The Weekly Standard’s Steve Hayes on rebuilding the public’s trust

May 15, 2017

When Steve Hayes hears a politician spout talking points at a press conference, he has a different reaction than many other journalists in the room.

That’s because he’s a conservative. And, he says, most of his colleagues in the industry aren’t.

“I think it’s good for mainstream publications to employ reporters who are conservatives,” Hayes said. “We’ll just have different questions.”

Hayes, the editor in chief at The Weekly Standard, has long been critical of what he views as the media’s tendency to treat Republicans with suspicion and Democrats with good faith. Since President Trump was elected, he says, those habits have been readily apparent, with reporters from mainstream publications in “an unhealthy race” to prove the president wrong.

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Poynter talked with Hayes about his assessment of the media’s coverage of President Trump, what it’s like to cover Trump at a conservative publication and how the media writ large can rebuild the public’s trust.

How would you sum up The Weekly Standard’s approach to covering the Trump presidency?

Report the news. (Before the election), most of the people at The Weekly Standard could have been accurately described as Trump skeptical, I think. When the election happened and Trump was elected, I wrote an editorial for the magazine and said he wasn’t our guy — we had a lot of concerns about him. Those concerns don’t go away because he’s elected. But he’s now the President of the United States, and we want him to succeed because we think it’s important for the country. But we’re not going to be boosters.

Have readers responded to The Weekly Standard’s push for more reporting on the Trump administration?

We’ve seen a good reader response to it. We’ve put an emphasis on reporting over hot takes over commentary. There’s room, of course, for that too. But what we’ve tried to do, both in looking at who we’re hiring and in what we’re doing with people on staff is emphasize the reporting. At a time when there’s so much debate about the truth, capital-T, and fake news and the Trump administration’s claims, the very best thing we can do is reporting.

The weekend that President Trump sent those tweets accusing President Obama of having wiretapped him, we had a robust discussion among the staff about what we should be doing and what we should be reporting. But we didn’t put anything up right away. We didn’t have something posted that was speculative or reaching conclusions right away. We waited, and we waited a full almost 36 hours, if my memory serves.

How is The Weekly Standard’s conservative viewpoint expressed? People tend to lump all conservative media into one camp. What distinctions do you see between yourself and some of those other publications out there?

Some of it’s probably that we come at things from a slightly different editorial viewpoint. People look at where The Weekly Standard is versus National Review versus The American Conservative versus Breitbart. And there’s no doubt that we come from very different places on a broad scale of conservatism. It’s a little hard to flesh that out, in part because we at The Weekly Standard have so many people who are different kinds of conservatives or not conservatives or have different views.

I was very strongly in favor of the Iraq War. The best anti-war arguments I heard came from my colleague Matt Labash, who works at The Weekly Standard. We would write each other 2,000-word emails fighting about the Iraq War. We have a lot of that on the magazine’s staff.

It’s hard to say there’s a Weekly Standard kind of conservative. If I had to point to things that distinguish us, I’d say it probably is (that) we certainly think we have exceptionally high-quality writing, and also the focus on reporting.

What is your response to the mainstream media’s reaction to President Trump and conservative viewpoints in general? One example of these, I think, was illustrated by the reaction to Bret Stephens’ recent column. There were some generous critiques of his column and some uncharitable ones, too.

There is, it seems to me, in the mainstream media, an unhealthy race to try to demonstrate how nefarious (President Trump) is, and how dishonest he is. It’s almost as if the job isn’t so much reporting what he says and when necessary evaluating it and checking it against what we know to be true.

It’s: Can I beat somebody else to showing how bad Trump is? And that’s not healthy either. I think, during the Obama administration, the mainstream media approached President Obama as if he was generally telling the truth and was honest and generally pursuing good ends.

And I think the opposite assumption informs a lot of the reporting on President Trump. Generally not an honest guy. And he’s pursuing ends that are not desirable. I think that’s an oversimplified look at how journalists have reported on him. And it gets them in trouble sometimes. You remember, I’m sure, the New York Times tweet and the side-by-side photo of the Patriots with President Obama and the Patriots with President Trump. It was obviously meant to suggest that the Patriots didn’t want to be with President Trump. And it turns out that they just had them set up differently.

To what degree do you think journalists’ skepticism of Donald Trump is justified by his track record for dishonesty when compared to other presidents?

I would say skepticism is always warranted. I don’t care who it is. You should be skeptical. In a sense, that’s our job. But what I’m seeing sometimes with reporters covering Trump goes beyond skepticism. It’s an assumption that everything he says is a lie. Is not true. Or is working toward undesirable ends or is somehow nefarious. And I think that’s not a healthy impulse.

We could have used more of that skepticism under President Obama. There’s an example that stands out in my head because I spent a fair amount covering this stuff. President Obama gave an interview in December of 2015 to Olivier Knox of Yahoo News.

And it was mostly an interview meant to roll out his new Cuba policy. But Olivier asked the president about Guantanamo as well. The president made two claims that were at best deliberately misleading — and probably just untrue. In one instance, he was asked about the people he let go from Guantanamo. And he said, well, we always knew that a handful of people would go and rejoin the fight. Well, literally earlier that month, his director of national intelligence had given him an estimate that 196 people had gone and rejoined the fight. That’s not a handful.

The president said this — nobody called him on it. I was having a conniption fit. I was writing and waving my arms and trying to get people to paying attention to this. Nobody called him on it. The New York Times didn’t ever report it.

If you were put in charge of one of these mainstream news organizations tomorrow, what would you do to have them win back public trust?

Some of the things that have come out of these endless panel discussions and navel gazing are positive. The idea that it’s good, particularly for national publications, to have people who come from different places in the country.

I think it’s good for mainstream publications to employ reporters who are conservatives. We’ll just have different questions. I go to a press conference, I can stand among 15 different reporters. And the things that I’m hearing from a president’s mouth or a politician’s mouth — I’m just going to hear them differently than most of my colleagues.

What is your view of publications that are affiliated with the alt-right obtaining credentials to enter the senate press gallery and the James Brady Briefing Room with more established publications?

I think it’s OK to credential non-traditional, non-establishment or non-legacy media publications. I think it’s a good thing. During the Obama administration, you had The Huffington Post and others credentialed and reporting and providing pool reports and what have you. I think that’s perfectly fine. I would make a distinction between Gateway Pundit — they publish stuff that’s not true, they make mistakes all the time, it’s not an actual journalistic undertaking.

I think there should be standards based on whether these are serious journalistic enterprises without respect to whether they have ideological leanings one way or the other. I think it’s good.