AMANDA GHANOONI: Welcome. I'm Amanda Ghanooni from Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York City. We hope this finds you and your loved ones safe and healthy. During these unprecedented times we know it's important to continue the mission of the Council, providing a forum on pressing ethical issues confronting our world.
Carnegie New Leaders, a program based at Carnegie Council, was created to connect early and mid-career professionals from all work sectors to that guiding mission and to examine the ongoing topics of our generation. Through these conversations with leading experts we have addressed issues of climate change, artificial intelligence, mass surveillance, migration, and many critical issues in foreign policy. Our focus is always to use ethics as a lens to this investigation.
Like most of our peer organizations and friends we prefer in-person events, but we are glad you joined us here on Zoom this evening. Tonight's format will be 30 to 35 minutes of moderated discussion and 30 minutes of Q&A.
It is my pleasure to introduce our moderator for the evening, Sam Jordan. She is the president of the Carnegie New Leaders DC chapter and a member of the Advisory Council leadership team. She is also a client leader at IBM. In her role she oversees the adoption of agile techniques and IT modern innovation efforts. Previously she was at the Regulatory Economics Group, LLC, an economic litigation consulting firm.
Thank you so much. At this point, I would like to hand this over to her in Washington, DC.
SAM JORDAN: Great. Thanks, Amanda. I appreciate it. As Amanda just said, my name is Sam Jordan. I'm president of the Carnegie New Leaders in Washington, DC.
Before we get into this discussion and I introduce our panelists I do want to provide a bit of a backdrop to this discussion. If you're like me, you are experiencing a little bit of COVID-19 fatigue since we're all responsible people and well versed in the current crisis, but I did want to provide a bit of a backdrop from an ethical lens, since we are the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and this is truly an international affair.
FiveThirtyEight presented a poll on April 16 that showed on average 56 percent of Americans said they were at least somewhat confident in the government on coronavirus, but given that the term "government" is all-encompassing, so it incorporates multiple individuals, different entities, and different organizations, it is important to break that down. In the same article, FiveThirtyEight showed Americans overwhelmingly have confidence in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) while only 23 percent said they have high levels of trust in what the president is telling the public. Dan and Mei, given that the media is the conduit through which we, the public, receive information from both the CDC and the Trump administration on matters of our personal and public safety, I think it's incredibly important to evaluate the relationship between the media, government, and public through this ethical lens.
Given that, we're going to move to introducing our panelists, who will be assisting me with this discussion. First we have Daniel Lippman, who is a reporter covering the White House and Washington for Politico. He was previously co-author of Politico's Playbook. If you're like me, that is something that you read almost every morning. So we have Daniel to thank partially for that.
We also have Mei Fong of The Center for Public Integrity, where she is the director of communications and strategy. It will become very apparent quickly why we invited Mei to this panel. Mei is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for International Reporting. When there was tightening of censorship that led to a scrapping of a Chinese edition of Mei's book on one-child policy in China, Mei released a free digital version in Chinese, paying for it through an innovative crowdfunding initiative. Her efforts led her to being named a "Top 50 Influencer on U.S.-China Relations" by Foreign Policy magazine.
As you'll see, we are in very good hands for this discussion. There is a lot of expertise here.
To start, what I'll do is give Daniel and Mei two minutes to discuss how COVID-19 has affected their roles and the way in which they cover the news. We'll start with you, Daniel. How has this current crisis affected your role and the way in which you cover news?
DANIEL LIPPMAN: Thanks so much for having me, Sam. I'm honored to be here.
In terms of how my role has been affected, I have never been busier with my job because this is a 9/11-type emergency, where it's all-encompassing. There is basically no other news to cover since it's hitting every part of our society in terms of the government response to try to prevent a Great Depression and the government health response, which has been heavily criticized as being short on the uptake.
In terms of how it has affected my job, I can't see most sources face-to-face, so most of my time is spent pacing in my apartment on the phone, trying to get information from sources. We have a weekly Zoom meeting with my White House team members, but you can't minimize the creativity that you get by swinging by a colleague's desk and finding out what they're working on and having those chance encounters in a newsroom that are particularly helpful.
I also often go to DC parties—there is a party season, which we're probably not going to see until after a vaccine—and I get tips there. Without that I'm sure there are stories I'm missing, but I also feel grateful that I'm in a role where we're known as essential workers, so I've gone to the White House to cover some of those briefings. I think our role is to get important information out there and to hold people accountable, but it's also hard for other news that's still happening around the world to actually get published.
MEI FONG: My role is a little bit less glamorous than Dan's. There's a whole lot less partying.
I come at this from two positions, which are slightly schizophrenic, so I'll explain. Right now I run strategy for The Center for Public Integrity. It's one of America's oldest Pulitzer Prize-winning non-profit newsrooms. We are also based in DC, and our whole thing is investigative journalism, long form, deep dives. Our whole role is to explain how government works and what has been in policies and how this translates to regular folks living in the rest of America.
Part of my role involves making sure not only that we cover really interesting projects but also making sure that we have the funding for it and helping with the revenue and fundraising. If you're going to talk about how COVID-19 is really affecting journalism and our day-to-day, is that the very fact of the matter is it's going to hit our funding revenue. Journalism is expensive.
I'll give you one statistic that is very sobering. There is something like 35,000 newsroom employees now, and that number is obviously going to go down as COVID-19 hits and as ads go and events go. We're non-profit, but we will still be affected, and 35,000 newsroom employees is considerably less than the number of people who are actually COVID-19 fatalities in America, which is right now I think over 45,000, almost 50,000. And while one is definitely going to go up, the number of news reporters is definitely going to go down.
What does this mean? At a time when truth is a casualty in this and when we need more fact-based journalism than ever before, you're going to see fewer people being able to do this and moreover do deep dives into the very expensive, very long-range journalism for ambitious projects. That is one big concern.
In my other previous incarnation, where I covered foreign correspondence—I was a China correspondent—what I see there is another big problem, where journalists are unfortunately also sandwiched. I talked about how it's being hit by market forces. This other one is basically bilateral issues.
The United States and China are two global superpowers now vying for the world stage. The coronavirus, who handles it better, who caused it, the two narratives of whether an authoritarian regime can manage this better versus a democratic process, all this means that journalists are caught in the middle, and we definitely saw that with the expulsion of a whole host of U.S. journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal basically for doing their jobs. That's another big issue. What happened in China with COVID-19 is a story that is still unfolding, and now we have less reporting and less knowledge on that.
These are the two big issues I see as things that are affecting journalists domestically and internationally. We are more important than ever before, but the forces that we face are much more challenging.
SAM JORDAN: Thank you, Mei. I will certainly follow up and ask more questions on the expulsion of journalists and how you think that has impacted this current crisis.
The first question that I have for both of you is, how might a lack of public trust in media and in government affect the public's response to the COVID-19 crisis?
MEI FONG: This is a big problem. Who distinguishes who are the truth-tellers from who are not the truth-tellers now? I'm thinking that to some degree, unfortunately, media organizations and even Facebook and these other places are big problems. For example, even before COVID-19 Facebook had all these issues with them agreeing to do political ads where they wouldn't monitor truth-telling or anything in the whole process. That is a proliferation of fake news, and that's being confused with real news.
If you want to take a filter and look at things, why is it that all the free news is all the stuff you see about celebrity stuff and rubbish, whereas the real deeply reported stuff is mostly paywalled? You have to pay for it, and increasingly people can't distinguish—"I would rather go for the freebie than not,"—especially not now when people are belt-tightening. And that has been an issue. We have all sorts of rumors that arrive, and it doesn't help if the person in the White House also sometimes propagates some of that—bleach, Lysol, and anti-malarial drugs.
This is the problem because we don't have standards anymore. Everything is increasingly polarized. I don't know what the answer to that is except for maybe people to recognize that when you want news you have to pay for it. It's never free, not good news.
SAM JORDAN: Thank you, Mei. Daniel, would you like to respond?
DANIEL LIPPMAN: Sure. I think there are profound effects on most Americans in terms of believing the truth, and they see a president who—the Times just did an analysis where they looked at all of his briefings, and he has congratulated himself 600 times. They are looking at people like Tony Fauci and Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, who are government scientists and are playing a big role. They're worried when Trump re-tweeted a "Fire Fauci" theme.
They also look at how the CDC has recommended that people wear masks in public, but Trump said he wouldn't follow that recommendation, which is from his own government's CDC, and you saw Pence today not do that when he toured the Mayo Clinic, even though the Mayo Clinic requires outside visitors to wear masks, even if they get tested regularly, like Pence.
Most Americans I think will follow that advice, but you're already seeing some people move around a little bit more. There was a study looking at data from millions of cellphones, and more people are not staying at home, not social distancing, even though those guidelines are still in effect. That has real-world health consequences, especially as governors start to reopen.
I think there is an effect on public discourse and how people actually respond to public health advice when you have the two most powerful people in the country, in different ways, saying that those recommendations should not be followed in some ways.
I think that is compounded based on all of the criticism that Trump has made of media in the last few years. Most Americans don't trust anonymous sources, and Trump has fed that distrust, even though I can't do my job without anonymous sources because most people—if I'm working on an investigative piece and I'm talking to people in the government who are whistleblower types, giving me confidential information that they shouldn't be doing, which is violating their own agency policies, they can't have their name attached to it, so I have to protect them.
Of course I'm going to check out their information, but people are sometimes saying, "Who are their sources?" Trump has said I've done "fake news"—not during this crisis but in the past during his presidency.
MEI FONG: Dan, I should add this: Aside from anonymous sources, another important toolkit for journalists is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Freedom of Information Act requests. One of the problems with COVID-19 is that many agencies have actually taken this opportunity to limit that access. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation now says, "We won't take any FOIA requests that don't come by mail, we won't take any electronic requests," which makes no sense whatsoever because why would one not encourage people to do it by electronic means versus going out and mingling and whatever?
The State Department is also not doing any FOIA requests now and many other places. Some of it is legitimate because, of course, many city governments and so on are swamped right now. But there are some real concerns that this is another clampdown on transparency, and that's never good because right now we really, really do need to know who knew when this was going down, what they could have done, and what they could not have done, and FOIA requests have been the key to unlocking many of these stories, so we need it.
SAM JORDAN: Thank you, Mei and Daniel.
That sets us up nicely for the second question, and I hope you continue to comment on transparency in this regard: What unique ethical challenges does COVID-19 present to journalists, given that the population is relying on the media for information that is concerning matters of public safety? These are questions of life and death in some cases.
DANIEL LIPPMAN: I think it's a very good question because sometimes when you're a journalist you're just thinking about the next story and not actually thinking: Is this an ethical story? Is this something that is good for the greater good?
One thing the media has wrestled with is how much airtime to give those briefings, especially since there is a lot of misinformation and people don't trust what those briefings say and what Trump says during them. So should CNN and MSNBC air them in full, or should people just watch on C-SPAN or on the White House's website if they really want to tune in? A few days ago you had the Trump press office try to put CNN in the back and move up a non-CNN pool reporter to a prime seat in the front. This is a way to punish CNN for asking tough questions.
I looked at some of the stories that I've done recently in terms of thinking about them in an ethical lens, and I think the work that many journalists have done in the last month or two to hold the government accountable is incredibly ethical because people who did not prepare well enough for this crisis, whether they're in the federal government, even in the Obama administration, or among governors, and especially in the Trump administration at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the history books should reflect the fact that they didn't have enough tests and that the Strategic National Stockpile, which was set up for an emergency like this, doesn't actually have enough ventilators, and there are not enough masks, and we have outsourced all of our personal protective equipment production to China. That has led to thousands of deaths and prioritizing what economic experts wanted in New York City, for example.
If they had shut down New York one or two weeks earlier, they might have had 80 percent fewer deaths. Mayor de Blasio, even after what happened in Washington State was still saying: "Hey, it's fine to go out. Continue to support the economy."
Some of the stories I've done in the last few weeks look at how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stopped doing pandemic modeling a couple of years ago. The DHS wasn't very happy with that story because I was pointing out that maybe that was not a wise decision, especially when you had Alex Azar, the HHS secretary, say that was something that kept him up at night.
Then the Trump team used one of their top economists in the White House, whose think tank had received $1 million from UnitedHealth. Of course he is working to oversee UnitedHealth as they dole out billions of dollars at HHS. I don't think that guy is going to talk to me anymore.
Then one more file story that I think has an ethical angle is that during the transition the senior leaders in the Trump administration were given a briefing by the Obama folks, and one of those was that there could be a pandemic, the "worst influenza outbreak since 1918." That was on the packets that they got, and some of them were not paying attention, they didn't actually read the materials properly, and they just sat in the meeting. Wilbur Ross fell asleep a couple of times.
You have to do that journalism now as that stuff is fresh and current. Of course, there is probably going to be a blue-ribbon commission that looks at all the shortfalls, but they'll be looking at stories that my colleagues and I are doing to try to put that report together.
MEI FONG: I think one of the big ethical considerations journalists will have in covering the pandemic is that COVID-19 is one of those magic markers that you take that sharply outline this massive inequality that's in the society. Suddenly now we can see where the vulnerable populations are that are most hit by this. You might say, "A virus hits everyone, equal opportunity," but that's not necessarily true. It has a much stronger effect on people who have less health coverage and are in areas that are more vulnerable. There is plenty of data now showing how it is disproportionately affecting blacks and Hispanics.
Also, I think one of the very interesting ethical quandaries that's raised is, what do you even call it? Do you call it the "Wuhan" virus? Do you call it the "Chinese" virus? One of the stories we just ran today for the Center for Public Integrity was a poll that showed that more than 30 percent of all Americans have actually witnessed incidents of hostility toward Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. That I think is very strongly correlated to what it's being called.
When we ran that story, some people were: "Well, it did originate in China. This didn't happen in some Alpine village. Why shouldn't we call it the Chinese coronavirus?"
But there are all sorts of ethical considerations there: (1) scapegoating; (2) differentiation between the nation of China and people who are Chinese like me but not Chinese from the People's Republic of China; (3) there is a very strong correlation between incitement of violence. Right after Trump started calling it the Chinese virus, I think on March 16, there was a sharp spike in calls to depression and anxiety sites from people identifying as Asians. Words lead to actions.
What does this mean for journalists ethically? There are all sorts of guidelines, and it translates not just into what you call the virus but also how you portray groups. I think for a while a lot of newspapers were dinged because they were showing photos of the coronavirus—I remembering seeing one in The Guardian, where they were talking about the coronavirus hitting Barcelona, but the picture was all of Asian people.
Those are issues that you need to think about because there are vulnerable populations at stake here with this virus. Not everybody is going to be hit equally, and you have to ask yourself, when you cover this are you covering this fairly, and are you covering this accurately?
SAM JORDAN: The scapegoating that you mentioned reminds me of [typhus] When the [typhus] came to the United States it was first called the "Irish" fever. So it's certainly a trend that the United States has in naming things from their origin and doing that in a discriminatory way. Thank you for bringing that up.
To stay on this theme, mentioning Wuhan and the fact that the coronavirus originated in China, so far we have spoken a lot about the public's trust in the U.S. government, but we haven't really delved into China. Mei, given your experience with China and censorship, I'm curious if you could elaborate on what you think the effects are to this crisis of China's expulsion of Western journalists.
MEI FONG: Unfortunately, journalists have become a byproduct of this tit-for-tat issue between the United States and China that has been going on for some time. The expulsion didn't happen in a vacuum. I think it began when Chinese reporters working here for outlets like the China Global Television Network and CCTV asked for admissions and the United States required them to register as foreign entities. That led to China bouncing out several Wall Street Journal reporters supposedly over an op-ed which, by the way, had a very racist headline: It was called, "China is the Real Sick Man of Asia." That has very racist connotations in Asia. But that was seen as just an excuse. Then, at some point, the United States had some issues with pulling back some of these visas for Chinese journalists in the United States, and that led to the expulsion of journalists from the United States.
What does all this back-and-forth mean? I think in some sense this stems from some policies with regard to treatment of China. We seem to have a very hawkish White House with regard to treating China as the enemy and as a hostile force that will be increasingly needed to be contended with and contained, whether it be everything from 5G and Huawei to green card issues, visas, and spying.
The problem with that is that journalists who actually work for U.S. entities are not agents of the U.S. government, and that's a distinction that is a problem because we actually have had some of the best reporting and our best knowledge of what's going on in China from these guys, and now we don't have them anymore. What we sacrificed for that in exchange is maybe withdrawing some visas from Chinese journalists here, who certainly weren't making as much of an impact in terms of newsworthiness, so I think we have lost out. The world has lost out because we don't know what's going on now.
For example, China claims that the number of people killed by coronavirus is around 5,000. We have 50,000 here. Which one has the bigger population? What's not being told there? These are all questions that need to be well investigated by the smartest and the brightest and the most well trained, and now we don't have them anymore.
SAM JORDAN: Daniel, do you want to respond?
DANIEL LIPPMAN: One thing I would say is that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo actually almost apologized. He said that he "got it wrong," and that they didn't expect that requiring Chinese journalists in the United States to register as foreign agents would lead to expulsion of Western journalists in China. He had never before said he got anything wrong, so it was interesting that he admitted that on a call with the top editors and publishers of the three major papers, the Post, the Times, and the Journal.
It was on a track where they basically kind of forgot that we had a coronavirus pandemic happening in the States and around the world. The timing was very poor. Maybe do it after this is all over if you want to poke the bear, but this was incredibly ill-thought by the government because we need accurate information from China. Oftentimes what reporters write on foreign countries is actually better than the intelligence agents that we have in those countries and what they produce, which is for a very limited audience.
The U.S. government is shooting itself in the foot in terms of actually holding China accountable. Shouldn't we do everything we can to keep Western journalists, who are holding China to account for mistakes and for government cover-ups, in China, or should we be lackadaisical in actually thinking properly about how to handle this?
MEI FONG: I will just bounce back with one quick thing before we proceed. This, "Whoops, oh, my bad," could have been foreseen entirely because they have not had a proper, well-equipped State Department. They have just basically decimated the ranks of smart career diplomats who really knew their stuff. We know this not just from China clearly but from what happened with Ukraine and many other places. They aren't listening. They don't have the expertise. They have cut down on that, and this is the direct result of it.
SAM JORDAN: Thank you, Mei.
The last question that I have is for Daniel: Since you have attended some White House briefings in person, I'm curious what you think the effect will be of Trump announcing that they're going to be dialing back on these briefings. They will be having them less frequently and for shorter periods of time, so you won't see these four-hour briefings every day like we have in the past couple of weeks.
DANIEL LIPPMAN: They're going to shift to reopening the economy and putting economic experts like Larry Kudlow and Steven Mnuchin on TV much more than having Trump pontificate, but he definitely wants to travel the country more.
In terms of how they're not going to have those briefings, I think he has watched his poll numbers decline a little bit because of losing the support of Americans who had given him the benefit of the doubt or who had voted for him last time around but have seen how he has handled this crisis, where his own White House aides worry that it becomes all about him and not about the people suffering. There are not that many remarks he makes giving sympathy to victims. It's more about self-centered praise.
I think it may be a little too late to actually stop the damage that has been done to his credibility. He can't just unwind and forget that he has had these briefings because it has defined the response to this crisis. When you have an hour to prepare and then two hours for the briefing almost every day, then how much time do they actually have in the White House for responding to this crisis, making sure we have enough tests, figuring out the swabs, and everything like that? I think Trump has come to realize some of his shortfalls there, but he can't help himself. He's a TV star, so he loves to be on camera. He is watching TV all the time, so he wants to weigh in and get in his side of the story.
MEI FONG: I have a follow-up question to that, Dan. Do you know how many media outlets actually show him unfiltered in these briefings versus how many do not? Is it like a 50-50 spread, 60-40? How does it work?
DANIEL LIPPMAN: I think it depends. I think Fox News always carries him, which is not surprising; One America News, which is his favorite new outlet on the right. I think CNN and MSNBC do sometimes. I don't actually watch much TV myself, so I'm not monitoring on a split screen.
MEI FONG: Does Politico filter? You guys filter, right?
DANIEL LIPPMAN: I think there's probably a banner we put on our homepage, but it doesn't occupy the page. You have to click on the link to actually watch it. We always have a reporter either covering it there or watching it, and there is often news that comes out, but oftentimes it's just him stating the same talking points over and over.
SAM JORDAN: Thank you, Mei and Daniel.
I think now, since we have about 25 minutes, we will turn to audience questions.
SHAILA BOLGER: How can/do journalists consider public safety, both in a mental and physical sense, when deciding what information to report and how to report it in the times of COVID-19?
MEI FONG: Just at a very specific level, I think one of the guidelines that we make clear with regard to public safety issues is that you do have to consider vulnerable populations. For example, with regard to identities of COVID-19 sufferers or victims or recoverers, that's something that you have to clear with them. Don't out people if they don't want to be outed as having had or recovered from COVID-19. That's a very basic rule.
The other one—and this is a judgment call in terms of the day-to-day things you write about—should you use this picture? When you do this are you being sensitive to a particular population? I think those are all still issues that are probably amplified because we're doing this all the time now with the press of news. I'm not saying we didn't do them in the past, we just have way more of that now.
We used to have all these long discussions about style—you don't use the word "poor"; you use the word "impoverished" or "poverty"—things like that. So now we're just having them all the time because all this is happening so often. That's my experience.
What about you, Dan?
DANIEL LIPPMAN: I think in terms of public safety The New York Times launched a new section called "At Home."There have been so many stories about, "Oh, what can you do with your free time?" and everyone is picking up baking and bingeing on Netflix.
Even though those stories are worthwhile, add to the public discourse, and may make people feel a whole let less alone, that they're not the only person who is baking banana bread every week, but it also goes along with the government's efforts to say: "Hey, you should stay at home. You shouldn't be out on the streets too much, and you should be very careful."
So they have articles like "How to Make a Mask" and things like that, and that amplifies the government's message and the CDC to try to slow the spread. I think that's an important thing to do. There have been some stories about people flouting those rules, going on golf courses and having small dinner parties. You don't want to give people ideas, but they're already going to think about stuff like that, so it's not like it's a huge violation, and you're holding those people accountable and saying, "Hey, can't you wait a month to have too many people in your home?"
I found it interesting how the DC Police has handled this. I called them up a few weeks ago and asked them how many citations they had given to businesses for violating the shutdown order. It was only a couple dozen, so most people are compliant, and they're not actually giving out many citations to individuals. So it's basically a trust issue. Because the United States is a very individualistic society, people don't want to be told what to do, but here everyone has to stay at home as much as they can. Then we can get our full liberty back after this is over, and even then we're not going to have large public gatherings until after there's a vaccine that everyone is taking.
MEI FONG: I want to jump in on one point regarding public safety where journalists play a really important role, and that's in reporting out some of the stories about as we go on and as we think about cures or vaccines or things like that. I think having good reporting that is fact-based by reporters who are well trained, especially in evaluating and writing—science reporters basically—it's super-important.
We talked about the real public service that journalists do. When President Trump was talking about all these anti-malarial and anti-lupus drugs, [journalists looked] at all these studies and [said]: "Well, hang on a minute here. There are all sorts of issues here. It has not been proven to be efficacious and has all sorts of drawbacks and difficulties."
We're going to need more of that going along because Lord knows how long we will be without a vaccine. There is going to be a lot of stuff that is touted as a cure, and we need better reporting on that.
Science reporting is actually a real specialty. It's expensive to train people who are really good at it. Also, the correlation between that and business reporting, because some of the reporting was also looking at how President Trump's business associates—like Wilbur Ross—had some financial ties to some of these drugs that were talked up.
We had done some pieces in the past talking about how Trump has a history of talking up drugs and pushing them through and fast-tracking them, and some of them don't necessarily work the way they're supposed to for the things he says they are. That's all public service journalism.
LAUREN YEVAK: Sensationalism is a consistent buzzword in journalism and media. How do you think journalists are affected by sensationalism in a saturated journalism landscape focused primarily on the same topic, namely the pandemic? Is there a temptation or moral dilemma to break bad or good news swiftly and emphatically?
DANIEL LIPPMAN: Yes, it's a huge concern because journalists—we all have careers, and we all want to get ahead, so there is always the temptation to cut corners and to try to break stuff before you have even gotten the facts right. A splashy headline will get your story linked on the Drudge Report and lots of tweets.
But also, I think most journalists think about their responsibility at the end of the day and that if their stories don't bear out as being true or if they're missing large pieces, then it will hurt their careers in the end. So it's very important to not get lured too much by social media buzz but actually just do the best you can and fact-check your stories and follow what my former colleague at The Wall Street Journal, Brody Mullins, said. The biggest lesson I learned was, "No surprises," which is that anytime you're doing a story, tell the subject and the target and anyone mentioned in the story what you plan to report.
So for a White House piece I'll email the White House press shop and say: "Hey, I plan to report X. I'm going to quote this person saying Y." So if they have pushback or if they want to say, "Hey, that's actually not true" or "You should fix that before it gets published," then they have that opportunity.
On very important pieces I will print out a draft of the story and go line by line, and I'll checkmark everything that's in the story and say, "hey, is this fully accurate?" and read it out loud. I will often have multiple things that I'll have to fix, and then when I'm done I'll print it out again, and until there are no more fixes after one or two times then I'm ready for the story to get published.
MEI FONG: Thanks, Dan, for bringing that up. I used to sweat buckets every time a story was coming out and do exactly that.
But here's the thing. Yes, sensationalism, wanting to get sexy news when it breaks, that's always going to be perennial for some. But for reputable news outlets, they're in it for the long haul. You want to get it right because you are "the paper of record." There's a higher mission.
Remember when I mentioned that there are 35,000 newsroom employees, and that's a whole lot less than COVID-19 fatalities? People aren't in journalism for the job security. It's not there.
So most journalists, quite a lot of them, are here for the mission, despite the crappy pay, the long hours, and career instability, it's still a profession that people feel that there's a mission. There's a thing you do. You are holding power accountable. You are trying to find the truth. It's still somewhat glamorous, and that's what people go in for, and that's what people want to do.
I think at the end of the day, especially the ones you're going to see left standing after this whole mess, it's because they feel that they're doing some good. I think that's the answer to the sensationalism and all that. That's still going to be there, but there are quite a lot of people who are in this to do good.
DANIEL LIPPMAN: Yes. Every day I wake up and I think: I feel lucky that I have a job where it's very service-oriented, where I'm not worried about making money or getting profit-sharing.
MEI FONG: You're in journalism. You're not making money.
DANIEL LIPPMAN: It's very comforting. I trust that if I do my job, the revenue will take care of itself, along with all my other colleagues in terms of producing good journalism. Every day I'm waking up and I'm thinking: How can I break news? What stories can I write that will actually make a difference and that people will want to read and are not just clickbait stories?
SAM JORDAN: As a member of the public, I am very happy to hear that the mission is still alive and well, and I'm happy to hear about the painstaking efforts that both of you take to make sure your stories are accurate. This is one of those moments I wish that this was airing on cable news so that the public could understand exactly how hard working the journalists are who are giving them this news that is so important to their lives. So, thank you.
GEOFF SCHAEFER: You hear almost as an axiom that journalists should not become the story when we're talking about journalists standing up when facing unjust scrutiny or being talked down to by this administration, including Trump himself. But is that still a serviceable position given the scale and rapidity of the unprecedented challenges journalists now face in this environment? In other words, is that position actually making the problem worse?"
MEI FONG: Here's the thing. I fundamentally do believe the story is the story. But sometimes journalists do become part of the story. By sharing a voice and lending it they actually give it a stronger resonance.
I'll give you an example: Ronan Farrow, when he was covering the Me Too movement. Probably the fact that he was persecuted, that he was bounced from NBC actually made the story much stronger. People were more interested, not that he didn't already have a crackerjack story that he reported.
In my role now when I do strategy, when I think about how I want stories to resonate with people, sometimes it can be that the story behind the story is one reason why the people want to know. For example, we run every week a news series and we talk about some of the best investigative stories out there and how people got those stories. That can also be compelling. We featured, for example, the guy who wrote about R. Kelly. He spent 20 years reporting this story for the Chicago Tribune, and for a long time nobody believed him. So that whole personal quest became something that was interesting.
No, I don't think journalists should go to the White House and take pot shots at Trump just to get famous, but they are asking him questions that hold him to account, and that is important, yes.
DANIEL LIPPMAN: I would also add that it used to be that journalists would start their career at a local paper like the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette or The Kansas City Star, and then they would move their way up to a bigger paper and then a national paper or a wire service. But now young journalists can often start their careers at Politico or CNN or The New York Times and then continue to work at those places because if you want to make a difference, if you want to work very hard for not too much pay at the start, then that's your opportunity. So it's young, cheap labor but people who are smart and driven, and they want to break news and make a difference.
Naturally, some of those people get noticed and get TV contracts. You want to talk about your scoops on TV. You also build up your Twitter following. So it's not a surprise that this is kind of a trend where you have to make your own brand to sell your journalism a little bit.
BRETT BUCHNESS: Increasingly we are faced with lesser-of-two-evils decisions. An example would be Drs. Fauci and Birx treading lightly not to anger Trump in order to remain in their roles and in turn continuing to be able to provide real advice to Americans that could save lives. In their view pandering to Trump is the lesser of two evils in order to attain a greater chance of disseminating real information. As journalists are you facing these tough lesser-of-two-evils decisions on how to report as well? Is it worth it, for instance, to write true but damaging stories on China if it risks hurting much needed cooperation to defeat the virus and save American lives?
TINA HUANG: Are there any ethical dilemmas that journalists face when covering the pandemic that may not be apparent to the general public?
DANIEL LIPPMAN: In terms of dilemmas, my editor told me, "You only have a limited amount of time, so you have to prioritize where you want to make the biggest impact." So you could spend hours on something that may not actually result in a story, or you could do something that will actually have a bigger impact or that is more of a gettable story. How you spend your time is very important as a journalist because there's only a limited number of hours in the day.
Also, it just popped into my head that when I have sources that I need information from, you can milk them too much where you have to tread lightly where you're not too greedy sometimes for information, or you don't call them five times in one day if it's not a the-world-is-ending story. So you want to keep your powder dry, and you want to make sure you keep that relationship going so that they're available to talk to you tomorrow and that they'll take your call next week.
I don't really worry about the "lesser of two evils" too much because I don't want to have to think, Oh, are my stories going to hurt the U.S. government response or U.S.-Chinese cooperation? That's above my pay grade. They should figure out their response and cooperation with international allies and rivals on their own without stories from the media affecting it too much.
I think other countries—especially China—sometimes don't understand that the media is not controlled by the government. We shouldn't have to worry about cooperation. We stick to our language, which is reporting fair, accurate, and unbiased information, and then the government officials can deal with their side of the equation as well.
MEI FONG: The thing I like about journalism—and this is why this is such a fascinating job—is that we are both a blend of idealist and realist. You want to tell the truth and show injustice and be like a caped superhero, but at the same time you're going to have to file your stories, you're going to have to get people to talk to you, and that's the realist part. And you constantly toggle between the two.
I'll give you an example. What we're talking about fundamentally is access: How much do you trade for access versus getting the real story? That's what's happening with Fauci and Birx. They have a platform there. Do they contradict and get the platform cut out from under them and then have no more platform to do good? But every time they're up there, they're standing next to somebody who is contradicting a lot of the things that they believe in and say.
For China, I'll give you an example. Bloomberg a couple of years ago decided to kill a story. They had a long investigation into the finances of China's leaders and some of the dodgy involvements there, and they decided very firmly to kill that because they know that this would imperil the business of Bloomberg terminals in China.
Fast-forward to now, and I don't know. They are probably sitting there thinking: Hey, maybe we didn't make such a bad decision, because look at The Washington Post and The New York Times and all those guys. Haha! They're not in China anymore. They can't do any reporting. That is certainly how I think Matt Winkler justified the greater good. I certainly don't agree with him, but I see in this context at this point in history why those decisions were made.
That's always going to be this toggling back and forth: How do we set our course? We want to achieve what we want to achieve, but we also recognize that there are terrific costs involved. There isn't a perfect answer to this, and that's what makes this job really, really interesting and problematic and difficult but also so exciting to talk about as well as to do.
DANIEL LIPPMAN: Also, sources have motivations too. Sometimes I wonder why sources are giving it to me, but often I know why they're doing that—because they want to make themselves look good or they want to bash their internal rival. Journalists don't want to get source-captured, where you write stories that are just what your sources want.
I have done stories where the story was too good to pass up and where I knew that they would never call me back, but I had to burn that bridge because I knew the news was more important than preserving a relationship. That's something you think often. Sometimes you have to save sources from themselves where they might out themselves, and you want to preserve access but do it in a journalistically ethically responsible way.
MEI FONG: Reporting in China, for example, one of the big problems we always had was that sometimes by reporting something, you could expose people in China to a lot of severe hardship. You're a foreign journalist; the worst thing they can do is kick you out. But your sources may be put in prison or worse. That was always an ethical dilemma that you think about. Again, how do you protect your sources? How do you not burn them?
Like I said, this is a very interesting profession, and it's a very difficult profession, and these are the kinds of things that journalists face all the time, so #thankyoujournalists.
SAM JORDAN: Yes, #thankyoujournalists, and #thankyouMeiandDaniel. This was great, and I really appreciate you both taking the time to answer all of our questions plus some. We really appreciate it.
The next Carnegie Council event is "Prospects for Global Coordination in an Age of Pandemics and Emerging Climate Technologies" with Cynthia Scharf, who is Carnegie Climate Governance's senior strategy director. She will be in conversation with Joel Rosenthal.
Thank you again for your participation.