Poynter managing editor Barbara Allen recently sat down with American Press Institute executive director Tom Rosenstiel, who visited Poynter’s headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida. Rosenstiel, one of the nation’s leading thinkers on the future of media and a longtime journalist, was in Florida for Bouchercon 2018, a gathering of thriller writers and fans, for his first novel, “Shining City.” His responses have been edited for length.
Allen: Do you think it was appropriate for the New York Times to run an anonymous opinion article?
Rosenstiel: Yeah. Given the context of when it ran, I think it made a lot of sense. (Bob) Woodward’s book broke the night before, and was full of what purported to be quotes from people inside the White House with a particular point of view about how they were trying to protect the presidency. … In a sense, this unsigned op-ed was a significant annotation of, “Is it possible that people would speak to Woodward like this? Why would they do it? What is their mentality and what is their motivation?” Had this run two months ago, it would not have had the echo effect or the meaning that it had coming this way.
Allen: So where some people are saying it’s a competitive response to Woodward’s book, you saying they almost sort of work in tandem?
Rosenstiel: Oh I think it significantly adds to the discussion that we’re having about not just why people talk to Woodward, but why they have leaked so vociferously through the Trump presidency. … So it has added to the public discussion in a meaningful way and that would be the criteria for whether you could decide, should we grant someone anonymity in journalism? Do we believe what they have to say? Is it adding to public knowledge? Is it deepening our understanding? And I think it meets all those criteria.
Allen: How smart do you have to be to be a political reporter right now?
Rosenstiel: Very smart. Trump has thrown down what is essentially an existential challenge to people who cover him. He said, “You’re the enemy of the people, and you’re fake. What you write is fake.” How do you cover someone in a disinterested way who’s called you the enemy? … That’s very challenging. Your professionalism has to be intact, you have to prove to a skeptical audience that what you write is reliable, your sourcing has to be better than it’s ever been, deeper than it’s ever been. If you make even a small mistake, you’re going to be called on it. It’s raised the press’s game, and in other ways, we’ve fallen into the trap that he’s set.
Allen: Which is?
Rosenstiel: If he calls you the enemy, it’s easy to start acting like the enemy. On one hand, he’s trying to suggest that anything you write or publish that’s negative is fake, which is not true. On the other hand, it becomes pretty easy to look for all the things that he says that are exaggerated or that you think are proof of the narrative that he is amoral or deranged or not fit, and you’re constantly looking for those and missing other things. Even the author of this op-ed has suggested that the Trump presidency has accomplished a great deal, which is being missed.
Allen: What is it like to see your name on a fictional book cover?
Rosenstiel: Lots of journalists think about writing novels, and many have one in a desk drawer someplace. … When you see the cover of your novel, it’s a world you invented, and people you invented, and that cover is an imagined world.
Allen: And that feels?
Rosenstiel: It’s amazing. It’s a creative process in a much different way than doing journalism. Doing journalism is a prosecutorial, empirical and inquisitive process. … That is very different than having something you want to say about the nature of the world and inventing a world to say it in.
The challenge with both journalism and fiction right now, is journalists are students of the realpolitik. We think that the future is going to be like the past, only more so. … We’ve never had a present like this, and we have no way to judge the future, and our grasping at the familiar past may or may not be correct. So we’re really challenged by that. We’ve never seen anything like this. We’re looking to the history of other countries; it’s beyond our experience in American politics to try to understand this presidency.
In fiction, you try to take the real and go and imagine something beyond it, and that’s very difficult when the news reads like dystopian fiction.
Allen: Is this a good time for people to pursue … getting into the profession?
Rosenstiel: This is the greatest time to be entering into journalism because you’re going to invent the next journalism. But … Trump’s presidency in many ways is a challenge to the whole philosophy of journalism.
Journalism is grounded in fact. We believe that truth will be found fact by fact, fact upon fact, and if we have enough of them, we have the truth. We really have no other way of doing it, because we are operating in real time, we are groping for truth in real time. Trump’s whole approach to the presidency is that facts don’t matter, that truth is some other thing that is a matter of attitude and that you can make up facts or lie about facts. And if you’re telling some larger truth as he imagines it, that’s what matters. It’s almost a theological collision.
So while we should not be at war with the Trump presidency, we are at war with the notion that you can just say and make up whatever you want. …
I think that that may instill a kind of renaissance in the same way that Watergate did. There are a whole bunch of people who are 60 to 70 years old today who became journalists because of the role that the press had in covering civil rights, Vietnam and Watergate.
This (moment in history) is a Vietnam, this is a Watergate moment.
Even if you’re a Republican and you think that Trump’s doing great things, you’re unnerved.
When people in power begin to systematically lie about what’s going on, that’s what happened in Vietnam and that’s what happened in Watergate, and that’s why journalism became more popular and more important.”
Rosenstiel is the author of several non-fiction books including “The Elements of Journalism” with Bill Kovach and “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” with Poynter’s Kelly McBride. His next thriller, “The Good Lie,” comes out in February.