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The Journalistic Pitfalls of the Trump Era

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The Journalistic Pitfalls of the Trump Era

In their new book, “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future,” the New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns offer an account of the last couple of years in U.S. politics, from the 2020 Presidential election to the insurrection on January 6th to the first legislative push of the Biden Administration. The book has already made news for a number of its scoops, especially those surrounding the House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, who was caught on tape blaming President Trump for his role in fomenting the attack on the Capitol and saying that he intended to tell him to resign. (McCarthy later said that he was walking through “different scenarios” and “never thought” Trump should step down.)

I recently spoke by phone with Martin and Burns, with the intent of talking less about the book’s scoops and more about how journalism has functioned in the Trump era, during which they have both covered national politics for the Times. In our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the ethics of saving important reporting for a book’s publication, how Republicans have tried to launder their reputations through the media, and what really drives Mitch McConnell.

Early Newspaper

How do you conceive of the type of journalism that you guys do, or tried to do, in the book, and how do you think it functioned, especially during the Trump era?

ALEXANDER BURNS: I do think that we tried to do something different with this book. Look, Jonathan and I are best known as campaign journalists, which is often what it means to be a political journalist in the way the term is broadly used. What we tried to do with this book is broaden the definition of what we would consider political journalism and tell a broader story that takes in, yes, an election, but it takes in the wider condition of the country, it takes in the inner workings of government—not just in Washington but at the state and even at the local level—and tells a more integrated story about the country during a period of time.

In addition to the overwhelming bias toward treating political journalism as campaign journalism, there’s also an overwhelming tendency to treat our coverage of politics and government as coverage of the President. We have two Presidents as major, major characters in the book, but this isn’t a book about Donald Trump. It isn’t a book about Joe Biden. It’s not even a book about Donald Trump and Joe Biden. It’s a book about the political system as a whole.

JONATHAN MARTIN: There are three branches of the federal government. We think that, when it comes to the political story of this time, the legislative branch plays an enormously important role. And we relish the fact that we are introducing a set of really pivotal actors in this period that perhaps even a fairly informed reader wouldn’t know that much about. And we think that, by doing so, we present a more comprehensive account of this tumultuous time in American history.

There was some great journalism that came about in the Trump era, but I think there were also, especially in many of the books written about the Trump Administration, problems in terms of who was telling the story and how they were telling it.

A.B.: I’m not trying to do some sort of dodge about that. When you say that you see obvious problems with—

I would say as someone who read the books by Bob Woodward, Michael Wolff, and others, I can often tell who the sources were by the way they’re described, or when people say things that I don’t believe, or when long conversations are recounted verbatim in a way that seems unlikely to have occurred. This is always a challenge for reporters who rely on sources, but I think that it was a particularly acute problem during the Trump Administration.

A.B.: I’m not going to go negative on other books or other reporters here. I do think that what you said about recounting lengthy verbatim conversations, many months after the fact, was something that we felt going into this project that we didn’t want to do unless we had a very, very, very, very high degree of confidence that we really were working with exact words. We would never put something in the newspaper that we thought was roughly what somebody said in quotation marks. So what we did in the book was we drew on a ton of primary source material: audio tapes, documents, contemporaneous notes.

We spoke to a lot of people, not necessarily literally in real time but very close to near time—with the understanding that the information they were sharing would not come out until much later—to try to get much closer to the kind of exactitude in language and in scene and in fact that we demand of ourselves in the newspaper. And that’s something we disclose to readers at the front of the book—that if you see something in quote marks, we have a very high degree of confidence that is exactly what was said. And if you don’t see something in quote marks, we’re paraphrasing because we feel we have to paraphrase.

J.M.: I would just say that we were conscious about the nature of this period as we were living it and then covering it. And we wanted to do justice to what we feel like is an extremely consequential part of American history, and we wanted it to be accurate and what we hope will be one of the building blocks for future historians who are writing about this time. And, of course, if you want to start building the historical record, it’s best to have primary source documentation.

A.B.: And one thing I would add—and, again, this is not a criticism about other books specifically—I do think that going into this Jonathan and I had a sense that, look, people have read a lot of books about the Trump Administration, they’ve read a lot of news coverage of the Trump Administration, and we wanted to say something new. And so it’s not that we looked at those other books and said, “We don’t like them, we think they’re bad, and so we’re going to do something different.” But we didn’t want to come to the reader with stories that they had heard eighty times before, but presented slightly differently. The story that Trump has a volcanically bad temper and is abusive to staff and doesn’t understand or care about policy is something that has been very, very well fleshed out over the years, to put it mildly. And so, where we’re going to dip into that, we try to do it in places and on subjects and in ways that would get us to a different place.

One critique of books such as these is that they have material that’s urgent to get out to the public and the public must know about, and that holding them for a book is somehow unethical as a journalist. I don’t actually agree with that critique, but I at least think it’s worth thinking about, and I’m curious if you guys have thought about it and how you wrestle with it.

J.M.: I would just say up front, Isaac, that we’re not going to discuss sourcing as a rule here. I would make two general points on your question, without engaging on the nature of our reporting. And that is just, one, people are always more willing to speak for history than they are for a story that’s going to be in the paper the next day. It doesn’t matter who’s doing the reporting or what the topic is. I think that’s generally a sort of safe bet. A lot of authors will understand this. And I think when people know that they’re talking for history it prompts a measure of candor that perhaps political actors wouldn’t be willing to offer in real time.

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The Journalistic Pitfalls of the Trump Era