Media in the Age of Trump

For news organizations, the early months of the Age of Trump have been, perversely, the best of times and the worst of times.
The worst, because of the 45th President’s vitriolic assault on the media as dishonest, disloyal “enemies of the people.”
The best, oddly, because the chaos surrounding the Trump ascension has given birth to some remarkable investigative reporting. The New York Times, the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, especially, have been topping each other repeatedly with penetrating reports about the inner workings, conflicts and contradictions of the new Administration and — get this — people are paying for it. It is an on-going newspaper war in the best sense of the word.
And not just newspapers. The New Yorker magazine, renowned for its prose and commentary, has been breaking news about the curious and continuing Trump-Russian connections. The venerable Atlantic magazine, a monthly, has published an in-depth look at what it calls the autocratic aspects of Trumpism.
Most major organizations have beefed up their Washington and investigative staffs since election day. The New York Times has assigned six top reporters to cover the White House full-time. (When I was The Times’ chief White House correspondent in the 1970’s, I was “chief” of myself and one deputy.)
The Washington Post and CNN have added to the collective reporting muscle by building new investigative teams.
It is the best of times, as well, because readers and viewers have responded to the tumultuous times by forking over cash for subscriptions to the most reliable of the “lamestream” media, as Sarah Palin once dubbed them.
The Times, which has been struggling financially in recent years from a crippling loss of print advertising, is experiencing a remarkable surge. The Grey Lady added 300,000 new digital subscriptions since election day. The Washington Post has topped 300,000 paid digital subscriptions for the first time. The New Yorker has picked up 250,000 subscribers in the last three months. Subscriptions to The Atlantic were up 210 per cent in January over the same month the year before.
The timing is hardly coincidental.
These new readers are not just reacting to Trump’s attacks on the press; they are hungry for reliable journalism in an uncertain world. And they are paying for it. Stephen Colbert once dubbed it “truthiness,” and people want it.
The cable news networks, all of which have tasted Trump’s wrath at one time or another, are enjoying an across-the-board
ratings boost. Fox, Trump’s favorite, leads the pack, but even CNN, which the President has labeled “fake news,” is up sharply. Jeff Zucker, CNN’s worldwide president, calls it a “renaissance in American Journalism.”
Have there been mistakes and excesses in the coverage? Of course. But you will get a clearer picture of the Administration in the media than from Kelly Anne Conway and the other Trump spokespeople.
Incidentally, the other great beneficiaries of the Trump Bump have been Colbert, John Oliver and, of course, Saturday Night Live. Late night television satire has never been better — or more popular.
Meanwhile, the normally adversarial relationship between the press and the White House has descended into daily hostilities between Sean Spicer, the beleaguered press secretary, and the reporters who question him. The televised battles have become a daytime hit as Spicer gamely tries to defend his boss’s twitter outbursts.
It is hard at this point to see where all this chaos leads us. David Brooks doubts that Trump can last a year. But the President’s base seems solidly behind him and largely satisfied that he is fulfilling his campaign promises. The Republicans in Congress will not challenge him as long as they believe he will sign their agenda into law.
In the main, reporters have been keeping their heads down, doing their jobs, digging for the truth and, fortunately, not taking the Presidential attacks personally. Most realize it is not about them. This is not a popularity contest, which is a good thing, since neither side would win. But it is reminder that, as the old saying goes, “politics ain’t beanbag.”

The Times, It Is a Changin’

The Times, It Is A Changin’

You see it on the front page of The New York Times, live on NBC and across the spectrum: reporters, not commentators or columnists, calling out Donald Trump for lying.
That role used to be reserved for fact-checkers and editorial writers. The reporters would report, others would analyze, or, leave it to the readers.
But that old formula is not sufficient for The Age of Trump. The lies come so fast and frequently, piling up, one news cycle after another, that in some cases, at least, they have to be dealt with immediately, in the initial report. There won’t be time to sort it out later.
Take Michael Barbaro’s excellent news analysis on page one of The Times on Saturday, September 17. The editors chose to make it the two-column lead of the paper, with the news story inside, on page 10. That was another departure: before The Age of Trump, the editors would usually lead the paper with the news story and either twin it with a news analysis or put the news analysis inside, on the jump.
But this lie was so flagrant, so bald-faced, The Times had to deal with it in the headline: “Trump Gives Up a Lie, But Refuses to Repent.” The lie in question, of course, was Trump’s years of insinuations that President Obama was not born in the United States and therefore not qualified to be President.
Barbaro recounted Trump’s assertions to that effect since 2011 and wrote: “It was never true, any of it.”
Katy Tur, on MSNBC, similarly flatly rejected Trump’s claim that it was Hillary Clinton who started the racially-tinged “Birther Movement” and that he, Trump, had “finished it.” Not true, Tur said immediately.
This is not instant analysis, it is competent journalism, a faithful reporting of facts. It is different, necessary in The Age of Trump, and good.

Times, The Are A-changin’

So, how did I get the news about the news on the long weekend the newspaper business rolled over in the direction of its grave?

On my mobile phone, of course. Woke up Saturday to find that The New York Times had finally faced the harsh reality and sold the Boston Globe for $70 million, a tiny fraction of the inflated price it foolishly paid 20 years earlier.

Then, Monday afternoon, my phone chirped again with the stunning news that the Graham family was selling The Washington Post to Jeff Bezos for $250 million in cash. Moments later, The PBS NewsHour was on the phone, asking who I’d recommend to sort it out on the broadcast that night. Try Warren Buffet, I said, he’s buying newspapers these days. Maybe he understands something the rest of us don’t.

True, on Tuesday I turned to the print editions of The Times and The Post to get the full story. Both provided admirable and comprehensive coverage and, as usual, David Carr had the best commentary in the NYT. But the point here is simple: the news about the news business came to me on my phone. Digitally. Not in a newspaper. Everybody had it: Google, Yahoo and, of course, the newspaper websites.

Newspapers don’t deliver the news anymore. Certainly not in print. At least, not to most of us, even those of us with the most tenuous connection to the digital world. We know the headlines before we can pick up the paper. We have the basic facts. Who died, how many and where. Who’s selling, who’s buying.

What newspapers can do is give us the background, put a breaking news development in context, compare the latest news with what has gone before, maybe even tell us what it all means. That’s a crucial role. I hope it isn’t sacrificed completely in the economic crisis that is affecting all newspapers to a greater or lesser degree.

Warren Buffet sees a role for newspapers, in print and in digital form. He is buying them, frequently at fire-sale prices, in the Midwest and Southeast. His formula: small or medium-sized papers that have a close connection to their community. Makes sense to me. A friend of mine, Anthony Prisendorf, publishes The Berkshire Record, a thriving weekly in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. His formula: local news and high school sports. Business is so good he is opening a second weekly in the area.

But what about the papers across the country, large and small, that are losing circulation and ad revenue? Those that don’t have a Warren Buffet or Jeff Bezos or John Henry to write a check and salvage them? Will they survive? Will they still appear on newsprint in five, ten or 15 years? Does it matter?

Yes, it does. What matters is not so much whether the product comes to you on your front doorstep in the morning or whether it flashes on your phone or tablet. My own, personal preference is still newsprint. I like to hold it in my hand, roam through the pages, find stories I might not otherwise click on to read, see which stories the editors thought were most important.

But even I have become more and more comfortable reading on an iPad, getting the headlines on my iPhone, getting some commentary on Twitter or Facebook. I can adjust, dinosaur that I am. I swear I can.

What matters is not the form of delivery, but the journalism.
If the Billionaires can save newspapers by buying them and nudging them in the digital direction, more power to them. If they can write the checks that will send reporters to Damascus, Detroit and into the halls of Congress and the state legislatures, bless ‘em. Somebody has to keep an eye on the shop.

And, if I have to read the news on a finger-smudged screen, so be it.

Terence Smith is a journalist who has worked for The New York Times, CBS News and PBS. His website is terencefsmith.com

Red Smith Made It Look Easy

Columbia Journalism Review

“Give us this day our daily plinth,” my father, Red Smith, and his pal, Joe Palmer, the racing columnist, would pray, one with a scotch and soda in hand, the other bourbon and branch water, as they convened in Palmer’s book-lined study at the end of a day. It was their private joke–a plinth is the base of a column–but the prayer was fervent. My father’s search for his plinth was unending.

Walter Wellesley (Red) Smith was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin on September 25, 1905. He decided early on that he wanted to go to Notre Dame and become a newspaperman, just the way an older kid he admired had done, so he did. Simple as that. New York was always his goal, but his route was roundabout: The Milwaukee Sentinel, The St. Louis Star, The Philadelphia Record, and, finally, the big time: the New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Along the way, he must have written thousands of sports columns, becoming arguably the best in the business, right up until his death in 1982. Now a new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, is being published by Library of America.

In my memory, Pop was always writing a column, in a press box at the ballpark or racetrack, in his basement office at home, in a plane or train, or in the family car on summer vacation trips to Wisconsin. He would balance his Olivetti portable on his knees in the passenger seat, typing as my mother drove, shushing my sister, Kit, and me in the back seat. Once, when we moved into our house in Connecticut, he had the movers set up a table and chair beneath a tree and wrote a column there. It was moving day, but his deadline was looming, as always.

The columns, including those so ably collected in American Pastimes, were his métier, although he would have sneered at that word. The form suited him. He was good at capturing an event or a thought or a story in 800 words or so, often with an elegant phrase or a snatch of dialogue or the perfect anecdote. He demurred repeatedly when people urged him to write a full-length book about sports or anything else. “I’d rather go to the dentist,” he’d say.

Later in life, the suggestion of a biography or, worse yet, an autobiography, was dismissed out of hand. “To be written about is to be written off,” he told me more than once. That’s not true, of course, but it revealed his lifelong anxiety about being passed over or forgotten.

Even when he had become the most widely read sports columnist in the country and collected his share of awards, he worried aloud, at least to me, about whether his contract would be renewed, whether the paper would want someone else, someone younger and fresher, to take his place. He always described himself as “a working stiff.” That was one reason he always took the side of baseball players in their salary and contract disputes with owners. He saw himself as a performer, never an owner.

The column was his contract with life. As long as he was writing it, he felt he was in the center of things, that he still mattered. That’s why he kept at it until the week he died. As long as he was writing, he was part of the world he had lived and loved. Newspapermen were not just his colleagues, they were the best of his friends, the people he chose to spend time with, on and off the beat.

The annual sports calendar provided his material and often established our family’s rituals: spring training in Florida, the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, then the Preakness in Baltimore, the Belmont in New York, Saratoga in August, baseball through the summer, the World Series and college football in the fall, heavyweight championship fights, and, every four years, the Olympic Games. It made for an intoxicating mix.

Curiously, for all the pleasure he took in it, he was an accidental sportswriter. As he told the story, he was a junior man on the news copy desk at The St. Louis Star, just a few years into his career, making about $40 a week, when the editor, the redoubtable Frank Taylor, discovered that half his six-man sports staff was on the take from a local fight promoter and fired them. Looking around for a replacement, he called my father over and supposedly the following conversation ensued:

TAYLOR: Do you know anything about sports, Smith?
SMITH: Just what the average fan knows, sir.
TAYLOR: They tell me you’re very good on football.
SMITH: Well, if you say so.
TAYLOR: Are you honest?
SMITH: I hope so, sir.
TAYLOR: What if a fight promoter offered you $10, would you take it?
SMITH (long pause): $10 is a lot of money, sir.
TAYLOR: Report to the sports editor Monday.

Once he got into it, he relished writing sports and thought it was as good a vehicle as any to shed some light on the human condition. “I never felt any prodding need to solve the problems of the world,” he said in an interview years later. “I feel that keeping the public informed in any area is a perfectly worthwhile way to spend your life. Sports constitute a valid part of our culture, our civilization, and keeping the public informed, and, if possible, a little entertained about sports is not an entirely useless thing.”
But during World War II, when he was the father of two and 4-F because of his eyesight and covering “games children play” for The Philadelphia Record while others were at the front, he admitted to a “desperate feeling of being useless.”

“I was traveling with the last-place Philadelphia Athletics,” he recalled, “and more than once, I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’” He comforted himself with the published report that FDR thought sports were important for morale. Readers, he said, could read the war news first and then turn to sports to get updated on what he described as “matters of major inconsequence.”

Pop roamed off the sports beat occasionally, covering the national political conventions in 1956 and 1968, but when invited to expand his column to politics and world affairs, as James “Scotty” Reston and others had done before him, he declined. Same answer when he was asked to become the sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune. No, he said, the column was his thing, the one thing he did best. He’d stick with it. I think he would have been a good editor, maybe even exceptionally good, but he was not drawn to management and titles never interested him.

He defined himself as a newspaperman, not a sportswriter or columnist. “I’d like to be remembered as a good reporter,” he said in more than one interview, and he meant the much-advertised romance of journalism was real to him, as real in his seventies as it was when he left Green Bay, Wisconsin, for his string of newspaper jobs. Until he reached The New York Times, already at normal retirement age, he had always worked for the second newspaper in a city. “I killed ‘em all,” he’d say with a smile.

He was often described as modest and unassuming, and he did adopt an aw-shucks diffidence in the face of prizes and praise. It wasn’t exactly an act; he thought he was lucky to have had the chance to do all that he did. But he worked devilishly hard, took his writing, if not himself, seriously, constantly sought to be better, and bathed in the admiration he received, especially from colleagues. As Daniel Okrent notes in the introduction to American Pastimes, he was stung when Arthur Daley won the Pulitzer before he did, and he often dismissed the prize as a sop given by the journalistic old-boy network to its favorites on the establishment papers.

Until he won his own Pulitzer, that is, on May 3, 1976, at age seventy.

I was the New York Times correspondent in Israel at the time. When I reached him on the phone in the midst of a newsroom celebration, champagne corks popping in the background, I dead-panned: “You’ll refuse it, of course.” He lowered his voice and growled into the mouthpiece: “Not on your life!” We both laughed our heads off. I was enormously pleased, and so was he.

Pop enjoyed great good health for all but the last few of his seventy-six years. Again, he was lucky, given all the late nights, booze, and decades of unfiltered Camels. His idea of a good time was to sit late at Toots Shor’s saloon, trading stories with the parade of writers, ballplayers, fighters, mobsters, politicians, and hacks that would come by his table during the course of a night. He was successful financially, but his real definition of economic well-being was to have enough money to be able to grab the check for the table at Shor’s on occasion and not break the bank in the process.

He loved his life, had two kids and two good marriages, and lived long enough to know his six grandchildren and two of his great-grandchildren and to take my son, Chris, fishing for the first time in his life. They laughed together and Chris caught a fish. That sunny day on Martha’s Vineyard became grist for a column, of course, his plinth for the day.

When his health was failing near the end, he struggled to overcome the congestive heart failure and kidney disease that would take his life. He wanted to get better, he said; the Super Bowl was coming up and he wanted to cover it, to write another column, a good column, and then another after that, and make that one better. Spring training was not that far away.

But if he didn’t get better, he told me, he had no complaints.

“I’ve had a great run,” he said.

And he did.