. “And President Trump is highly skilled at distracting us.” She cited the example of immigrant children being separated from their parents at the Mexican border.
“We were very focused on that and it might have changed things. It hasn’t been fixed and we moved on because we were distracted,” she said.
Sullivan said that the press often misses opportunities to discuss what is truly important because of metrics. She recounted how her colleague, MSNBC talk show host Chris Hayes, admitted that as important an issue as climate change is, it is a “ratings killer.”
— Glenn Jochum