Margaret Sullivan: Reckoning and Redemption for the Reality-Based Press

December 06, 2017

In the post-truth world, the mainstream media is beset on all sides. Peddlers of propaganda, misinformation, and conspiracy theories seek to strip the media of its authority by creating parallel realities and fomenting anger and mistrust. At the same time, poor editorial judgments and a toxic culture of sexism have landed countless self-inflected wounds. How can a reality-based press ever hope to fulfill its mission to seek the truth, hold power accountable, and leave the public more informed?

There may be no one better positioned to answer these questions than Margaret Sullivan. She’s the media columnist for The Washington Post, and previously spent three and half years at The New York Times as its Public Editor, and as the first woman to be chief editor of The Buffalo News. She joins host Paul Fidalgo to talk about the crises facing journalism today, and why the reality-based press now finds itself at an inflection point: Its flaws have been exposed, and yet it is also producing some of the best journalism in ages. Can the press still deliver us the truth, or is the truth a sad casualty of a media landscape gone haywire?

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Wednesday, December 6th, 2017. 

Hello again. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m your host, Paul Fidalgo, and this is the flagship podcast of the Center for Inquiry, an organization that seeks to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry and humanist values. 

And, you know, when you get right down to it, we’re really talking about seeking the truth. We’re talking about relying on facts and evidence as we make hard decisions and solve big problems so we can make this world better for everyone. Sounds simple enough when you say it out loud like that, but I don’t need to tell you that the truth is having a tough time of it lately. Not so long ago, newspapers and television brought us all a set of facts that we all shared. We might disagree about what to do with those facts, but we all more or less existed in the same reality. No more. Now the media landscape resembles some kind of Boschi inhealth scape where what’s real can’t be distinguished from propaganda hoaxes and outright lies. There’s now a separate reality where a huge and decisive portion of the American electorate believe themselves to exist. A parallel America where news, politics and even the laws of physics are malleable, constantly twisted and molded by right wing Web sites, conspiracy theorists and Russian bots. And then there’s Trump, who emits lies as though he’s using them for echolocation. It’s like he doesn’t know where he is in space and thus he can hear his bullshit waves bounce back at him. This is why I wanted to bring Margaret Sullivan on the show. She’s the media columnist for The Washington Post. And before that, she spent three and a half years as The New York Times public editor, perhaps more than anyone else. She’s been helping both journalists and their audiences come to grips with the strange new world, bringing her readers along as we all navigate this uncharted ocean of information. I heard there might be dragons, but that might just be fake news. 

It’s time to get our bearings. Here’s Margaret Sullivan. 

Margaret Sullivan, thank you for coming on, point of inquiry, welcome. Thanks, Paul. Glad to be talking with you. 

I’m so excited to have you on the show because you have had such a remarkable vantage point from which to view the changes in media and journalism that have been going on for the past few years. And you’ve been able to so thoughtfully and eloquently tease apart and analyze these threads that make up the landscape. But I want to start by giving listeners who might not be familiar with your work an idea of where you’re coming from. So now you’re the media columnist for The Washington Post. But in fact, you in this podcast organization, the Center for Inquiry, both have something in common. We’re both getting our starts in Buffalo, New York, right? Exactly. That is where CFI is founded. It’s where it’s based. He first rose to prominence at the Buffalo News as their first woman editor. Just briefly talk about your time there. What was your role there? 

Sure. So I actually I came from the Buffalo area. I grew up in Lackawanna, New York, Steeltown. I came to the Buffalo News right out of school. I was a summer intern and I did a lot of different reporting jobs and editing jobs. And I was a columnist and eventually I became the first woman to be the managing editor, which is the number two job in the newsroom. And then I became the first top editor at the news, and I did that for a long time. I was editor for more than 12 years. So I really I I really spent a lot of time in Buffalo. And from there, I went to The New York Times as their public editor, which is, as you know, kind of an ombudsman or in my case, ombudswoman. And it’s a position that was discontinued this past year to the chagrin of of many people. But but it was a great experience for me to do that. I worked in the Times newsroom every day for about four years. I lived in Manhattan, and that’s what I was doing before I came to the post. 

Yeah, and that’s that’s where obviously you came to first came to my attention as the public editor there, and I found that work so valuable. Now, I don’t want to dwell too much on the times itself, but I feel like it’s a good avenue into some of the more general election here. You know, being such, you know, this great American institution, as you know better than anyone, you know, the choices of what the Times is going to cover, how it’s going to cover it, very heavily scrutinized. But I have to say that the Times, you know, being this influential elite news outlet, it’s appeared at least to folks on the progressive side or on the left to almost be too elite. And I guess the right would say that as well. I’m thinking like if Judith Miller, you know, could help us get into a war in Iraq or if Hillary’s emails dominate political coverage when, you know, Trump is out there. So as someone who’s been in the building and whose job it is to scrutinize that work up, do you think there’s anything to that notion that the Times is sort of, I don’t know, too entrenched in establishment? 

Well, you know, The Times has a really singular role, I would say, in in American media. It you know, it it’s known as the paper of record. And I don’t even know what that means anymore. I don’t I think it’s some sort of a misnomer, but it is. Our you know, our most prominent newspaper across the country. And it has a very large newsroom and has like thirteen hundred journalists. Which is remarkable. I mean, just huge. And it really sets the tone for a lot of the news coverage in the country. And for that reason, I think, you know, when the Times does something, couple of the cases you just mentioned, the the run up to the war in Iraq and the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails when it does something that is not ideal or pretty bad. It influences other many other news organizations who kind of have this idea. Well, if The New York Times does it, it must be pretty well vetted and it must be right. Or at least we’re not going to be afraid to follow in their footsteps because they’re The New York Times. And The Times, of course, is aware of this. And there is an element of certainly of defensiveness there and of being pretty cocksure about who they are and what their role is. So it’s not a humble place, but it’s also, I would imagine, not a sinister place. 

Like there’s not someone there going, ha ha. We’re going to get Hillary with the email story. 

On the contrary, I would say that it’s journalists are very well intentioned, you know, definitely very smart, idealistic, all of that. But like the rest of us human beings, they are prone to misjudgments and failures of practice and judgment and not always very quick to acknowledge those. And then I found that out as public editor because, you know, you’re in the business of kind of pointing out what readers may think of or what. In my case, I might have thought of, as, you know, poor execution or bad judgment or a mistake or whatever it was. And it was rare to get an editor or a reporter to say, you know what? You’re right. We really messed up on that. What usually would happen is you’d get a long argument, often in e-mail form that was, you know, very well argued and smart, but not very accepting of another point of view. 

Does the fact that they ended the position of public editor tell you anything about that? 

You know, I think that’s complex. It’s if it came about for one thing, they didn’t really. It’s not as if they had a public editor for decades. They had a public editor for about 12 years. It dated back to the infamous Jayson Blair scandal in which and the Iraq war problems of reporting. But the Jayson Blair scandal and Jayson Blair was the reporter who plagiarized and fabricated stories. And The Times decided, we’re never going to let that happen again. And so one of the many things they did was install this public editor position. But, you know. Other papers had had that position for a much, much longer than the Times. However, having said that, you know, I think they. I do think that it was a burr under the saddle for the top editor, it always is. And in addition, they were in a cost cutting mode. So, you know, it’s time to cut costs. Well, the public editor position seems like one that we could get rid of. Well, it sure wouldn’t bother. You know, this is the at top editors perhaps thinking. Great. This is a opportunity to get rid of something that’s a monumental pain, make their lives a lesia. 

Yeah, I understand that. So taking this a further step back then, I you know, I like to listen to Jeff Jarvis, the media critic, and put, you know, my my dream podcast right now would be to have you and him be something we could do that. 

I know Jeff very well. I would love to do that. I’ve been involved, but we we both. Well, he’s at Cuney Jay School and I write. I taught there for a little bit when I was living in New York. Oh, perfect. 

I’ve been kind of following his writing about how he diagnoses the 2016 coverage for the election. And he’s written journalism must grapple with this responsibility in this election, its failure to inform and educate the public and its culpability in helping to create and feed the phenomenon that has now taken over our nation. Later on, he said that no sane observer could say that we educated the public. So that’s not just about the times, that’s about the entire mainstream press. So what do you think? Generally, that accusation. Do you think he’s on target there? 

I think it’s it’s there’s a lot to be said for that. I actually after I read Hillary Clinton’s book recently, I wrote a column and said Hillary Clinton, you know, I just basically said she was very, very tough on the on the mainstream press and its coverage. And I said I thought in general and in a lot of specifics, she was right, that there was way too much emphasis placed on her email issues and that they were elevated to create a false balance of false equivalency with all of the issues surrounding Donald Trump, with which we’ve become extremely familiar now. And but I think we were familiar with them then as well. And while you can’t say that the Times are the other main media outlets ignored Trump or ignored his issues, they built up Hillary’s issues so that they were kind of they seemed kind of equal, but they really weren’t equal. Right. So. So that’s a huge. And I think very valid criticism. And there are others, too. You know, I think that she really was the object of some sexist coverage. You know, it seemed like no matter what she did, she couldn’t make people happy. And, you know, I, I, I say this as a media observer, not as a this is not coming from a political right reference point of view. It’s coming from a media criticism point of view. 

It’s so sexy. That’s perfect because it directly relates to the next thing I wanted to kind of bring up, which is we’re living through this astonishing moment right now where the the elements of the embedded sexism and misogyny that is in so much of our popular culture and in journalism, in politics is now coming to the fore for folks who may be living under a rock, you know, cut throat like Harry Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, Al Franken all being accused of sexual harassment and even assault. And in some cases. So one of these figures that was brought down was Mark Halperin, most recently of Bloomberg came to prominence at ABC News. 

Now, when I was first coming into medium politics, I was leaving a career as a as a professional actor on stage. And so I came in a little later. I was almost 30 and I was an intern at ABC News in 2007 when Mark was there. I totally like I thought he could do no wrong. I thought it was the smartest guy in the world, like an oracle. To be there under that kind of tutelage was like a really big deal. But I think in more recent years and I you know, as I’ve got a little older here, he’s sort of come to personify a kind of super elite head in the clouds approach to journalism. The access journalism, you know, making it about access to the big personalities and, you know, his Gang of 500 idea. Right. So is there there’s got to be a connection then to this this group of elite people, the Gang of 500 who control everything. Who are mostly men, this power structure and the culture that allowed so many men to abuse their position and to take advantage of so many women for so long and to drive this kind of particular coverage. You know, if there’s sexism embedded in the coverage of Hillary Clinton, is is that all part and parcel of the same issue? 

I think they’re related. And those who are making those connections are right that so many of the opinion makers and those who, you know, wouldn’t consider themselves opinion makers, but rather just doing straight. Coverage. You know, I mean, it’s very dominated by men. And so, you know, you’ve got your your first woman candidate for president. 

And she’s viewed in ways that are sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle through the lens of this, you know, longstanding male dominated power structure. And I don’t think they they knew how to. I actually don’t think they knew how to cover her fairly. And I don’t think she did get a fair shot. Which is not to say that she didn’t make plenty of blunders of her show and that she’s not very culpable. I mean, this is going off on a little bit of a tangent, but I think it might be important to say, as much as you can blame Mark Halperin, The New York Times. The email stuff, I think you also have to look at what she did and what she didn’t do. 

So in other words, though, it’s not an overt hostility. I just read about, you know, for example, Matt Lauer’s little button on his desk where he could lock his door, you know, from his desk. There are people in there. And that makes me feel like maybe it wasn’t just like, oh, it’s just kind of embedded in the culture that we treat women a little differently. It almost feels I’ll use the word sinister again. You know, and I don’t mean to say that entire industry was against her. Persay like, we’re all going to get her, but it’s it. I’ll just put it this way. Sounds it sounds like things are a lot worse than even we thought there. 

You know, I think we’ve seen so much of that over the past few weeks that I do think it’s worse than we thought. You know, when when the news started to come out about what was happening at Fox News with Roger Ailes and then Bill O’Reilly, you know, it it seemed horrible. And since then, it just hasn’t stopped. You know, we’ve we’ve heard and read and and gotten to be unfortunately immersed in all this other stuff that gets it. It’s really pretty creepy. Yeah. I mean, some of it is unbelievable. And, you know, it’s happening at some of our most dominant institutions that, you know, control our culture. For example, NBC News with Matt Lauer. And, you know, I think we have to remember that it was NBC News that. Managed to lose its own scoop of the Access Hollywood tape in which Donald Trump bragged about groping women’s genitals. And yes. And, you know, also, you know it. It is done. And, you know, promoted Trump at every turn. Earlier through The Apprentice. And and all of that. So it’s a history that goes back a long way. And I don’t think you can separate these things. They are they are connected. 

Have you been surprised by all that’s come out, at least in your profession and within journalism? Where do you see that coming? 

Yes, I’ve been I’ve been shocked at. You know, I mean, in the big picture, it’s believable. 

But the details and the people and the names, I mean, it’s it’s some days it’s like three or four, you know, two or three big names are coming out. And it’s it’s stunning. 

There’s just actually. And that relates to sort of a different question, which is that there’s just the news cycle is so jammed. And, you know, today we’re dealing with the Michael Flynn stuff. It’s coming up. And it and, you know, just a few days ago, it was this business of Project Burritos, the on aptly named Project Veritas, trying to sting The Washington Post. That was just a couple of days ago. It feels like a month ago because I think we’re so overwhelmed by by all the news, by all the information, by all the scandals. And it it actually is exhausting. And I have a feeling it’s not so good for us. 

Do you think it’s going to last that way? Is there a point at which it can go no further and we kind of pull back on that? 

Well, it may turn out like a slow news movement, like we have a slow right movement, right? Well, I think as long as Donald Trump is in office, there’s going to be a lot of chaos and a lot of news and a lot of craziness. 

I don’t know how long he’ll be in office. Perhaps another seven years. But. Perhaps not, you know, but I don’t think. I think when he’s there, he he brings a certain amount of I think to some extent on purpose, a kind of the politics of distraction and chaos and confusion so that it’s hard to know quite what’s going on. But even separate from Trump, you know, the pace that the Twitter verse and all of the ways that we stay informed and perhaps over informed and our attention spans are so atrophied. 

It’s it’s pretty worrisome. I don’t know if there’s going to be like a you know, like a vinyl revolution of. 

It feels unsustainable. It’s like there’s almost too much. 

It does feel unsustainable. And, you know, many people who I’ve talked to have said I’m done. 

I’m not. I’m on a news diet. I don’t want to know I. I refuse to keep up with it. And that’s dangerous, too. You know, as citizens to have shared the basis of. 

Reality and facts. 

And we also need to, you know, kind of, I think, return to a situation in which people really felt less like news consumers and more like citizens. That is, I think, a big problem. And that may have to be solved if it’s going to be solved in the in the school system, in our, you know, public and private schools. 

Yeah, that’s yeah. That’s a deeper question. But, you know, I’ve actually really wanted to ask you this particular question about this whole, you know, web of misinformation and like the shared reality you talked about that we’re missing out on. 

During the height of the Bush administration that there’s this famous quote from probably Karl Rove to The New York Times that Ron Suskind journalists were living in what we call the reality based community. And he says, we’re an empire now. When we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality, judiciously, as you will, will act again, creating other new realities, which you can study, too, that I remember when I read that as like 2004, that bowled me over. It was like something a supervillain would say, I thought, and I couldn’t believe that it didn’t drive the entire journalism world, like just totally on its head, like, oh, we have to go go to the. We have to we have to arm ourselves and get ready. But but I don’t remember seeing any any kind of real reaction to that. But it seemed to me like a real call to arms. 

I mean, of course, I remember that. And. And I think it’s been it’s turned out to be. Prescient, you know, an era for a foreshadowing of what we have now, because it was sort of talking about something that there was some you know, there were some elements of it, but I don’t think that we really lacked a shared basis in reality. Now, I think we actually do. It really is. You know, even if we look at today’s news or the news about sexual harassment or the news about Michael Flynn, it’s seen in in two very different, very polarized ways. One of them, I think, is actually reflects reality. And one of them is steeped in denial and accusation and a lot of. You know, false information, disinformation, propaganda. 

And it’s believed it’s powerful. It’s it’s magnified. It’s amplified. You know, there are there are bots running around amplifying it. There are there are the conspiracy sites that are quick to jump on it. And, you know, lots of people do buy it was broadcast to us. 

So, you know, they kind of told us this was coming. 

And I wonder if if it just wasn’t taken seriously enough or if it was a situation where that the technology didn’t yet exist at the time to really create the filter bubbles the way we have them now. And so they weren’t able to do what Trump is able to do these days. 

Right. But, you know, I guess what I would say is, OK, what if we had taken that very seriously? And someone said, you know, while this is a real thing and it’s going to become a huge problem, you know, I’m not sure what the action plan would write in or, you know, maybe that would have been maybe that would have been a good time to really double down on news literacy so that we’d be bringing up a generation of gen multiple generations of young people who know how to, you know, figure out what’s true and what’s not true. So, yeah, I mean, maybe we really missed the boat. It is it when you look back on it, it it is a very scary thing and it is now our reality. 

We’ll get back to our conversation with Margaret Sullivan in just a moment, but first I want to let you know that this episode of Point of Inquiry is brought to you by Casper. Casper is the sleep brand that continues to revolutionize its line of products to create an exceptionally comfortable sleep experience. One night at a time at Casper, the mattresses are designed for humans. Can you believe it? They’re engineered to soothe and cradle the human shape. Because you spend one third of your entire life sleeping. So really, you should be comfortable. You should make sure you get the right thing. Casper Mattresses. They combine these supportive memory foams for this quality sleep surface. Just the right amounts of sink and bounce. They’re breathing while they’re cool at night. They regulate your body temperature throughout the whole night. They had these affordable prices because Casper is able to cut out the middleman, sell directly to the consumer. 

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Let’s bring that then, because it fits right into this situation that is going on in Alabama that you alluded to, listeners are almost certainly be familiar with the saga of Judge Roy Moore in Alabama. Do we consider him an extremist theocrat running in the special election for the U.S. Senate in Alabama? Now, your paper, The Post, reported that Moore had pursued sexual relationships with several underage women. It was known as a kind of a predator of young girls, you know, back in the 70s. And then your papers scored one for the good guys, exposing this scheme to embarrass. Embarrassing that you mentioned before, James O’Keefe planting a false story, having a woman there who claimed to be a victim of Roy Moore’s and that he had impregnated her and tried to get her an abortion. And it was discovered by your paper to be one of these perennial pseudo stings that James O’Keefe does. This unethical undercover expose a shtick that that he gets into, too, to allegedly, you know, show the hypocrisies and crimes of the political left. 

So, first of all, congratulations to your paper for nailing that. That was the one for the good guys. Yep. 

We’re all feeling pretty good about that. And I like to be clear about this, not like sort of crowing about, well, you know. Anything except that. 

Well, now maybe more people will understand that we actually do check things. We do background checks and we don’t just take whatever somebody whispers in our ear and put it in the papers, throw it up online or start tweeting about it. I mean, each one of these things that that comes to us, you know, goes through a really rigorous process. And it doesn’t surprise me that the post wasn’t caught by it because, you know, because there were discrepancies almost from the get go. And then, of course, there was the rather huge discovery that there was this Go Fund Me page that basically identified Jamie Phillips as somebody who had gone to work for an organization that specialized in taking down the mainstream press. 

So once one of our researchers found that, you know, things were sort of telling us something so well-funded and so well known as O’Keeffe’s operation would not have considered all these things, you know, that would have underestimated an operation like the Post to such an extent that they would let all those little things go. 

Exactly. I mean, I think we probably gave them a tutorial and I don’t know how they’ll respond to that. But it is a little it is a little scary to think of what the adjustments that strike. Now, I’ve been worried about that, too, but I think where we’re, you know, even more on our guard now, you’re ready for it than for so. 

But, you know, how about you know, and while the Post will do that, I mean, not every news organization has the same kind of resources. And so, you know, it’s very you know, obviously we know that if we had fallen for that story and then it had been exposed, that it was false, it would have been a huge black eye and it would have contributed so destructively to this idea of the mainstream media as fake news, which is a very obnoxious phrase, because it cuts. You know, the reason I find it to be such an obnoxious phrases is because there actually is such a thing as fake news, you know, false information in the guise of a news report. But the way the president and others have come to use it, it’s been weaponized against the reality based press. 

Yeah, that’s that is absolutely maddening. No, but you just came back from Alabama, is that right? 

I did. I just was there a couple days. 

So what what did you learn while you were there? What did you find? 

Well, you know, one of the things I did was I went. The main thing I did was go and hang out at a small, small town paper because I wanted to see what, you know, how they were covering this race and and what it was like. And it’s in a pretty red you know, it’s in a red county, Lee County, which is named for the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. And, you know, which tells you something maybe about it. It is a it is considered politically conservative. And you know, what I found was that the. 

The very, very strong feelings people will have about abortion opposed opposition to abortion rights is a driving force that that while you would expect people who are in the Bible Belt and feel so strongly about Christian and family values, you would expect them to be so appalled by this, by these allegations and by this by the credible allegations of worse misconduct, sexual misconduct, that it would just be a complete nonstarter. And there’s no way they could countenance it. But it’s counterbalanced by there. And this is an everyone. And I want to be clear about that. In fact, I talked to a lot of people who, you know, or really great and progressive and smart and all that. And I’m not suggesting that that that conservative Christians aren’t smart. 

I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that conservative Christians do feel very strongly. It’s a it’s a it’s an overriding feeling that abortion is, you know, it’s a black. It’s essential to this. It is. It is. If you support you know, and Doug Jones, the Democrat running against Roy Moore, you know, is clear that he does support abortion rights. And for many people, that is just a nonstarter. 

That that’s. They cannot consider him because of that. And I heard many people say that. 

And then I heard those some of those same same people, I went out on a little reporting trip with one of the paper’s reporters. And, you know, I also heard people really struggling with their consciences over what who to vote for because they realized that because of that existential threshold about abortion, they couldn’t vote for for Doug Jones. 

And they also felt very strongly that Moore is not is not an acceptable candidate. So then they’re sort of like, well, maybe I should write somebody in. And then they also know that when you write someone in, you know, you’re doing you’re making you’re making a political act there, too, because it can affect. It can affect an election so much as we found out. 

Yeah. Yeah. 

So it’s interesting that that abortion is the singular issue, because what I would probably guess without having reported myself is that it would be because this right wing propaganda operation with with Bright, BART, et cetera, Fox News would have is because they’ve just poisoned the idea of the Democratic Party as this evil operation or as liberals is just inherently destructive to the country. And so that is what they can’t count on as it is there. 

There’s no question that that’s there, too. And I heard a lot of people say, in fact, the paper has a Facebook page that that, you know, has a lot of pretty raw stuff on it. And, you know, someone there said, I would rather not that this is that raw. 

But I will eat dirt before I will vote for a Democrat. Well, and a lot of people saying that this whole thing about Moore and the young girls is just a is just so liberal hit job. Right. And so that is exactly what you’re saying, that I think that that the atmosphere has been pretty poisoned about anything that looks like it’s coming from Democrats. But, you know, I kept trying to tell people this, but, you know, you can’t really do this on a person by person retail way that the post when it did that story about the girls and their experiences with with Roy Moore, you know, it wasn’t as if these women came to the post and said, we’re out to get him, you know, please, we want to do this. It didn’t happen that way. We had reporters down there covering the race and started to get some some information that, you know, this might have been going on. And the reporters dug it out. And the women were actually somewhat reluctant to talk about it and really had to kind of examine their own conscience this and say what’s the right thing to do here? Well, I guess if I ever was going to talk about this, now’s the time. Right? You know, and and now’s the time, not only because there’s a Senate race and it matters, but also because suddenly with Causby else O’Riley, Harvey Weinstein on and on. There’s there’s an atmosphere now where a woman can feel a little bit more comfortable that she’s not going to be I guess the phrases knotted or slotted. Sure. No. Either you’re either you’re crazy or you’re, you know, sleazy. So I think there was that element of well, I guess I can do this now. So, you know, I don’t think, though, that a lot of people understand that that was the genesis of the story. And they want to think that it was that, you know, somebody paid these women off to try to destroy Roy Moore. And they want to make it fake. They want to think it’s fake. And they also want to think that it’s a Democratic plot. 

Yeah, and that’s what regular listeners of the show will know, that I kind of traffic in despair. And this is one of the things that I despair about, which is the fact that there is this just impenetrable wall of one reality versus the other reality. And I don’t see a way that it can be solved, at least through journalism. Like, it makes me feel like, well, why bother? Why do we even try to reach them? We can’t reach them. It’s not going to happen. How do you feel about that? Is there is there a way to puncture that wall? 

You know, I. I went off. I was in Buffalo for this is a roundabout way to answer it, but I it’s the only answer I have. I was able to spend about six weeks in the rural part of Erie County over the summer, and I made it my business so, you know, very Republican area. I decided to do a magazine story for the Post about this. And I went out and talked to voters, not necessarily voters, people about their trust in the news media and how they feel about it. And, you know, I found that this kind of. Harsh, virulent hatred of the mainstream media. I didn’t really find it with regular people. I’ve talked to a lot of people. I interviewed 35 people and I talked to dozens of others. And it was really quite rare that people had that in mind. So I think that that is coming. That thing that we’re talking about that’s so tough to hear is actually something that very heavy news consumers or politically either politically active or politically very politically aware people feel for most people. You know, they kind of trust their local news station. They feel pretty good about their local paper. They have their cable news channel that they watch probably. And maybe they tune into Lester Holt at night and they kind of believe what they see there and hear there. They really do. And they’re not particularly angry about it. The thing that I find more upsetting than this, you know, alternate reality, hatred of the mainstream press is a lack of a lack of engagement, a lack of civic agent. And you know that people feel like I didn’t like either of the candidates for president, so I just stayed home. And they’re kind of passing that along to their kids. And I think that that is every bit as dangerous and maybe more dangerous than people who are what, you know, buying vitamins from Alex Jones on Infowars. 

Is that something that you feel like that what you call the reality based press has a has a hand in trying to fix? 

Well, you know, the easy answer is the easy an ineffective answer is that we can fix it by continuing to do solid journalism. But I don’t think, as you think you just said, that’s really not going to get us all that far. So I think that we need to do something different and conduct ourselves differently, in part by being a whole lot more upfront and transparent with people and explaining how we do our jobs, which, you know, I think we’re starting to see some of that. And the Post did it, you know, with with its reporting on Roy Moore’s accusers and this whole business of this Project Veritas sting actually caused people to watch this video. Yes. Of a Washington Post reporter interviewing this fakher. And so many people were like, wow, that was like a masterclass. It was fabulous. You know, I mean it. But it also it was fabulous. And it’s completely normal. You know? So I think the more we can help people understand. And, you know, we always have been in this in this kind of mindset as journalists that, well, you know, we don’t really need to explain ourselves to people. Trust us. You know, it’s trust us. We’re gonna use anonymous sources. We’re not going to tell you much about them. But you trust us because we got it covered. And sort of speaking from the mountaintop that is over. It needs to be over. I think the more we can explain our sourcing, explain our processes, all of that. And and, yes, I also think that there needs to be a huge push on news literacy or what used to be called civics, which has sort of you know, people really don’t understand, for example, the, you know, even checks and balances. Sure. They don’t really understand. You know, what’s the difference between an editorial and a news story? There’s a lot of stuff like that that I think if it were taught and learned, you know, we’d have a more informed and a more informed public who wouldn’t be better able to kind of cope with everything that’s coming their way. 

Having said that, I I’m super depressed about it, too. Well, all right. Well, Leslie, we share that position. I thought maybe you were ending on a positive note, but. Yeah. 

Well, I like to. I like. Yes, I’m not completely I’m not I am overall. I’m not despairing. I I am really thrilled with the good journalism that’s been going on. And I think the press has, you know, over the past year, the first year of Trump has really done its job. 

Oh, that’s good to know. So you feel like it’s met the met the challenge? 

That’s I think it has. I think it’s met the challenge on pure journalism, whether it has met the challenge on, you know, dealing with disinformation. No, not so much. And that’s where we have to we or somebody and I guess I’ll have to say we have to figure it out and and break through. 

OK. Well, that’ll be our next big project then. So I want to be respectful of your time. I’m going to close it there. I feel I must say, I feel much wiser now, having had this conversation. It’s very good. 

Glad. Well, thank you. It was a chat. 

Is there anything you’d like to plug? Well, I mean, we have your wonderful Washington Post column anywhere. Anything else you’d like people to know about? 

Yes, there is something I want to show you, which is that I really would urge people to you know, it sort of is gone by the wayside a little bit. But but to read read a newspaper every day, it’s you know, to the extent that you can read a print newspaper and go through it page by page. I really think in this scattered, you know, over stimulating environment, you will come away as a much more informed person. And while we still have print newspapers that you can actually buy and read, I urge people to do that. And and whatever your local paper or national paper is, I think it’s it’s it’s a very important way to stay informed. So that’s what I would love. 

Yeah, I second that that’s a good suggestion. Whenever I’ve had the chance to do that, I know I’ve always felt like, wow, I feel informed today. Well, thank you so much, Margaret Sullivan. Thank you for being on point of inquiry. 

Thanks, Paul. Thanks for having me. That’s our show for today. And we’ll be back with a new episode in the coming weeks if you’d like to support the show. Good. A point of inquiry. Dot org slash support and donate to help keep the podcast machine running. Point of Inquiry is a production of the Center for Inquiry. Learn more at Center for Inquiry Dot Net. I’m your host and producer Paul Fidalgo and I thank you for listening. 

Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo has been communications director of the Center for Inquiry since 2012. He holds a master’s degree in political management from George Washington University, and has worked previously for FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy and the Secular Coalition for America. Paul is also an actor and musician whose work includes five years performing with the American Shakespeare Center, and he currently directs productions for the University of New England Players. In 2017 he was the second Richard Kirschman Free Thought Fellow at the Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes, California. His work also appears in the 13th book of the Dark Mountain Project. He lives in Maine along with his two dangerous kids. His personal blog is Near-Earth Object, and he tweets at @paulfidalgo.