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Nieman’s 80th Anniversary Reunion Weekend

Transcript: Journalism and Activism

Ann Marie Lipinski: …last June, Denise Ordway, Denise, you in the house? I saw you a minute ago, Nieman Fellow from 2015, posted the…

Stephen Engelberg: What did you guys serve at lunch?

Lipinski: …posted the following on our all‑class Facebook page.

“Dear Nieman Nation, all of us, I am certain, have seen examples of our journalist friends and colleagues sharing their opinions in public forums about prominent issues of the day and the people involved, even when those issues and people are directly related to their beats and newsroom roles.

“Over the past six months, I’ve seen journalists even take action, participating in protests and helping raise money in support of causes and people they cover. Aren’t these violations of the most basic journalism principles? If so, why do I not see anyone calling these journalists out? Am I alone in my frustration on this issue, or is this behavior OK now?”

The first response came quickly from one of Denise’s classmates, Maggie Koerth‑Baker. “I want to push back a little on this,” Maggie began, articulating a thoughtful argument about the differences between fairness and neutrality.

She ended, “I’m not sure what the right answer is, but I think it’s a good thing to keep talking about.” We thought so, too.

An issue that many journalists believe settled has reemerged, brought on in part by the evolving rhetorical norms of social media and strident attacks on journalists that may tempt certain behaviors.

I’ve heard conversations about this at Nieman in the last two years that I hadn’t in previous years and journalists like Denise and Maggie thoughtfully questioning where journalism ends and activism begins.

Not long ago, I checked in with a recent Harvard graduate, a very gifted student journalist from “The Crimson” who I’d gotten to know. She’d gotten a great, great reporting job out of college but then quit it to do political work.

She felt restricted by the neutrality conventions of journalism at the same time that she admired them and didn’t want to trespass. I mentioned last night that Marty Baron has said, famously, “We’re not at war. We’re at work,” rejecting characterizations of the media as an opposition party.

We wanted to push further on that at work notion, what exactly it means, and the political context, not just of this country but in so many regions where our fellows and other journalists are enduring new levels of attack by those they cover.

To do that, we’ve gathered a really terrific group. Their bios are in your programs, but I’m just going to really quickly welcome Steve Engelberg, who was the founding managing editor of “ProPublica” and became editor‑in‑chief in 2013, John Harwood, a Nieman Fellow in arguably the best class, who’s editor‑at‑large for CNBC in Washington, and who, I’ve talked to him about what I see as sort of an evolving voice on his Twitter, at least, and Samhita Mukhopadhyay, who’s executive editor of “Teen Vogue.” I hope you have, or if you haven’t, you will, read the story we’ve done on this issue and posted up on Nieman Reports in which we quote her.

I think, as many of you know, Teen Vogue became very prominent in this discussion for a noticeable turn that the magazine took under her leadership and that of others and a very prominent voice for the generation that they serve.

Then very fortunately, moderating today is Indira Lakshmanan, who is, of course, a Nieman Fellow as well and is now executive editor of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington. Please join me in welcoming them.

Indira Lakshmanan: Great. Thank you so much for coming, everybody. I want to start this conversation, which is a debate that I think is going on in every newsroom at least in the United States for the last two years, and I certainly will be curious to hear from our audience when we’re doing the Q&A how much this same topic is resonating outside of the US.

First, let me say that Samhita is going to have to dash out a little bit early because she has a train back to New York for another event. She’s very in‑demand.

Don’t think anything weird is happening. She will have to slip out a little early.

It’s not like Trump picking off the mic and running away or something. I want to start by provoking, by asking, hasn’t journalism, this whole question of, “Is it journalism? Is it activism,” hasn’t journalism always been essentially a form of social justice?

Think about Jacob Riis’s photos of how the other half lives, in the 1880s New York tenements, Upton Sinclair’s writing about the meatpacking industry, Dorothea Lange and her photos of the Great Depression, how different is this? Journalism has always been about social justice.

The civil rights movement, our own Nieman Fellow here who showed his beautiful photos last night, Eli Reed, and beautiful pictures from the civil rights movement and shocking pictures. John?

John Harwood: I would say yes. The reason people go into journalism tends to be because they care about their community, their society. They want to tell truth about it. They want to tell truths that matter and things that advance the cause of making this a more perfect union.

Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable has been something that many people have lived by in the business of journalism. I don’t think of that as activism. I think of that as truth telling. Activism is what other people do with those truths, but yes. There is I believe an underlying moral purpose to journalism.

We think about our society. We think about how to make it better. We think about the effect of what we do on other people, but to me that’s not politics or that’s not political activism.

Lakshmanan: One of the things that provoked us was this young woman from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who was the editor of the paper was asked about this. She said, “Journalism is activism.” She meant it in the same way that John just defined it. Yet she was vilified by many people on social media who said, “Journalism is not activism.” Where do you see the line?

Engelberg: This is in some ways a distinction without a difference. It is a question of what you declare at the outset your perspective is. For example, the idea of a crusading columnist. Nick Kristof is an opinion columnist. If he takes on an investigative issue, he’s pursuing it from a declared perspective.

He investigates the cause of how women are treated in certain parts of the world and slavery in some. He’s coming from a perspective. Those same stories I was once Nick’s editor when I was on the Foreign Desk could have been done by Nick Kristof, New York Times reporter, but they wouldn’t have a declared perspective.

There’s plenty of room even in the modern 21st century journalism to either come from a perspective of this is our viewpoint.

I declare that at the outset or I’m going to do a factual, ProPublica, New York Times, “Washington Post,” “Wall Street Journal,” whatever you want to call it sort of thing, where we try to have, I know that this word is hated, but neutral, objective, however you want to call it, where we don’t hopefully come from a specific perspective and yet the marshaling of the evidence is such that it prompts action.

The whole idea of ProPublica is we’ll do stories that will prompt change. We don’t specify the change in the stories, but clearly if they prompt change that’s activism, isn’t it? Even though the story the last paragraph doesn’t say, “And here’s what you should do.” There’s plenty of room in modern journalism to do both. I just think you have to be honest about what you’re doing.

Lakshmanan: Samhita, you represent a publication that of course came to a lot of prominence with the writing of Lauren Duca. Throughout the 2016 campaign and after Teen Vogue has developed a whole new reputation beyond what it was before.

I’m wondering ‑‑ there also a generational aspect of this question ‑‑ do you see it any differently from what John and Steve have said?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay: Yeah, I think I do. Only to the extent I do agree that with your initial question journalism in its purest form is a type of activism in that activism is the idea that when you see a truth about something and you know that truth, it inspires you to do something. I do think in that sense journalism is a form of activism, but it’s not always true.

One of the very interesting and exciting things about Teen Vogue is yes, young people are extremely engaging. I hate when I just say, “Young people.” The ones that but we are seeing a lot of interest in political issues that are impacting their lives and specifically around Parkland.

Whether I consider what we do as inspiring activism or not, they’re growing up in a time when media is extremely polarized. For them, they’re like, “Oh well, when people feel this way they read Breitbart.” Like, “My uncle and when I feel this way, I read Teen Vogue.” That’s not necessarily something that I support or I don’t think we need to all become Breitbart of the left.

I do think there is something there where they’re looking at, they’re very identity focused. Just in general social media may be like, “What do I identify with?” I look out there and what is the content that I identify the most with.

There is an interest in reading things that either reflect your worldview or help you understand social things that are happening that are impacting your life but you may not have the language to understand it.

Lakshmanan: What you’ve described though is something from the consumer point of view, the product you’re creating for your readers, the content they want to read. I’m curious, what about your own staff and the freelancers you work with? What are the rules or lines within which they need to operate, or are there no lines?

Mukhopadhyay: No, there’s definitely lines. I think I’m a little bit more conservative because I understand the lines of journalism and opinion writing a little bit more. There is something very special about a beauty brand that decides it wants to take on politics. There’s a messiness. [laughs]

There’s a bit of a messiness to it where a lot of my staff, they feel…

Also, I’m very invested in having a diverse staff. Many of the staff feel personally implicated in a lot of the things that they’re seeing in the news, so they have a lot of strong feelings, whether they’re the children of immigrants or they’re young black women or whatever. They feel very strongly.

I don’t feel it’s my place to curtail that experience. I would almost disagree to say that there’s ever been a time that anyone’s objective. I think people always bring themselves to the work that they do, and they always bring their own perspective to it.

My expectation is that they can have that perspective but still be able to do their job. If you’re a beat reporter, I don’t want you marching at Black Lives Matter protest, because then when you go try and talk to the police commissioner, you’re not going to be seen as a credible person to talk to.

If you’re an opinion writer, I think it’s OK if you go to the march. At the end of the day, my editors, they are people. My journalists are people. They’re living in a time where they feel passionate about what’s going on. I’m not going to moderate what they’re doing outside of the job. What I say is, “Don’t let it interfere with what’s expected on this job.”

Harwood: By the way, let me know when you want me to say something nasty so you have an excuse to get out the door.

I would like to react to one thing that she said. It’s not a disagreement, but it’s a point that I think is significant, where she talked about the media being polarized, in the same way that people talk about the parties being polarized.

One of the things that gives rise to the issue that we’re talking about today is the fact, and it is a fact, that the polarization between the two parties is not symmetrical. It is asymmetrical.

The Republican Party and the Democratic Party are not like one another. In the same way as we heard this morning, the so‑called right‑wing media and mainstream or even left‑wing media, they are not alike.

They are not mirror image analogues. One side has a much greater connection to reason, rationality, truth, facts than the other. One of the things that makes people on the right upset with the media now is that many people in the media are calling this out and making this plain.

I think that is our job. That is not taking a side in an argument. It is telling the truth. For example, if we’re in a discussion of global warming and one side says, “Climate science says X,” and the other side is a Republican senator from an oil state who walks on the floor in the Senate with a snowball and says, “That can’t be true. It’s March, and I’ve got a snowball.”

Those are not comparable arguments. We need to not shrink from saying that even if it upsets people who are on the bullshit side of that argument.

Lakshmanan: I actually took a look at that Berkman Klein Center study that the professor was talking about this morning in the 90‑minute Neiman talking about the distinct ecosystems. What was interesting is looking at it. He talks about this cluster from slightly right of center to moderate left, so Wall Street Journal all the way to Mother Jones.

Then he talks about the other cluster, which is “Fox News” to “Breitbart” to “Infowars.” He says that the first cluster, there’s a policing system. That you have to be accurate and if you’re not accurate, then everyone in your group will call you out. On the other system, it doesn’t matter. All that it has to be is do you meet the partisan message.

Like is the partisan ID there? Then yes, then it’s replicated and truth is not an issue. I was struck by the professor saying that neutrality, us trying to be neutral in this case is in effect complicity. That we’re merely amplifying lies. I’d like to hear your thoughts on that Steve because I know you’re old school in some ways.

Engelberg: Sure. First of all, to the point about so called objectivity, which I completely agree with you. To say that we are going to employ actually human beings who are going to wake up with no opinions on the issues today is ridiculous. Every single person has a viewpoint and a perspective.

It’s one of the great arguments for newsroom diversity is to get a diversity of opinions. What you said which I also agree with is it’s how you do your job. That is the fundamental question that you want to ask. Not objective neutral whatever. It’s can you look at the facts and fairly present them.

I do think we’re surely in a point where if you read the Fox website as I do, you see an awful lot of strange things. I will say this as a counterpoint on the other hand. I read a story in the Washington Examiner like month ago about the ins and outs of the steel dossier. This is quite an obsession in certain circles.

I was just curious, why does the President of United States tweeted the name Bruce Ohr. Who the heck is Bruce Ohr. Does anyone know who he is, Bruce Ohr? Anybody? Good, a couple of people. Bruce Ohr is in the Justice Department. He apparently was at some point in this process the conduit of information from the Glen Simpson GPS Fusion investigation of the Russian stuff.

He was talking to the FBI, but it was off the record. There were 302 reports of this. His wife was the chief researcher on the Russia project. You go, “Wow. High Justice Department official, off the record contacts with the FBI, his wife.” I got to say as an investigative reporter, I thought like this is a real story and nobody did anything with it.

Then about three weeks later, David Ignatius, God love him said, “You know look, I read this stuff. I know no one else does, but let me just go through it for you.” 1,500 words later, I was convinced it wasn’t a story.

The point is it took an opinion columnist. That’s a strange universe to live in where we automatically say if something is over here and it’s going down this same old road, well forget about it. My concern I suppose is yes. There are two ecosystems. We need to be aware of the fact that you shouldn’t dismiss anything out of hand I don’t think.

Harwood: Well, all I would say on that is we don’t dismiss those things out of fact. To me, that is an illustration of the asymmetry. By the way, we saw as we heard in the presentation this morning a very clear demonstration of the power of the email story on Hillary Clinton. It was perfectly obvious throughout 2016, if you actually looked at the situation and what Hillary Clinton did and what others in similar position had done, that was a minor story.

That was Hillary Clinton being selfish, being protective of information and taking an alternative channel to center communications. It was not about anything scandalous beyond that, beyond her. She’s paranoid. She has a poor relationship with the press.

That story was built up to make it look like there was some sort of criminal conspiracy, and that she was in serious jeopardy at being prosecuted which was ridiculous. There was no shot that she committed a significant crime there. It was obvious when you read the content of the emails.

The way that that was treated as a balance, largely because people thought Trump wasn’t going to win so they were trying to show that they were being tough on her and all that stuff, that was a tremendous asymmetry. I think the stuff with Bruce Ohr is another example of that.

You’ve got the president on one side with a very long history of dependence on Russian money express willingness of his senior‑most people to cooperate with Russians on the use of information funneled from Russia.

Said out loud by them in their emails, dirty financial ties between the chairman of his campaign and pro‑Putin oligarchs and forces in Ukraine, that weight on one side against on the other side, some kind of incestuous Washington connections.

The Fusion GPS is run by a couple of my former colleagues at “The Wall Street Journal.” Bruce Ohr’s wife worked there for a while. Let’s put it this way. It’s a weak tea compared to the stuff that is in plain sight on the other side.

You have a president who is going out there and saying fake news and conflicted this and 17 angry Democrats, “It’s total horseshit.” That’s the nature of the two sides. There’s like a mountain, and then there’s a little…

Lakshmanan: Molehill.

Harwood: …molehill.

Lakshmanan: [laughs] I would like to ban the word “fake news.” I hate it so much because it initially meant something which was hoaxes and false. It’s been appropriated, and repurposed, and reinvented to mean something else which is news I don’t like, news that is negative, that doesn’t represent my political point of view. I would like to ban it from the conversation that we’re doing.

Not to go too deep in those polarization partisanship question because we can have an entire discussion about that as well, but I think some of it is about certain media ecosystems, readers of those ecosystems and even the purveyors, even the reporters thinking liberal bias in the media.

Obviously, that’s at the root of the problem. I want to ask you, Samhita. Everyone on this panel, we’re all within 20 years of each other in age. I think that there are about…

Mukhopadhyay: Don’t let the blowout fool you. I’m older than I look.

Lakshmanan: I looked not. That’s how I know.

We were sort of raised in a certain notion of what is supposed to be journalism values. One of those is this term that Steve threw out earlier, objectivity. One thing that has always bothered me about that term is the question of the view from nowhere. What is objectivity?

The view from nowhere is, in a way, a privileged white male point of view as what it had been. Every person comes into a newsroom with their own life experience. What does objective even mean? How do you see it in the context of your newsroom? You say you have a diverse newsroom.

Mukhopadhyay: Yeah. To your point, I don’t think that pure objectivity is possible. I just think that we are humans. We intake media. We have opinions. We have family histories.

To me, diversity in newsroom is about expanding the view from which you can tell these stories and the knowledge and information that you start to uncover because you had a different kind of upbringing or you have a different position in this world.

Similarly, when Orlando happened, I was running a news desk that was actually focused on identity issues. It was called Identities under Madhulika Sikka at Mic. It was focused on issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. The desk was representative of the communities that we were reporting in. It was a reporting desk. We had opinion writers, but we were doing reporting.

When Orlando happened, I had a Latinx, gay, young reporter who could fly to Orlando. He got really special stories because of that and when survivors, when their families saw him. They saw him lined up next to other reporters. They felt more comfortable talking to him, right?

I still expect him to be able to tell that story. Obviously, it was emotional for him. It was difficult, but I expected him to both power through that, get the story, and come back and tell the story. That, to me, it’s not about objectivity.

The pitfall that we risk when we focus too much on objectivity is keeping newsrooms, like not letting them be diverse because we think that, “Oh, well, a woman can’t report on sexual assault if she’s a survivor because she’s relating to the story too much.”

I think we need to have faith in our reporters, [laughs] that they can actually do both and that it opens you up to a possibility and a type of storytelling that someone who may not have had that experience you have.

Lakshmanan: Steve, I want to ask you, is it time for us then to retire the notion of objectivity? If you think about it, this notion is, in a way, almost like a 65‑year‑old relic and that’s it because prior to…[laughs] Sorry. I’m not calling you a 65‑year‑old relic.

I mean the notion of objectivity.

Engelberg: That was over the line.

Lakshmanan: [laughs] Sorry. I meant in the sense that…

Engelberg: I find that very triggering.

Mukhopadhyay: It’s like, “Don’t let her drag you.” No. [laughs]

Lakshmanan: Until the ’50s, we had partisan papers in this country, at least. We had the Communist paper. We had the Labor paper. We had the pro‑business paper. There were all different kinds of papers for different political viewpoints.

This notion of network news since the 1950s, fairness doctrine, all of that, and mainstream media, in a way, is a more modern concept. Should we be retiring that and calling it something else like impartiality or accuracy, something other than objectivity?

Engelberg: Or maybe fairness. I feel like, first of all, the side door thing to that question is why do we have to be fair? Can’t we just figure out what the truth is and just tell it?

I’m in the investigations world. The first thing I would say is if we’re actually humble instead of arrogant, the notion that we’re ever going to get to the truth of an event, we’re going to know what really happened in a room where there were three people present and three people have three different memories, is ridiculous.

We’re doing approximations here. If we’re going to do an approximation of the truth and take our best shot, then I think we need to be intellectually fair, we need to be honest about what we don’t know, we need to be honest about where this stuff comes from so that the reader can do critical thinking about it. I’m not going to back down from that, even if it feels like I’m a 60‑year‑old relic.

The other thing I wanted just to point out in listening to John, because it is interesting, in the so‑called mainstream media, there are different ways to think about even the events with Hillary. I was in the “New York Times” Washington bureau in the early 1990s.

I’d just come back from Poland, and my best friend was there, a colleague, investigative reporter who was a guy named Jeff Gerth. In 1993, he dragged me to Arkansas where I covered the Whitewater scandal. The first story I ever wrote on Hillary Clinton was about how she and the Rose Law Firm shredded all of her records right before Bill ran for president.

That was my introduction to Hillary, so I did not find the story about the server to be necessarily inconsequential. I thought, from a political perspective, it told me something about her character which is that, after all these years of being burned, hiding things about herself, her reaction was to triple down.

I thought that was relevant to the voters. My perspective might be different from yours, even though we’re both in the mainstream media.

Harwood: No, I agree with you. I think that was revealing about her. In fact, I remember interviewing her before she ran for president and asking whether or not she had so much accumulated scar tissue of distrust and paranoia and all that stuff that she couldn’t effectively lead. To me, the email story illustrated that.

What it did not illustrate was a national security threat or a crime. If you looked at the stuff that was in those emails, like the so‑called national security stuff was really lame. It was circulating articles in The New York Times about stuff that was covert, that was in The New York Times, and so you circulate an article.

I remember talking to Republican staffers on the Intelligence Committee on the Hill about the small number of things that were classified that showed up in the emails that were bouncing around from her various aides.

They’re like, “Yeah, that happens when you’re dealing with national security stuff. When you’re on the non‑classified side, it’s called leakage. We audit those things, and everybody counts up.”

The point is, that was a routine bit of business, but because it was associated with a presidential candidate who had the characteristics that Steve is talking about, it somehow got inflated into something much bigger.

The bottom line was, as James Comey came out at the end in that press conference, it was not a close call. This was not a national security crime. It was an example of a character characteristic that Steve is talking about.

Let me just deal with the objectivity question. Like Steve, I don’t wish to run away from the term objective. I do not think that so‑called Liberal bias in the media is a figment of anyone’s imagination. It’s correct, for the reason that I said.

Lakshmanan: The people who come into journalism from…

Harwood: People go into Wall Street to make money. That’s what they care about. People who go into journalism go into journalism for different reasons. There is a moral onus in that.

In addition to that, journalists are more secular than the general population. I think one of the biggest failures of diversity in journalism is we don’t have very many religious people who are journalists, in addition to other kinds of diversity.

I remember sitting around with my Neiman class talking about this issue, which I was sensitive to because my dad was the ombudsman for the “Washington Post.” He was actually the first ombudsman at a major American newspaper. He wrote a lot about media bias. He thought it was real.

I remember asking people how many had voted for George H. W. Bush in the ’88 election ‑‑ this was fall of 1999 ‑‑ and nobody raised their hand. It was like, “Are you kidding?” I was like, “Yeah, journalists are left of center.”

Where we’ve gotten ourselves now is that the Republican Party has driven itself into a cul‑de‑sac that requires it to make arguments that have become increasingly disconnected from fact and reason because of the nature of their coalition and the evolution of the modern world.

The biggest source of bias, if you want to call it bias. It governs the way journalists react. One thing that all journalists have in common is they all went to college. There’s hardly any journalists now that didn’t go to college. Look at the division between the two parties right now.

The Republican Party is increasingly reliant for the votes of people who did not go to college. There’s a different perspective that goes with that. That’s a real thing. It’s just that if the bias has to do with reason, facts, and rationality, journalists have to be comfortable with that.

Lakshmanan: You heard it here, folks. Elitism is real and liberal bias is real. [laughs]

Mukhopadhyay: Can I add to that?

Lakshmanan: Yes, I do want you to add to that. I also want to circle back a little bit on this question of objectivity. I’m on the PBS editorial standards committee. We spend a year redoing the editorial standards for PBS, which is a huge process. It affects not just “PBS NewsHour,” but actually Big Bird and everything.

Engelberg: We should be objective of all else.

Lakshmanan: [laughs] At my pushing, we eliminated the word objectivity and replaced it with fairness and accuracy as other tenets. I feel strongly the word objectivity doesn’t really make sense. I think you can be fair and you must be fair, you must be accurate. Objective, objective to whom? What is that?

I want to ask you about the criticism that the media has come under in the last year, two years, about both‑sides journalism, the false equivalence. I know you want to also respond to something John said.

Mukhopadhyay: Similar to this, I have been feeling this tremendous pressure. I am less concerned about my editors being objective, or fair, or accurate. I can be there, I can manage that. Stories take on a life of their own now.

To your point about the Hillary email story, it became something else on social media. We have very serious fact‑checking processes at CondÈ. We’re not just like, “We’ll just throw it out there next to the nail polish story and it’s fine.”

We do serious reporting and have an amazing research desk, and are always asking these questions. A lot of my editors, they are young. They’re in their 20s. They think social media is everything. They think it’s the public square and, in many ways, it is. They’re afraid to say certain things because of groupthink and because of the way that certain things will be perceived, or what will happen to them or their writer, or to the brand.

To me, that’s where a lot of this conversation needs…That’s where it’s going, a little bit. We can tell these stories, but I feel this tremendous responsibility of what will happen when that story goes out there. I don’t know if that’s something an editor 20 years ago necessarily was afraid of in the same way.

Lakshmanan: Social media’s so much a piece of this. It is also, even when we don’t mean to, our personalities do come out on social media. I have to say, I don’t know if you all felt this. My friends in the audience who know that I am a Twitter addict will laugh at this concept. I was actually dragged, kicking and screaming, onto Twitter.

I didn’t want to be on Twitter. I was afraid of saying anything that could be perceived, in any way, as not an objective reporter. Bloomberg insisted, because I was doing Bloomberg TV also, they wanted everyone to be a personality and show something of yourself.

The more you go down that path of branding yourself and showing your personality, the more your real personality comes out. You start saying things that, even if you’re a reporter, are tinged with opinion. How do you manage that? You have a huge staff.

Engelberg: You’ve got to be careful. “The Times” had an interesting and somewhat embarrassing example of this recently. Their very, very good reporter, Emily Bazelon, had tweeted some very clear things about her feelings about Cavanaugh, which is fine.

She’s a magazine writer and an Op‑Ed columnist. They, then, put her on a news story. I don’t think you can do that. What I tell my people about this is, one of the costs of tweeting strong opinions about something is you can’t, then, cover it.

Lakshmanan: That was an accident of circumstance. She lives in New Haven, apparently, or she was in New Haven. They don’t have a New Haven bureau. They asked her to do it.

Engelberg: I kind of smile at this. I’m from New England. I’m not a New Yorker. Honestly, guys, 229 West 43rd Street to New Haven is an hour and 10‑minute drive.

They made it sound like it was, “We didn’t have anybody in Ouagadougou. What are we going to do? New Haven, oh my God! We had to leave Manhattan.” Come on. It’s ridiculous.

Lakshmanan: You know what? This brings us back to another point, which is real though, which is the pressure to be first and to be fast. Fast, furious, first. Yes, it maybe would have taken an hour and 10 minutes to get someone to New Haven. If she’s already there, you can imagine them saying, “Oh, Emily, she knows legal stuff. I think she’s even a lawyer. Get her to do that.”

Engelberg: I think it’s at that point, honestly, up to Emily to remember what she said on Twitter. There are people who don’t do this as actively as some. I once asked David Remnick this question. I said, “How come you’re not on Twitter?” He said, “Because I like to multi‑task, and sooner or later, I’m going to do something really stupid.”

I’m on Twitter. I’m, mostly, retweeting and terrified all the time that I’m going to screw it up. This is really tricky stuff. I understand that there is this sense that if you don’t express strong viewpoint, you’re not going to be a Twitter character. How do you, then, turn around and say, “Yeah, I call them as I see them”?

Lakshmanan: I think John is a great example of this. John does stick to the facts. We follow each other very actively on Twitter. What you do, and I think this is really interesting, is you will take something that the President said or that Mitch McConnell or someone said and you will dissect it. You will show how it is not true. I could argue, and I have argued, that journalism is not stenography.

If we simply quote what the President or someone else says, and we put it out there as a headline or the lead, most people are not going to read to the fifth paragraph where we fact check it or read to the bottom. What they’re going to remember is the headline that is the lie.

The headline that, by the way, NBC said the other day that was, “President Trump directly accuses Hillary Clinton of colluding with the Russians in 2016.” That was the headline. It makes it sound like, “Oh, maybe she did that,” as opposed to, “This is completely made up.”

Journalism isn’t stenography. You break it down. You say, “No, this is why it’s false.” In this case, it was your employer. That might have been a little bit tricky. You, then, in turn, get accused of putting out opinions. People say, “Oh, John Harwood, he’s being lefty.” Even though what you’re really doing is fact‑checking.

Harwood: Right. I don’t care about that criticism when we’re talking about putting facts out. That’s the asymmetry that I’m talking about. There’s a whole lot of stuff coming out of the Republican Party that’s not based in fact.

For example, you had the administration claiming, through the campaign, that it was going to propose a tax plan that did not provide any tax cuts to people at the top. None. Not just less than people in the middle but none. They continued to maintain that all the way through.

Every single economist who analyzed their plan it was not true. They kept saying it. You point that out and people say, “Oh, you’re so negative about their tax plan.” No, I’m telling the truth about their tax plan. By the way, it’s not just Trump.

CNBC had a debate of Republican presidential candidates three years ago. I was stunned at the willingness of so many people on the stage to straight‑up lie in response to questions. One of my colleagues asked Ben Carson why he had been promoting a quack diabetes cure, something like that. He said, “I didn’t do that.” He was on their website.

One of my colleagues asked Donald Trump, “Why did you say so‑and‑so about Mark Zuckerberg?” He said, “I never said that.” It was on his website at that moment.

I asked Marco Rubio…He was the candidate of the Walmart republicans. I said, “How come your tax plan, if you look at how it’s analyzed, even by the most sympathetic authorities, gives higher tax breaks to people at the top by a lot, than people in the middle?” He said, “That’s not true.” I said, “It is true.” I read it to him.

Lakshmanan: [laughs] All right but here’s the problem with this. You were…

Harwood: When you point that stuff out…

Lakshmanan: You get accused of being a partisan.

Harwood: Right. I don’t care about that. I’m not going to shrink from those facts for the purpose of making other people think I’m being fair to them. It’s not.

Lakshmanan: This is the both‑sides journalism that gets criticized. Again, I wonder should we be activists for the truth. That’s our job. Our number one job is to tell the truth and whatever the consequences are. We are in an asymmetrical environment where, if you’re telling the truth, you’re seen as being biased.

My issue is we shouldn’t be amplifying lies. I really don’t think we should be amplifying lies. Then again, we get accused of being partisans.

Steve, I want to ask you, are there some issues here that have already been litigated? Haven’t we litigated that all races are equal, women are equal, LGBT rights? Why is taking a position on those, saying, “Yes, I’m in favor of women’s rights. Yes, I think people are equal,” why is that something that is banned in some newsrooms?

I know this because when I was at “Poynter” I went to newsrooms and had to counsel people as the ethics counselor, where old‑school news editors were like, “Come in here and tell my people not to put that on Twitter.” I said, “I’m not going to tell them not to put, ‘You shouldn’t shoot black people,’ on Twitter.” I’m not going to tell them not to say that.

We did come up with some stuff where I said, “I think some things are human rights issues.” Yes, you can tell your reporters, “Don’t put something for a Democratic candidate,” or maybe, “Don’t put something against the NRA.” Some things are human rights issues. Would you allow your reporters to make statements like, “No, they are not good people on both sides of the Neo‑Nazi debate”?

Engelberg: Sure. Come on. I don’t think this is actually a tremendous problem. I don’t think that’s the issue. To me, the larger, more interesting question is will you get out to the point about repeating lies? We have done intense coverage of the Neo‑Nazi movement over the last year.

We’ve had an internal debate about to what extent, when you cover this group, are you giving it more oxygen? Is the very coverage of the lies and the outrage and the extraordinary racism, is that a mistake? I actually don’t think that it is. Interesting how journalists come from certain backgrounds, certain opinions.

I’m a first generation American. My father was a refugee from Nazi Germany. Under‑covering the rise of Nazis was something I personally feel is a bad idea. Other journalists sitting in my chair might not feel that as viscerally. I think you got to balance that.

Trump stood up the other day and said something that, I think, hasn’t even been covered. Correct me if I’m wrong, John. I may have lost a half a day here somewhere. He said, at a rally, “Every Democratic member of the Senate has signed up to a bill called Make Our Borders Open Bill.”

Harwood: Yes, that was covered. It was a complete lie.

Engelberg: Yes, it’s a complete lie. The fact that the President of the United States says that, I don’t think we should ignore it. I don’t think we should say, “Well, that’s a lie. Why do we have to cover it?” I think we have to say, “The President of the United States is lying at the top of his lungs. And, there’s no such bill.” We need to say that. That’s a story.

One of the things that he has said pretty openly was quoted today. He wants to, “flood the zone.” As Stephen Madden put it, “flood the zone with shit.” That’s how you deal with the media. It’s our job to keep up with that and call him each and every time that he does it.

Harwood: To be fair, the President says fewer things that are true than that are not true.

Engelberg: That’s true.

Lakshmanan: This is what Glenn Kessler has proven with “The Washington Post” fact checker. It’s averaging nine false and misleading statements per day.

Engelberg: Averaging nine but he’s had days of a hundred. He has his ups.

Lakshmanan: Let me ask you, Steve, there are some people who suggest that we need to, then, write our stories in a different way. That the old, traditional way we have of writing stories is, potentially, outdated. George Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist, Maria Konnikova from “The New Yorker.” Other people have argued that the human brain can only hold so many thoughts.

That’s the idea, that we hear a headline and even if there’s a fact check, fact checking can amplify and repeat the lie. The other way to do it is the so‑called “truth sandwich.” To state what is the fact, then state what some politician said, that’s a lie, then restate the fact.

That that’s a better way to write a story so that people understand what’s actually true. What do you think about that? It would mean a sort of upending of the way we do journalism.

Engelberg: I’ve always been very suspicious of formulas. When people said write an inverted pyramid, I said, “Oh my God, that’s so dumb.”

Now, I think, we all agree it’s really dumb. I saw the other day, I think it was CNN or somebody, they had these crayons or whatever. Somebody said, “After mocking Doctor Blasey Ford, White House says Trump didn’t mock Blasey Ford.” That was one sentence. They didn’t need any sandwich for that.

Lakshmanan: CNN is famous for that.

Engelberg: Somebody’s having some fun there. Yes, we have to cull them in a way that, in this time‑starved society we live in where people are reading tweets, 140 characters, headlines, they get the essence of the story.

However you do that, that’s the goal. Specific techniques can vary from story to story. The goal ought to be that, even at a glance, you get the point. There is no bill to open the borders the Democrats are sponsoring. That has to come through.

Lakshmanan: Before we go to audience questions, I want to ask you, Steve, because you have a unique perspective at ProPublica of sometimes having partnerships with outside organizations that give money to non‑profit journalism.

I, now, have entered this realm as of a month ago in the Pulitzer Center. What do you do when you have a reporting partnership with the AARP? They are, actually, I think, a registered lobbying group and [inaudible 46:49]. What do you do with their funding?

Engelberg: We’ve never worked with a group that fits that description yet. We would be pretty reluctant to. This is a whole conversation about non‑profit journalism. People say, “Oh my God! You’re getting money from people who have opinions. It’s so much worse than when Ford Motor Company and the defense industry funded your publication.” I say, “OK.”

They had opinions too. In both examples, the point is, first of all, number one, look at the editorial independence of the pride. Are there firewalls between the people who give and the people who do the journalism, the people who set the agenda?

Then, I do think at some point, yes, an advocacy organization, from my perspective, is not an appropriate publishing partner. We have not, to this date, done that. We have donors who have opinions. If you look up our donor list and you look up the Democratic Party donor list, you’ll find some overlap.

Lakshmanan: Fair enough. Yes?

Harwood: I’d like to make one more interjection which is that I think ProPublica is one of the greatest things that has happened to journalism in my career.

Engelberg: Thank you, John.

Lakshmanan: Absolutely. It’s set a real example for other fantastic non‑profit journalism investigative journalism in other places. I also love “The Texas Tribune,” which is a mini version.

Engelberg: I will say, one other thing that we have tried to practice, in terms of all of this stuff, radical transparency, once you get used to it, is actually not so painful. Actually, you can level with your audience. They’re not going to fall to the floor in a dead faint.

We, actually, made a terrible mistake about eight or nine months ago. We ran a lengthy explanation of why we made a mistake. We owned up to it. I’m still breathing.

Lakshmanan: I actually think radical transparency from the front end is even better. I really, hugely shout out to “The Washington Post,” to Steve Ginsberg, one of the political editors there, and the whole series they did on Roy Moore.

What I love about this, and I’ve written about this, is in their very first story about Roy Moore, the series that won the Pulitzer for them, they had this very fat paragraph in which they said, “How did we get this story? Initially, we sent a reporter down and she was going to be talking in Alabama about Trump voters. Then she heard this story about Roy Moore. Then she found these women independently. They didn’t know each other. We didn’t pay for it.”

It was a whole explanation of the process of journalism. I think that is vitally important. Ordinary, smart people who don’t happen to be journalists do not understand how we do our job. They don’t understand that anonymous sources are not anonymous to us.

I’ve had so many people say to me, “How can we trust you with your anonymous sources. You don’t even know who they are.” I’m like, “Ah! That’s not what an anonymous source is.”

People literally think that someone’s calling us up with a sock over the phone, mumbling something and we’re writing it up. I am really an evangelist for we need to put process into our stories so it’s baked in and people understand how we get it. That’s how people are going to trust us more. I hope you’re all doing that.

Transparency equals trust. That’s how we’re going to rebuild and restore trust in journalism. We could have a whole other conversation about how some people never trusted us, like minority communities. What do we have to do to build trust not just restore it?

Let’s open it up so all of these wonderful, smart people can ask questions. I hope that someone who is an overseas demon because half of the Niemans are from abroad. I hope some of them will ask questions about how this relates to their own countries. We’re quite privileged to have this debate, even in the way we’re doing.

The lady’s got the ball there. Go for it.

Lipinski: This is how this works. You take the catch box, ask your question, and then throw it wherever the next question is. It will not injure you. Do not be afraid.

Lakshmanan: It’s fun, the crash box. Tell us who you are and what country you’re from, or what year Nieman you are.

Beena Sarwar: My name is Beena Sarwar.

Lakshmanan: Hi, Beena.

Sarwar: I’m Neiman 2006 from Pakistan. I live in Cambridge now. For the last few years, I have been here. It’s good to see a few South Asians here. My question‑comment is that you’re discovering this journalism‑activism stuff now. We’ve been doing it for years.


Sarwar: In countries…

Lakshmanan: Starting what?

Harwood: Journalism‑activism.

Sarwar: Sorry, did I not say that clearly?

Engelberg: Speak up a little bit.

Lakshmanan: I couldn’t hear it.

Sarwar: Sorry.

Lakshmanan: You’re saying we’re discovering that journalism and activism…

Sarwar: I’m saying that in countries where we have lived under despotic rules, military dictatorships, all kinds of non‑democracies or democracies pretending to be democracies, we haven’t had the luxury of objectivity.

You cannot sit on the fence, and you are learning that now, because now you have, I’m sorry, a close to fascist person in power. What I want to say is that I want to avoid using those labels. I, as an activist, and I teach journalism now, I teach foundations of journalism.

As I’m teaching my students, I’m realizing that my activism actually in journalism, I have to temper it by not labeling and name‑calling. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to not call a fascist a fascist. It’s something that I thought the conversation was thought provoking.

I guess the international Niemans here know a lot of this already.

Lakshmanan: That’s scary. That’s scary. Thank you.

Sarwar: Do you want me to throw it down?

Lakshmanan: Do you want to throw it down?

Engelberg: Right down here.

Lakshmanan: Throw it down.

Let’s try not to kill anyone.

Engelberg: Some releases for the audience.

Lakshmanan: Michael has a question here.

Maybe we should walk the crash box instead of throwing it.

No more crash box. Michael? [laughs]

Engelberg: This looks like every newsroom softball game ever.

Lakshmanan: That’s true, so true.

That’s why we’re journalists and not baseball players.

Michael Anti:  Hello?


Anti: I think my colleague in the United States would more and more…

Lakshmanan: Mike, would you want to introduce yourself and your country? Michael, do you want to introduce yourself and your country if people don’t know you?

Anti: I’m from China. I think my colleague in the United States is more and more closed to understand the situation in China because the self‑censorship thing, we practice for generations, so we know exactly even before Trump’s become the president, we already practice some skill now your guys doing in DC or in Europe.

I think that’s the point. I want to say, but it’s not my question. My question is I think it’s relevant to the first speech of this morning when he said, “Actually now content is no important.”

The numbers of people and the network effect is more important than people because the number one issue in 2016 is not about the mainstream media, whether it’s good or not, it’s disconnection. “New York Times” cannot deliver the news to the Central America. That’s the problem.

That means if you can only send the news to the small portion of the people, whatever you do, it doesn’t matter. We come up very [inaudible 54:43]. When you try to expand your readership to more people, you also at same time should reduce the quality or the complicity of the news. You cannot do both.

You cannot say, “I will do the best and transparent and also very objective news but also not driving people out.” No. I talked to my friend at The New York Times and said, “If you, “New York Times” try to use, the first professor said to expand more people, you will become ‘US Today.'” I didn’t say US Today is not good.

You are no more New York Time. The people. Sometime you read the New York Time, you should have at least the college degree. US Today is based on the high school education system. I think that’s the problem.

At the same time, one as a democratic journalist, we want to serve as many people, as many [inaudible 55:44] people of the country. At the same time, I also want this news as more qualified. How can you solve this problem?

I think because we are already in China now has the problem. We want to serve more people because people read the free news in the WeChat, but once we try to expand that because our news is want to use a double check fact checking and also want to make things very close to truth.

People avoid reading that. They want to read a more sentimental news. How can you solve the problem?

Lakshmanan: Thank you. Does anyone want to comment on that?

Engelberg: I think you’ve got some issues there.

Lakshmanan: Samhita?

Mukhopadhyay: Just to crystallize the question, we can fact check until we’re blue in the face, but if people aren’t reading it, it doesn’t matter. I was thinking that a little bit.

When you were talking about how it’s important for us, why we have to fact‑check, specifically Trump saying to an audience of people and everyone cheering that the Democrats have all signed onto this bill. The people that believe that don’t read ProPublica. It’s going to be very hard to get ProPublica to them.

They believe The New York Times is fake news. Many of the people that believe that may not read any of our outlets. I have the best shot because one of their kids might. [laughs] One of their teen daughters might be reading “Teen Vogue.” [laughs]

It’s something that we think about all the time. This question of partisan outlets, to a certain extent, teens ‑‑ and I’ve noticed this with my staff or anyone younger than 25 ‑‑ they actually really hate the Democrats. They’re very skeptical of the Democratic Party as well. It’s not partisan.

They just have these values, like, “I shouldn’t go in debt for going to college. I deserve a job when I graduate.” That’s why they like Bernie Sanders so much. They’re very values‑driven in that sense. That’s something I think about a lot, in terms of the types of stories that we’re telling and the types of political issues we take on.

That it will have a resonance that goes beyond Trump or anti‑Trump. I don’t know how successful we’ve been at that. My highest traffic post ‑‑ this is crazy ‑‑ for August, off the record, [laughs] for the politics section was an explainer on what anarchy is, which was really interesting.

We’ve had a similar success with explainers on socialism or explainers on what unions are ‑‑ issues that go beyond one party or the other party. I find that that, especially for young people that are so distrustful of government right now, they’re so distrustful of institutional anything, I find that those types of weighs‑in are really resonating.

Lakshmanan: Your next one you’re going to have to do is one on that thing, the guy who tried to blow himself up to describe that thing where you have your leaders chosen at random. That’s the next explainer you have to do.

Whatever that is. Someone can tell me. I forgot. [laughs]

Mukhopadhyay: The next explainer. Our other biggest weigh‑in ‑‑ and this is why I say I have the best shot [laughs] of many outlets of reaching these audiences ‑‑ is pop culture. The kind of interest that Americans in general have with pop culture and with celebrity. Our most engaged content is about “Riverdale.” I don’t know who watches Riverdale. [laughs]

The new “90210.” My hope is that when we write about pop culture, people come for the Riverdale but they stay for some of the political coverage.

Lakshmanan: Great.

Lipinski: I saw somebody up there. Sorry.

Engelberg: The catch.

Audience Member:  Throw it!

Lipinski: You can throw it off.

Betsy O’Donovan: I won’t be throwing this. I’m Betsy O’Donovan. I was a Nieman fellow in 2013.


O’Donovan: I was a community journalism fellow. I have a question for another fellow sitting a little further up. One of the things that really concerns me in this conversation is the level of contempt that I hear for people who were my neighbors.

I’m from North Carolina. I’ve lived in conservative communities most of my life. A lot of the people I know are people who are consuming increasingly propaganda as to news. They’re not bad people. They’re not inherently immoral people. They’re people who are responding to fears in a deep sense of loss. We see that coverage a lot.

My question is actually for Hodding Carter.

Hodding, I’m sorry. I’m totally putting you on the spot. Because Hodding’s experience was in the South during the civil rights era, and speaking truth to communities that didn’t really want to hear what was being said and what people had to say. We don’t really have a parallel for where we are in America now.

Hodding, I would be curious if you have anything to say about how community, news organizations, and journalists broadly should be grappling with connecting and building trust with audiences who have this sense that the media has contempt for them, which is a thing I keep hearing over, and over, and over from friends and former neighbors.

Do you mind?

Hodding Carter: No, I don’t mind.

I was sitting here recognizing that there are five of us who were Niemans 50 years and more ago. Thinking eventually we would be asked to do something besides pray to prove that we knew what that was once upon a time.

No, I was, just to be very clear about it, the last thing from either objective or, in fact, altogether taken by the need for balance when dealing with the society in which I lived which was the Mississippi of the old days. There was no such thing as balance when it came to dealing with the kind of crap that was the standard political, in fact, cultural and social fair at the time.

The other part, however, was to go to your question, I also knew that as brilliant as I was on every subject…

How as deserving of my opinion as everyone was, they also deserved to get a lot of other things which were called something closer to fact than opinion.

Some of them, if you hammered them enough with fact, would begin to understand that what was going on was not acceptable if they thought they were children of a certain myth in a mythology and a notion of a country or even a notion of religion.

I was sitting here thinking [laughs] about Dick Harwood and how we had bitten our heads off for part of this conversation. Thinking we were as usual business in the business of worshipping our neighbors while having this discussion and thinking about what it was like when the days of Kovach as a news editor and not a Nieman curator who would’ve bit your head off for half this conversation on the belief that, in fact, it wasn’t important what you thought and that you had to be heard about what you thought on Twitter.

What was important was to try to get facts to the people you’re serving, not with your all‑important opinions but with what’s going on in the world.

I’ve got to tell you, one of the problems right now is that we are surrounded by our own neighbors. We love it. There was a day that “The Times,” “The Post,” and everyone else piously told the world they would not allow their people to go on talk television ‑‑ would not allow them.

I remember one by one as that broke away. All of a sudden, those who most protested their virtue were on the Sunday morning shows. I never had any virtue. I believed that it was perfectly OK to be in the American tradition of journalism which was always partisan. It was always involved.

We had this little cute period from about 1930 until day before yesterday in which there was some things you all grew up in and Niemans loved to expand. Most of the time, American journalism was about positions and was about the last thing from objectivity.

You know what? The Republic not only survived, it thrived, came through a horrible period of terrible journalism. Going to your point, part of it was based on the idea that, in fact, in a big city, there ought to be 13 highly partisan newspapers instead of just three.

That is to say, Manhattan of the old days in which the newspapers were crap for the most part but offered enough variety that people could find that diversity all of you like to preach about.

We need a lot of involved journalism but it has to be involved in such a way that those who are not in our little tight circle of certainties will think that somebody is talking to their truths as well.

Harwood: I would just like to add one thing in response to my colleague from 2013. If you heard contempt for your neighbors, that is certainly not what I intended to convey. I don’t think my colleagues did either. I’m talking about contempt for bogus information being fed to those people.

It shows respect for those people, not contempt, to point out that MS‑13 is not taking over Vasquez or the country. We don’t have hordes of criminal rapists coming across the border, or to point out that the tax card that was sold in their name actually provided de minimis benefit to them, or to point out that the president is not bringing coal back. That’s not happening.

Numerous other ways in which there are a set of arguments being made to people that are not correct. In fact, many of the people supporting President Trump are those who would be most grievously affected by his policies.

An underlying driver, not the only one, but an underlying driver of the alienation that we’re talking about is the decline of an economy where people with lower levels of education could make a good living readily out of high school.

There is a global redistribution in which low wage labor is being employed in other parts of the world. What’s happening is a tremendous stratification of income in the United States. There are people who correctly believe that this economy is not working for them.

Accurate information about what may make their lives better is something that journalists are for and trying to encourage. We’re pushing back against stuff that they’re being fed which is not true.

Alicia Stewart: Hi, I’m Alicia, class of 2015.


Stewart: Thanks. So honored to be part of the best class. Thank you.


Stewart: This conversation, so many of us in this room have had it so many times. We’ve been a part of it. [laughs] We’ve muted it. The thing I feel like has been so central to what Betsy just alluded to and Mr. Hodding just alluded to is just the idea of how our journalism, particularly in an American context, started as partisan.

With that thought and with that idea, and how objectivity grew out of a very limited idea of whose stories were even relevant and whose narrative was even worthy of telling, I’m curious how each of you would reimagine that fairness and accuracy in each of the contexts you work in today that might leave the journalists in the room with something to take back to their newsrooms.

Lakshmanan: Samhita, you want to start out?

Mukhopadhyay: Sure. Reimagining, first and foremost, my priority is to have a newsroom that reflects the diversity of America and the communities that we’re reporting on. When we talk about diversity in newsrooms, it’s very much about the reporters. It’s not about anyone at the senior levels like editors, editorial directors, or even executive editor.

Having that diversity at all ranks…because that allows for opportunity for mentorship, and making sure that journalists that may not have access to an amazing education like here [laughs] is still getting the skills and still getting the mentorship they need to accurately and fairly tell these stories.

It’s been an uphill battle to show the case why we need resources to do that to actually both have the diversity that we need but also make sure that they get the same type of rigorous training and mentorship to effectively flourish in those spaces.

Engelberg: All right. Well, I fully agree with all of that, but I’ll throw out one other thought in terms of reimagining. I would urge anybody in the world of journalism to try to be open to ideas that are not familiar. I’ll give you three examples, one quite strange. It just came to mind listening to this.

Example number one, looking at two of my former Oregonian colleagues. I was once in a news meeting at “The Oregonian” which is headquartered in the People’s Republic of Portland. I looked at a room of about 35 editors of various levels. I said, “Does anyone in here disagree with the statement that whatever the problem is, a government program is the answer?”

Everybody said, “Of course. Government programs and higher taxes are the answer to any social ill you can think of.” I said, “You know, not everybody who reads the paper outside of Portland agrees with this.” It’s simply interesting. That is a perspective. Maybe it’s not…

Example number two, everybody says, hearing this comment about Bernie Sanders reminded me everybody doing the campaign that is still mainstream media opinion about Bernie and his program is, “Oh, my God. None of the numbers add up. Don’t be ridiculous. Medicare for all plus free college tuition, how can we, as a country, afford that? It’s ridiculous.”

I’ll tell you what. If you took that tax cut that they just gave the billionaires and put all that money into it ‑‑ Am I wrong, John? You know the numbers better than I do ‑‑ I think you could do a lot of the crazy, crazy stuff that Bernie was talking about.

You really have a very constrained conversation in our country. It’s not a conversation like you might have in Europe or elsewhere which goes from a real democratic socialism all the way over to pure, wild capitalism. We’re basically from wild capitalism to pretty wild capitalism in that sort of conversation.

On the left or on the right, open your mind. The last thing I just thought of listening to this conversation, I started thinking that the great example of this in our past history is McCarthyism.

Here, you have a guy standing up and saying, “The American government, they are spies. I had the 200 names. We all know the 200 names,” were nonsense. You didn’t have any names. I’m already sitting here thinking back to my [inaudible 71:52] and intelligence reporter. I said to myself, “On the other hand, we now know the Russian had spies all over the government.”

What would the right balance coverage of that issue have been in McCarthy’s period? Certainly, it wouldn’t have been to say, “It’s all lies. It’s all bullshit. There’s nothing more we need to say here.” Actually, we now know from the intercepts in the Russian files there was some serious spies. The H‑bomb design found its way to Moscow from America.

Harwood: Are you saying McCarthy got screwed?

Engelberg: Absolutely.

Like Trump, McCarthy got screwed. McCarthy’s totally wrong, but with the great journalist of that time have been able to write a story that somehow said, “McCarthy’s completely full of it, but it’s not that there’s no problem ever.” That’s a much more difficult story to write than, “The Russians own the state department, or there are no Russians.”

Harwood: I would just say I don’t feel like I have an adequate answer to her question because I’m not sure what a reimagining would produce. We’re all prisoners of our own experience. We’re all prisoners of our bias, our worldview.

To me, our job as journalists is to try to be conscious of where we’re coming from, try to understand the picture in full of the issue or subject we’re talking about, fairly present legitimate arguments on all sides while not crediting things that we know to be untrue.

I do not yearn for a partisan press or a more activist press. I am confident in the way that Hodding expressed that if you present people the truth as best you can discern it, the society will evolve in the way it wants to evolve. You would hope that it would evolve in a way that reflects what you consider morally appropriate values.

It’s funny. You’ve been talking about my Twitter feed and Ann Marie has as well. I don’t express any normative opinions on issues at all. I don’t say whether social security benefits are the right amount, or should be higher, or should be lower, but if somebody wants to cut them, I will explain that that’s what they’re doing.

The issue of, “What’s the right level for the federal deficit?” I don’t take a position on that, but if the Trump administration, as it has and continues to saying, “We aren’t making the deficit increase with our tax cut,” when it plainly is in real time in front of our face, we let people know that.

Lakshmanan: You fact‑checked it. You’re fact‑checking it.

Lipinski: OK, can we ask one…?

Lakshmanan: I have a brief answer to that too which is the American Press Institute has a program that’s going on now called basically Deep Listening. Jeff Sonderman, I can put you in touch with him if you’re interested in that. I think that part of it goes to listening to communities, the communities that you cover.

I completely agree with what Samhita said and everyone has said, having diverse newsrooms and diversity of every kind across the political spectrum, across the educational spectrum, across the religious and value spectrum I think is really important. Then deeply listening to communities and understanding what it is that they want covered.

The Trusting News Project that Joy Mayer and Lynn Walsh run has some absolutely fantastic resources about how you can build trust and listening with your communities by engaging them in a real way, not just talking at them. I’m a big advocate of that along with radical transparency.

Kalpana Jain:  My name is Kalpana Jain. I was a journalist in India for many, many years. I’m from the class of 2009 so I have to say that, the best class ever. I want to come back to some of the international perspectives that my friend Beena started off with.

I want to first talk about, just a little bit, on what…we’ve all faced it. Yes, we are the future.

What we did during the emergency and how fairness, objectivity, accuracy, was reflected by editors when the government tried to clamp down on the press, they actually had one day a front page which had nothing, and then an editorial that was just left blank with a black border. That was just such a powerful message. You didn’t have to say anything.

Coming back to the point that I want to make here is a lot of this has been talk about partisan politics and politics. A lot of us cover politics but in a different way in covering issues.

When I say, “Social justice issues,” I want to clarify it. Issues of very deep poverty, issues of HIV/AIDS, issues of children rotting in jails, issues of women dying, issues of just desperation, helplessness, and the stories that we all cover as journalists.

How do we show objectivity and how do we turn away from those stories when you know that these 10 kids out there will die if you don’t take some steps which is just going and reporting on them.

I’ve heard a lot of my friends and colleagues say, “Well, you don’t touch the story. You don’t do anything. You just stand there and you report.” I’m sorry. I’m a human being and I’m in this because I feel something for them and because I feel is why I’m a journalist and I can write on them.

I don’t understand this thing about distance from the story out there because you cannot have that if you’re reporting on that story. I don’t know, what are the comments here? I’d love to know. That was my point.

Lakshmanan: It doesn’t feel like there are two sides to the issue of child poverty. I don’t think anyone’s in favor of child poverty. I agree in that respect.

Engelberg: Two points to that. One, in terms of this question of objectivity, just to be clear, my news organization was the one that got the tape of the kids being separated from their parents.

We never had a thought when we presented that to insert five fat paragraphs saying, “But on the other hand, there is immigration that’s illegal and these people are undocumented.” No. Sometimes the story does not “need balancing.”

The question you raise though is a really interesting one. We just published something relating to some horrible situation in Liberia involving a school for girls. The people we were investigating came back and raised a question about the reporter.

They said, “Did you at some moment in the reporting ever say to the person you were interviewing who was in the terrible straits that you might be able to know somebody who could help them?”

The implication was we were bribing them with the offer of help. That would be unethical in journalism. As it turned out, it hadn’t been said anyway. I must admit, I asked several of my colleagues at ProPublica who were editing this.

I said, “What if we did? What if we did? What if we said to some 12‑year‑old who’s selling herself on the street in Monrovia, Liberia, ‘When this interview is over, I might know somebody who might be able to get you out from under this bridge.'”

I don’t know. Is that wrong? From my opinion, I’m with you. I don’t think reporters should just walk off then and say, “Well, I’ve got the quote I need. We’re done here.” I don’t know. There is a view in journalism ethics that would say, “Well, you can’t give anyone any inducement so how can you offer to help the 12‑year‑old?”

Lakshmanan: As you just put it, it wasn’t an inducement or it wouldn’t have been, had it happened, and it didn’t happen. Had it happened, it wouldn’t have been an inducement. It would’ve been like, “The person has done the interview and now…”

I think plenty of journalists in this room, I’m sure, have interviewed people in dire straits and afterward probably given them a phone number of a social service agency or something, which is maybe different than…They’re not opening up their billfold and whipping out dollars.

I do think there is a distinction and I do see we’re human beings first. Do you remember the Pulitzer Prize‑winning or World Press Prize‑winning photograph of the baby and the vulture? A lot of people said, “Oh, well, why didn’t that guy move the baby first and took the picture?”

In fact, it was all within the grounds of a refugee camp so it’s not like the child was in the middle of nowhere. That photographer, it’s a more complicated story, he obviously had other issues as well but ended up committing suicide later.

I think that there was a lot of pressure and pain from…many journalists in this room can talk about PTSD from being in refugee camps and seeing people in terrible straits. I think we agree with you with what you say.

Engelberg: There was an incident involving the host of Reveal who saw this.

Lakshmanan: Al Letson.

Engelberg: Yeah, who was at a march where somebody was being beaten up and he just leapt in and tackled the guy. I don’t know. So what? We’re supposed to watch people get beaten? I don’t know. What do you think?

Harwood: I was just trying to think about that in the context of, say, the American civil rights movement, when the guy…in that famous picture in the Globe with the guy with the flagpole hitting the African American. Did the photographer then tackle the guy, stop him from doing that?

Or when my dad covered protests against civil rights in the South, did they intervene when people were spitting on black kids walking into school in Little Rock? I don’t think they did, and I guess in most contexts I would say they shouldn’t.

But, those are hard calls. Mostly, Americans ‑‑ and I count myself among them ‑‑ have had the luxury of practicing journalism in a relatively affluent, relatively safe society where there aren’t that many life and death calls that journalists have to make in terms of what they’re encountering on a day‑to‑day basis. Those are tough questions, I don’t have great answers.

Lakshmanan: Do we have one short, last question as we wrap up? This lady here.

Philippa Green:  Thank you, I’ll try and make it short. I’m Philippa Green from class of ’99 and from South Africa, the same country as the photographer who took the picture of the vulture and the bird, who had been taking pictures of a lot of the uprisings before, which had been very tough.

I have a question about anonymous sources and I’ll try and give 30‑40 seconds of context. During apartheid, people fought on two sides easily. There was partisanship and there was unashamed partisanship in many respects and the press was as divided as the society because there was a real wrong that was being done.

In democracy, it’s got more complicated and the last decade has really seen a huge degree of corruption and looting by politicians from the public purse. One of the really big things that has undermined the democracy is the destruction of the revenue services.

One of the key players in that has been the biggest Sunday newspaper in the country, who a few years ago ran a series of stories on a so‑called rogue unit tax official setting up brothels, spying on people, etc. When I read it, I wasn’t involved in the story and I wasn’t working in the newspaper.

I immediately had suspicions because I knew a lot of the people. But what emerged, that over 18 months they ran these stories and all of those people were then kicked out of the revenue service by a new bus.

It’s emerged that the whole thing was a false, the revenue services collapsed, the president, the president of the country had another job, being paid a million rand a month and wasn’t paying tax on it. One of these officials had gone too with [inaudible 85:11], had gone to ask him to settle his taxes. It was what spread corruption all over.

The question is this. The journalists are now saying that the newspaper should go before the judicial commission and basically disclose their sources so that one could get to the bottom of the campaign. What do you do with anonymous sources who deliberately mislead you for political reasons or for reasons of corruption?

Lakshmanan: Wow, great question.

Engelberg: I’m pretty clear on this myself and I felt that The New York Times will tell you the same thing and that we feel this way at ProPublica. The grant of anonymity is not a blanket immunity forever. It’s a contract, I believe, between the journalist and the source.

I’m going to ask you questions, you’re going to ask for anonymity, I’m going to give you anonymity but you’re going to tell the truth. If you tell me one thing on background and then stand up in public and start lying about it, our deal is off, we’re done. I don’t think you owe any duty ethically to people who lie to you about fundamental things. As far as I’m concerned, blow them up.

Harwood: I agree 100 percent.

Lakshmanan: Absolutely. This has happened recently. There have been some cases in the US where news organizations have exposed anonymous sources because the anonymous sources were found to be lying and misrepresenting.

Please join me in thanking our fantastic panel and in absentia, Samhita.

Thank you so much.