Reporting on the US President in the era of social media

As President Donald Trump strengthened his attacks on traditional media during the US midterm elections, NHK General Bureau Chief for America Kenji Kohno and New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet sat down to discuss the role of journalism and the challenges of reporting in the age of social media.

Journalism's Impact on the Trump Presidency

Do you think that your reporting has had any impact on Trump supporters?

A: The goal of that kind of reporting is not to convince people not to vote for Donald Trump. That’s not my job. Our job is to report the truth, very aggressively, [and] objectively, with no partisanship. So [the stories] are not designed to sway people. I do think that they have a big impact though. I think that they give investigators ideas to conduct investigations. I think they contribute to an overall portrait of the president, which is our goal. I’m very clear that our job is not to be the opposition to Donald Trump or any other politician.

Do you think Trump supporters understand this?

A: I would be careful. Trump supporters are pretty wide, much wider. I mean, I think there’s a tendency by Americans to think Trump supporters are people in the middle of the country who are uneducated, and that’s not true. Trump won around 60 million votes. I mean, he won. He beat all the other Republicans.

It’s a mistake to think of Trump’s supporters as only people in the middle of the country, or less educated. We did a survey of exit polls and Trump supporters are wealthy. They're in Connecticut, they’re in Chicago, they’re all over the country. And I think that while there may be some Trump supporters who we can’t get [to], who won’t read us, I think those Trump supporters in Greenwich, Connecticut probably do read us. They voted for him because he promised them tax cuts. So Trump supporters are wider, I think, than most people accept.

Do you think people’s opinions about the president have changed because of your reporting?

A: Things written about him and women, things that have been written about him and his finances, the fact that we and other news organizations have called out his exaggerations, and in some cases lies. They don’t seem to have the same impact on him, partly because he pushes back so forcefully, partly because I think some of his supporters have accepted his flaws.

I mean, we did one of the first stories about allegations that Trump treated women badly, and a lot of his supporters say, “OK, we accept that. We like him for these other reasons.” And it’s not my job to convince those supporters otherwise, but I do think he’s been more successful than any previous president in escaping consequences for some of the things that have been reported about him.

A lot of media outlets acknowledged that they made mistakes in 2016. Is there anything that you think you could have done better at the time?

A: I don’t think the press in general, with some exceptions, did a good enough job capturing how angry some parts of the country were over the economic crisis and other changes in society. I don’t think we did a good enough job understanding that. So when Donald Trump came along and exploited that, we were all surprised. I also think...I think in a lot of ways, we just didn’t quite have a handle on the country -- not just The New York Times, a lot of news organizations -- but I’m speaking for The New York Times. And I think that’s why Trump’s election was such a shock to us, and I wish we had done better. I think we are doing better this time. I wish we had done better.

In the midterms, we’re talking to more people out in the country. We’re talking to more people all over the country. We’re visiting more places. We’re trying to learn more about the economy and the impact of the economy, how people are influenced by the economy, immigration. I think we’re just out in the country more. That doesn’t mean we’re predicting who will win the midterms, but I think we’re just out talking to more people. And I think it’s made a big difference. I think we have a better understanding of the economy. We’ve written about the economy in different parts of the country. I think we have more reporters who’ve gone into parts of the country that we didn’t go into enough in 2016. I believe we have surfaced the issues that will influence the election.

What are your thoughts on the current mood of the country?

A: I think the country is very divided. I think a lot of people on the left are worried about Donald Trump. I think a lot of people on the far right are worried that Donald Trump will lose power, because they like him. I think a lot of people in the middle are confused. I think it’s a very divided country, very divided. I think people can watch the same event...I think some people will watch Donald Trump [at a] rally and be absolutely appalled by him. And I think some people will watch that same rally and be absolutely inspired by him. I think the country is deeply divided right now. I do. And I think that many politicians are playing to that divide, are playing up that divide, to inspire passion among their supporters and get them out to vote. But I think it’s a very divided age we’re in.

Journalism in the age of social media

There's a phenomenon called the "filter bubble" that tries to explain why some people only hear the news they want to hear and not the news they don’t want to hear. What do you think of this?

A: I think it’s bad for democracy. We have to be careful. It has always existed. If you lived in one part of the country before there was the Internet and you only had access to your local newspaper and your local television station, you couldn’t get the New York Times, you couldn’t look at international news organizations. That was its own kind of filter bubble too, so it’s not a new phenomenon. It’s accelerated now because there’s so many sources you can now pick and choose just the things that you agree with.

I do think filter bubbles are bad for democracy, but one danger is that we so demonize the Internet and we blame the Internet for everything, and I think that’s just not true. The Internet mostly is better, it’s better for society, right? And we have to make sure that we don’t blame the Internet for things that were always in us. There’s always been a dark side to America along with all the other stuff. There’s always been a desire for people to just read things they agree with. It may be a little worse now. It’s a lot worse now. One reason it’s worse is because politicians play to it. But we still have to remember the way...I still think this is better once we figure it out.

All I mean is, I grew up in a medium-size American city, New Orleans, and as a child in New Orleans I had access to 2 newspapers and 3 television stations and that’s all I had access to. And Time magazine. [Today] that same kid growing up in New Orleans, if he spoke the language, could watch you. That same kid...can read The Guardian if he doesn’t like his local paper. That same kid can read The New York Times if he can afford it. His world is so much wider. He can look at any museum website and just see things that he couldn’t see before. It’s important when we think about the “sins” of the Internet that they are balanced by these things as well.

If you choose to, you can have a wider variety of news sources, but this filter bubble can prevent access to information as well.

A: The readers or the viewers are the ones choosing not to hear what others have to say. And I do think that’s a significant problem, especially -- to be blunt -- when we have a president who speaks to one group of people, and makes references, and he becomes part of their filter bubble. I think that’s particularly troublesome.

Journalism should be transparent

How should traditional mainstream media like the New York Times deal with “filter bubbles”?

A: I think the main thing we have to do is, first, to not make mistakes, be honorable, not be partisan, and then the biggest thing we have to do -- that we are only learning how to do now -- is to be very, very transparent. News organizations like mine traditionally don’t let people see how we do things. We don’t let people know who our writers are, unlike television. We don’t let people know their backgrounds. It’s just a habit, it’s a tradition, that the paper comes first.

I think that that has hurt us in the new era, because I think if people saw how we do things, and if we admit our mistakes, and if we just sort of show people how things work, I think they’ll believe us more. I mean, if they get to know that Maggie Haberman, who’s one of our most famous reporters who covers the White House, is a parent, who has to manage the life of her kids and her family, and is not some evil person who sits off on the corner plotting stories they don’t like, I think that wins us support, and I think we’re getting better at that. But I think we have to work really hard to keep doing it. And I think if we do that, we win trust.

How long have you been working to increase transparency in your reporting and organization?

A: Probably only in the last couple of years. Sometimes it’s so foreign to us. At one point, I read a study or watched interviews with the readers when I was at another newspaper, and my heart was broken, because the readers did not know that the dateline meant that the reporters were in those places. So here we are, news organizations like yours and mine, we spend a lot of money, people risk their lives to be in places where there are wars, to be closer to the news, and our viewers and our readers did not know that. That breaks my heart. So now I want people to not only know we’re there, why we’re there, I want them to know what risks we’re taking. I want them to know the backgrounds of the writers and why they should believe them.

I think that’s one of the most important things we can do. I mean, there was just a documentary film made about the New York Times, The Fourth Estate series, which is very unusual for us to do. And that’s why I agreed to do it. I mean, it was a big risk. We had no control over it. They saw some things we wish they didn’t get to see, but I wanted them to see what we look like and how we think, and how normal we are. And you know, I wanted them to see a reporter who has to manage his life. I wanted them to get into our homes, and I think it humanized us.

Do you think this had an effect?

A: I think it did. I mean, I hear from people all the time that there was a very thoughtful, conservative legal scholar named Benjamin Wittes, who wrote a long blog post after watching the Fourth Estate, and he said it gave him a greater faith -- he’s a conservative -- greater faith in the news media, because he saw us wrestling with things, admitting we didn't understand things. He watched meetings where we tried to figure things out. And he wasn’t watching journalists. He watched people with open minds, trying to understand the world. He didn’t watch arrogant jerks trying to just push their point of view. And I think that was important for people to see.

Will people trust all the news from The New York Times when all of this is done?

A: I think that trust in the press goes like this. Right after Watergate it was at its peak. It’s down now. I honestly believe it’ll go back up again. I think that’s the way it works. And people trust their own local news organizations. And I should point out, for all the criticism of us by the president and others, we have many, many, many times more readers than we've ever had in the era of print. We never had more than a million subscribers, a million and a half subscribers, and double that, a couple of 3 million readers. Now we have upwards to 4 million subscribers, tens of millions of readers. And that means that there are people in America and around the world who want to read what we have to say more than ever.

Is this because of Mr. Trump?

A: Sure, I think the Trump era has contributed to that, of course. But not just because of Mr. Trump. Because this was starting before Trump’s election, and it’s continued even as people have gotten used to him. But of course, that’s part of it. But it’s not all of it I think.

The future of journalism

Do you think the media and your company is falling into a slump?

A: I don’t think we’re at the bottom. I think the press is not at the bottom. In fact we’ve picked up. In some polls, we’ve picked up status and support in the last year. So I don’t think we’re at the bottom.

And by the way, the very definition of media is almost too big. I mean, what’s media? When people say they don’t trust media, are they talking about The New York Times, or Fox News, or Facebook, or Google? The definition of media is so broad...their local television station, which they probably love. Their local newspaper, which they probably love. You know, weekly magazines, monthly magazines, websites, Politico…It’s so broad that I’m not quite sure how much I trust that view people have of media anyway. I think media is so big. All I can point out is that a lot of the better news organizations in America -- and I will include the Washington Post in that list too -- have more readers than they’ve ever had.

Do you see a bright future?

A: I think the future is really bright, for us, not for all news organizations. The biggest crisis, at least here, is local news. I think the business model for local...the business model for all news organizations, particularly traditional newspapers, has been changed dramatically. And the big organizations like ours have managed to weather it. We’ll be fine. Small news organizations, regional news organizations, Chicago and New Orleans, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, they’re all in big trouble. And that’s scarier for democracy...that’s scarier to me than almost anything we’ve discussed.

How do you cope with this situation?

A: You have to work very hard to make sure you have a wide audience of people of all political backgrounds. I don’t mean the far extremes. We’re not out to get people who are racist or anti-Semitic. But I think you try to produce a report that attracts people of a wide range of political viewpoints. That means you make sure your business coverage is really strong for people who care about business. You make sure your arts coverage is really strong, you make sure your sports coverage is strong. You try to win people over by offering them a wide array of coverage. If they don’t like our White House coverage -- though I think they should -- hopefully, they’ll like our business coverage. I think that’s also part of the equation. Our goal is to produce a news report that you have to read. That’s my goal.

I think if you want to be a thoughtful citizen, you have to read that story. So my goal is to produce a report as often as possible that you have to read, that your friends tell you that you have to read, whether it’s because of some great piece of writing, some great analysis, or some long investigative piece that is really illuminating. That’s the goal, that whether you’re a conservative, or a liberal, or in the middle, you have to read us. That’s my goal.

This interview was conducted on November 2nd in New York. The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.