Investigative Journalism in the Age of Trump

Sep 13, 2017

From left to right: Matthew Rosenberg (NYT), Michael Schmidt (NYT), Stephen Engelberg (ProPublica), and Vera Bergengruen (BuzzFeed News) share their experience of investigative reporting in D.C. under the Trump administration.
Credit Marguerite Gallorini

What is the state, and future, of investigative journalism under the new Trump administration? To try to answer to this question and many more, the Miller Center in Charlottesville invited a panel of prominent investigative journalists from The New York Times, ProPublica and BuzzFeed News. WMRA's Marguerite Gallorini was there.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: I think that folks think that what we do is perhaps a little easier than it looks. There's some notion out there that we sit in our desks, the phone rings, there's some dark deep voice...

(STEPHEN ENGELBERG: Bannon here!)

That’s Michael Schmidt, a correspondent for The New York Times in D.C., who broke the story of Hillary Clinton’s private e-mails.

SCHMIDT: They give it to us, and we just... you type it up and you put it online. It's incredibly more complex and difficult than that.

Schmidt and three other journalists discussed what it’s like to be an investigative reporter in the age of Trump. The first thing is: there’s a lot of criticism to take in.

SCHMIDT: There's also two large megaphones that have a big impact on us, the first being the President, who has used the media as a thing to attack to build himself up; and the second thing is Fox News, which, for almost two decades now, has been blaring commentary about the mainstream media that is incredibly critical. Whether it's true or not, there's an enormous amount of people that watch that and take that in. And it's not something, I think, we've completely figured out how to respond to.

Criticism comes from the left too.

SCHMIDT: If you do a story in which Trump spouts off and you repeat what he says and maybe the reader doesn't think you hold him accountable enough, then we get criticized for that.

VERA BERGENGRUEN: I think we just can't win, right?

That’s Vera Bergengruen, national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News.

BERGENGRUEN: If there's this reporting in a certain a way, then we get a lot of criticism saying "You're normalizing this," saying that we don't provide enough context into how unusual some of this is; and on the other side, again, they're like "Why are you focusing - there's nothing there, why do you keep going there?" Anytime you touch any of those topics, no side is really going to be happy with this... The example is, Mike who’s – he covered the Clinton e-mail server and also broke several stories about Trump, that's what a good investigative journalist does.

For Matthew Rosenberg, who covers intelligence and national security for The New York Times, this kind of criticism is particularly dangerous because it contains an element of censorship.

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: It’s a dangerous place for people on either the right or left to be saying "These views are so terrible nobody should know about them." I think we're all probably four free speech absolutists up here.

A member of the audience expressed the concern that this panel was representing only one side of the political spectrum.

SPEAKER: I know The Times would be viewed as a more leftward-leaning publication. But are any of you on a conservative outlet?

[Laughs]

SPEAKER: I take that as a no.

SCHMIDT: I think the description of The Times is a liberal publication; but when I tell people I wrote the Hillary Clinton email story, that can sometimes rattle people – because they’re like “Wow, that’s what The New York Times wrote.” As reporters on this story, we're out there following the facts regardless.

Stephen Engelberg, the editor in chief of the non-profit publication ProPublica, provided an introspective thought.

ENGELBERG: I do think that subconsciously – journalists are people – and if a guy is screaming at you every day that you are the enemy of the people, does it have some kind of subliminal effect on how you come to work in the morning? Probably so. As an editor, I try to make sure that’s not true, I try to be very careful.

ROSENBERG: We really do try to be fair and balanced as one can be. Look, I do think there is an issue where the media is largely based in big cities – not everybody is from big cities but they've relocated there, working there – so you tend to reflect the kind of values of urban America.

This divide between big cities and local journalism was also touched upon by Howard Witt, the Miller Center's Director of Communications and moderator of the panel.

HOWARD WITT: Let's take it down to the local level because there is such a divide between the resources that major national news organizations, like you folks, represent; and the local newspapers that so many Americans still depend on to get a lot of their news. Here in Charlottesville we have one newspaper that is under incredible economic stress – and they get a hot tip about some big local story going on right now, and they don't have the resources to put against that.

ENGELBERG: Yes, we have a huge problem. The newspaper advertising model is dead; it seems to me that is now not become a civic good - it's become a commercial imperative. What that means is that newspapers have to move to a subscription model. And at the local level that means you’ve got to create an absolutely imperative reason for people to buy the paper, and that means investigative accountability reporting. When I worked at the Oregonian I used to say "Could I just have, from our readers, one latte a week?" If we could get there, I think there is hope; but at the moment you're right, there's a big problem, and the problem is much more at the local level than the national level.

Unfortunately, the panel did not mention the importance of also supporting one’s local public radio station.