By Michael S. Serrill
Much has been made of how the administration of President Donald Trump requires a different kind of coverage than its predecessors. Washington Post editor Marty Baron disagrees. “Our traditional role serves us fine,” he says. That role, he adds, is to be “an honest observer” of political events and then to “tell the people what we’ve found.”
That classic approach, of course, has resulted in a series of spectacular scoops for the Post, including its report that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had lied to other government officials about his contacts with the Russian government. Flynn was fired days later.
Baron was speaking to the Foreign Editors Circle, a gathering of foreign editors and others who meet annually to discuss the challenges of covering the world. This year it was held at the plush, spacious headquarters that the Post occupied after its purchase by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Baron did acknowledge that the Trump administration has a marked hostility toward the media. “I am not sure Trump has read the First Amendment; he skipped over it and went right to the Second,” Baron joked. Still, he said, “we shouldn’t be partisan, though the administration is trying to portray us as partisan.”
The Post editor lamented that Trump’s disrespect for the press extends beyond our shores. Unlike other Presidents of both parties, “he is not a good advocate for freedom of the press around the world. When the Secretary of State [Rex Tillerson] doesn’t allow reporters to travel with him, that is a bad sign.”
So, he said, is Trump’s “admiration for [Russian President] Putin and others who control the press.”
The Foreign Editors Circle meeting was organized by the Vienna-based International Press Institute and The Associated Press. More than 20 foreign editors and representatives of media organizations, including the Overseas Press Club, the GroundTruth Project and the International News Safety Institute, spent the day discussing global politics, the dangers of overseas reporting, particularly for freelancers, and the continuing struggle of news outlets to survive in the internet age.
The difficulty of dealing with an Administration that labels fact-based reporting as partisan was a persistent theme. John Daniszewski, standards editor and former foreign editor of The Associated Press, noted that even that scrupulously objective news outlet has been denounced as anti-Trump. Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial editor of the Post and former foreign editor, asked, “How do you react to Trump? Do you call him on his lies? Do you engage with him? He wants us to get into an argument with him.”
In his talk to the group, Diehl outlined four trends that will dominate global affairs in coming years: the uncontrolled movement of people from poor and war-torn countries to the West; the backlash against globalization; the rollback of democracy in countries like Turkey, Hungary and Russia; the retreat of U.S. leadership in global affairs. On the last trend, he noted the silence of the Trump administration when confronted with the crushing of dissent in nations such as Turkey and Venezuela.
The dangers of overseas reporting were addressed by Gary LaFree, a University of Maryland professor and founder of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). LaFree has compiled a database of attacks on journalists around the world; it counts 1,165 kidnappings of news men and women and 1,300 murders since 1970. Some 146 of the killings happened in 2015 alone, LaFree said. Hannah Storm, executive director of the London-based News Safety Institute, said that two journalists are killed every week for doing their jobs. Her group is a forum for information sharing and has provided safety training for more than 2,500 staff and freelance journalists.
Storm noted that a growing category of journalistic harassment is virtual, and that women are most often targeted online. “In almost all situations the attacks become sexualized,” she said. Baron said Post reporters have been subjected to a flood of online assaults since Trump’s election, many of them anti-Semitic and some threatening violence. The paper has had to beef up security at its offices as a result.
Outside the U.S., the internet, rather than a boon to free speech, has too often become a vehicle of oppression. “Sovereign control of the internet” is the rule in much of the world, Baron noted – “a tool of authoritarian regimes.”
The internet is also the great disrupter of U.S. journalism’s economic life. Newspapers in particular “are still struggling to figure out the model in major metropolitan areas,” Baron said. “We have to deepen the level of engagement, get people to read the second and third day story. We have to prove to our readers every day that we have value.”
One way to do that is with high-impact investigative stories of the kind underwritten by the non-profit Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. The Center, founded by Jon Sawyer, who attended the Washington meeting, has spent $2 million in the past decade providing direct grants to reporters working on international stories. One result: four winners of this year’s Overseas Press Club Awards were backed by the Pulitzer Center.