The President and the Press: The First Amendment in the First 100 Days



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The President and the Press: The First Amendment in the First 100 Days

April 12, 2017, at the Newseum’s Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater


Session 6: Future of News in a Divided and Connected World


Brian Stelter:

Thank you very much. A little bit of a live edition of Reliable Sources this morning and there's a lot to talk about even just in reaction to what Kellyanne Conway was saying just a minute ago. So let me start the furthest away from me Carrie Budoff Brown, the editor of Politico. Formally editor of Politico Europe, also formerly a White House correspondent covering the Obama presidency for Politico. Next to her David Kirkpatrick the CEO, founder of Techonomy. Also the author of The Facebook Effect and we'll talk about Facebook's role in the future of news. Next to me Cecilia Vega of ABC, a senior White House correspondent for ABC. She was covering the Clinton Campaign, now covering the Trump Administration. Joined ABC six years ago. Cecilia, Kellyanne Conway just said that the press is presumptively negative about the man you cover every day. Are you presumptuously negative?


Cecilia Vega:

I'm presumptively cynical and that's my job.


Brian:

Not just skeptical, but cynical?


Cecilia:

Skeptical and cynical and I think we have to be a little bit of both given this administration's relationship with the truth and how tough it is for us to get at that right now. But do we start our day ... and I think I can speak for all of us who sit in that briefing room every day, in a negative manner? Absolutely not, but that's not the tone from my perspective of our coverage. And my sense is this perception that there is this adversarial relationship much more comes from the White House than it does from our end of the briefing room. They want an adversarial relationship or they perceive this to be the case, we just are doing our jobs. I don't think that the complaints that they have are any different than the Obama Administration has had about coverage or negativity than the Bush Administration or any Administration before that. That's just the nature of this beast.


Brian:

You're saying same complaints but maybe they're louder about it?


Cecilia:

I think so, yeah. I think so I think I think Ari Fleischer would have told you the exact same thing. He was he was unhappy with coverage then too.


Brian:

Carrie what about the issue of a policy covered substance versus style and palace intrigue? Just now Kellyanne was saying what about Jeff Sessions at the border? That was ignored by a lot of news outlets. Obviously Politico and everybody else covered that yesterday so I'm not sure why she said it wasn't covered. What is your impression of that kind of complaint about lack of policy?


Carrie Budoff Brown:

Well I covered the Obama White House, I started covering him in 2007 and eight when he was campaigning and covered him for about six years and I can guarantee you that I heard the exact same thing from the Obama White House that Politico in particular cared way too much about palace intrigue, didn't cover policy. I actually was a policy reporter covering health care back then in a way and I would go to them and I guess I would basically hear the same thing. And Sean Spicer said it this morning that they want us to cover policy and not the palace intrigue. The challenge is that the White House itself is very, very focused on palace intrigue and who's up and who's down. It's not just the press that's engaged in this.





So I would say that like Cecilia said this is a longstanding complaint. We do cover policy, at Politico itself we have 125 reporters and editors who cover policy alone. All the agencies and departments, that's a huge investment in what is going on in this town. And we do that, we give it play, and yes I would maybe give them a point in that the palace intrigue stories typically do pretty darn well. I mean people are really, really interested in knowing what goes on inside this White House as they were inside the Obama White House. The difference is that this White House really, really engages with our reporters to talk about what's going on in the White House. And then you see that's why Spicer and some others really push back and try to internally say, "Don't talk to reporters" when they themselves are talking with reporters.


Brian:

When you say engage is that a euphemism for backstab each other for leaking?


Carrie:

Yeah, I think they're saying, "Don't talk to reporters." They say it privately and yeah, don't leak. But we had a story two days ago where we quoted six people inside a meeting of 30 talking about the you know the comms strategy at 100 days. That's a remarkable level of people leaking and talking to us.


Brian:

Out of that work, did you know who all those sources were?


Carrie:

I do typically ask who are all the sources are, yes.


Brian:

Yeah, so you confident?


Carrie:

I'm just always fascinated by that. Jon Karl, my colleague at the White House and I talk about this a lot, and it seems like it's happening more and more and every story that's the number of sources that are being reported gets bigger and bigger. The Washington Post, "We spoke to 18 sources today. We spoke to six sources." And I mean it's a sign of how much people are talking. I mean you ask about policy versus palace intrigue, I would say until Syria last week throw a percentage out there, 80%, 70% of the content that gets asked about and discussed in these White House briefings is the press corps asking about who's doing what to whom inside the White House and or can you clarify something that the president tweeted about? I mean a lot of this is self generated the fact that we're not talking about policy.


Brian:

One more question about this before we talk about the future of news more broadly. The president's anti-media attacks came up a bit earlier but I want to ask from your all's perspectives, what has the impact been Carrie on this venom, this poison that we've heard from this White House? Has it hurt us with our audiences or has it not?


Carrie:

I think it's created a more challenging environment.


Brian:

Because you're talking about all the pages you are getting, right? But are people trusting what you're reporting?


Carrie:

Yeah I don't have data on that. I certainty feel the pressure of the divided environment and my response to that is how I set the tone for a news room, and how we report, and reminding our reporters and editors that the basic rules of journalism still apply even in an environment where it doesn't feel normal. It is still absolutely imperative that we conduct ourselves just as journalists would in any era. You verify information, you try to get as many sources as possible, you try to be transparent about how we got the information. I believe that that will doing that and adhering to what the basic rules of journalism are, giving people a chance to respond, you know engaging with them, that does not change. And if we do our jobs, as we always were supposed to do, I believe that that is our best insurance for the long-term. It is a long-term play.





We're in a weird environment right now, it may not be like this in five, 10 years, I don't know. But all I know what I can do at this point is make sure that my newsroom is living up to all the standards of journalism that I learned 20 years ago, 25 years ago. And I think getting as many sources as possible I think that's sort of where we're going like 18 sources, six sources we really want to have a preponderance of evidence and feel completely confident about what you're putting out. I think that's good for journalism, we're under a lot of scrutiny that requires us to respond and be as airtight as possible.


Brian:

A divided world but also a connected world, that's the title of this session because we're sort of wrapping up the morning about the future of news. David I wonder how you view Facebook and other social media's impact on the first 100 days. I could sit up and I could make the case that his tweets don't really matter, that the president's words only matter when CNN, and Politico, and ABC report them because on Twitter they're not reaching that many people. However, I could also make the case the Facebook and Twitter as Kellyanne Conway would say, "Allow him to go around the media on a daily basis." So how do you see it?


David Kirkpatrick:

Well I think the bigger point is that the landscape created by the existence of Facebook or Twitter changes everything. I think this very well programmed morning started exactly right, not only with a Pulitzer Prize winner, but somebody who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting using social media to include his audience as his source and to kind of create a collective process. Because the fundamental difference of a connected world, in my opinion, is that it's a participative age. Everybody wants to participate and everybody's going to participate whether you like it or not. I mean every single person in this room probably has one of these, and when they're on it they're not just receiving, they're also broadcasting, and that changes the landscape. I mean I think tweets matter a lot. I mean one of the things I would just comment on this thing that was said in the journalist panel about you know how Trump's tweets can't be responded to. You can't follow up like you could in a press conference.





That's a legitimate complaint in a sense but on the other hand if you listen to what happened with Ferran Hold when he used Trump's handle in a tweet about his philanthropy and then Trump called him immediately, that is because you can actually direct a comment to the president in a way that you never could before. And I might argue that is a counterbalancing factor but but regarding Facebook versus Twitter, and I know you and I talked about this a little bit before, I think it's easy in Washington in particular and given that we have a president who is so Twitter centric, to forget that the primary way most people get their information is through Facebook. And oddly, not just in the United States. Increasingly and pretty much definitively now on a global level the primary source of information for people is Facebook, in all but like three or four countries, right? And that is a big, big change that is going to continue to change the landscape. I mean there is a lot more we could say to follow that.


Brian:

You were saying Facebook is the Internet and Facebook is the news to a degree that we may not appreciate in our Twitter bubbles.


David:

Well it's a place where people receive the news and because it is a two way medium, it creates a context that is fundamentally new. I mean I'm a Baby Boomer, in my lifetime it's fundamentally new to basically have the ability to react in a position where you formerly were just a passive recipient.


Brian:

Right Cecelia, Kellyanne Conway said, "Some reporters tweets are a hot mess." During the campaign this was also an issue, some were printed out, she would show examples. Do you worry, do you think, do you double think before you Tweet?


Cecilia:

Yes, without a doubt. But it just goes back to how we started this conversation, I mean the pressure is on all of us now more than ever to not screw up. To get everything right and Twitter as a medium for me is no different than going on the air on World News, or Nightline, or GMA. I mean you can't screw up on Twitter, you can't screw up on air, I can't screw up in my reporting online. There is no differentiation anymore between the outlet that any of us are on. But I just wanted to go back to what you were talking about right now in terms of how this social media impacts us in real time. Just yesterday in the press briefing when I'm sure all of us are aware in here Sean Spicer made that comment about the Holocaust in Syria that has sense blown up, rightfully so. He made it, it kind of landed in the press briefing. None of us I think sort of really knew what to do with it. It took about five minutes or so, a few minutes. I don't know, real time everything is sort of warp speed in there sometimes.





And I'm looking on my phone, and suddenly we're seeing on Twitter, and we're seeing from our news desk that this thing is blowing up. And so we came back around and said, "Hey Sean, do you want to respond to this?" It was in real time in that press briefing that that comment was gaining traction and then you know we gave him the opportunity to clarify and we all know how that ended. It kind of didn't go very well for him, and he ended up doing an apology tour all night, and I would say into this morning. So this White House I think is even struggling with how to deal with this and it certainly impacts our reporting on a second by second basis.


David:

That's a fascinating example, I did not know that that was how that happened. Because you know we've heard quite a few times this morning particularly from Fleischer and [inaudible 00:12:35] that the press is biased, and from Fleischer in particular. I actually found that a very anachronistic point of view that I think in fact, Fox News is the number one cable channel, right? We couldn't have the session we had here this morning without Breitbart being represented. I mean we are in a new landscape where there is a much broader range of voices in the media generally and it's because of the Internet that's made that possible in general, Fox notwithstanding. That anecdote goes to show that it's the tails wagging the dog a little bit. As I said you know the world is much bigger than the press and I do think that the Internet has broadened the range of voices dramatically and included literally everybody. And just one final point, there is a professor at Harvard who did a study of the media landscape on the Internet. And actually the landscape of the right is bigger than the landscape in the center and on the left. One of the other scary things in the analysis he did was that basically there is almost no communication across the divides, just doing a mathematical analysis of traffic on the Internet which is very disturbing.


Brian:

Isn't that the biggest story of all up here? The biggest story up here about the future of news is those two alternative realities. Breitbart versus the New York Times or CNN up on this stage earlier. Is there anything Facebook or other companies can do to heal that? Because that's a profound wound, a gaping wound.


David:

That's the question they're asking themselves. I mean this is a very big question at Twitter and Facebook right now and anybody who has read, and if you haven't you should read Mark Zuckerberg so extraordinary 5,800 word essay of about a month ago, five weeks ago. Where he very kind of I think contritely acknowledged that fake news was a problem.


Brian:

Before we go there can you remind us about November because you had him on stage a couple days after the election.


David:

It was two days after the election which was where he said ... I was interviewing him and he said, "It's a crazy idea that fake news affected the election." Which he has now essentially retracted.


Brian:

So you've seen them evolve just in the span of a few months?


David:

He evolves I mean I have a lot of respect for Mark Zuckerberg which is why I wrote a book about him. I mean the guy is extraordinary but he is with racking his brain about this and there are a lot of extremely conscientious people at Facebook who are asking themselves, "What does it mean that we are the fundamental landscape of information dissemination and what is our responsibility?" I think it's very healthy they're asking that question, but I think it's scary for society, for all of my respect for the company, that a commercial enterprise is in the position of having to make many of the decisions that they're going to have to make about how they prioritize public dialogue. And it's truly a global issue just to throw in one data point on that. There was a great story in The Guardian about a week and a half ago about how this fake news problem is in almost every country. In Germany alone there are 500 people working for Facebook in Berlin just combating fake news in German [crosstalk 00:15:45].


Brian:

They're required to buy certain laws, right?


David:

In Taiwan, the Taiwanese government's worried about Facebook's doing. But they're in all these countries, it's hard for a company to do it and also I'm not sure a company should do it but that's the position we're in.


Brian:

They're pretty busy there, we invited them to be here today, and then Facebook declined. But you're articulating what is a pretty rapidly evolving position. Last summer folks there said, "We don't have a responsibility to pop your filter bubble." And it sounds like now they're starting to think they do have a responsibility.


David:

Well like I said they're very responsible people. Mark Zuckerberg ...


Brian:

Very responsible people?


David:

Yes.


Brian:

David they let me post lies, and innuendo, and spam. They let me pose whatever I want to on Facebook. They didn't have to do that 13 years ago.


David:

With two billion users it's not that easy for them to police all two billion people in real time and you have to keep that in mind. The existence of these platforms should be put on us because we're making them big by using them. I mean whose fault is anything? But I do think Facebook takes their role very seriously. I don't think they have the answers yet for many of these problems.


Brian:

Carrie, does an outlet like Politico think about writing stories in order to reach folks who are prefer an alternative reality where pizza gate is real or where the pope did endorse Donald Trump? Do you feel a need to be trying to pop those bubbles?


Carrie:

He did not endorse him.


Brian:

Too soon.


Carrie:

We feel a need to report on what is the facts and you know on pizza gate, or if it's Donald Trump claiming that he created 600,000 jobs on his watch. You know writing a story, providing the context for that is what we attempt to do. So yeah I mean that's not sort of our sole mission these days to write it but when we're presented with sort of glaring, factual inaccuracies I do think we have an obligation to make that clear in the course of our writing and reporting on something.


Cecilia:

I think that it's been interesting to watch the evolution of this over the course of the campaign into I don't know what we're on now 89 or something or something of Donald Trump's candidacy and presidency. And how we as a media have struggled to correct the record.


Brian:

Have we struggled? Do you think it's been ...


Cecilia:

I think it has been. I think because you know let's just take the tweet on wiretapping for example.


Brian:

Do we have to?


Cecilia:

Do we have to, to soon also. But you know at what point do we say in our stories print, or broadcast, digital, or otherwise this is just not true? Outright this is just not true. And I think we are now at that point where we're doing that. I think it took us a while to get there because there was this sense of is that our job as a media to be fact checking every single thing? Can we possibly fact check every single thing that we're reporting on? I don't know that we can but I do think we're doing it much more than we were.


Brian:

And to go from fact check to like narrative checking which is when he says he's had 600,000 jobs created what is he really saying? What does that really a part of a narrative?


Cecilia:

Or we're going to build a wall.


Brian:

You could make the case Carrie that this White House actually been pretty conventional. We've heard that word a couple times this morning. Conventional in its use of media. Has not been doing I don't know live daily Facebook live shows with the president, has not been creating a new form of media through social networks in a way that's been all that disruptive. Would you subscribe to the idea that you know we have seen some experimentation but the world has not been flipped on its head in the past 12 weeks?


Carrie:

Yeah, I agree with that. I think there's lots of tools that the White House can be using that the Obama White House used to great effect. A lot of AMA's and alternative ways to reach out to folks through different platforms. Using the White House media apparatus to do videos and to do their own sort of news focused projects. And I haven't seen that yet. We're only three months in, it's early going, but we saw I think a more nimble media sort of team out of the Obama White House just in terms of using all of the possible tools at their disposal. We see the typical Twitter I'm still the fact that Sean Spicer does do media briefings every day, I think that's a good thing. I support that, but that was something he threatened to do at the beginning, and he's doing it I think because as I thought at the time when they were threatening not to do it, you get in there and you realize the power of being able to command an audience for 45 minutes, an hour.





And as he does he is changing the way that he reads off a lot of prepared remarks at the beginning of his briefing to get out a message and they're using that. When the when the president decided to bomb Syria last week, the value of the press pool was clear. It was 10:30, 11 at night and he had a press pool ready to be able to broadcast what he did. I mean that's what we were saying beforehand, he will realize the power of having this White House press corps there to broadcast what he does.


Brian:

Speaking of that actually, briefly Cecilia was there anything to learn from that night of live coverage, special reports on the networks, some shoddy audio when he did speak, but the cameras were ready.


Cecilia:

What night was this?


Brian:

The night of the Syria strike. Did you see anything about media tactics or techniques from this White House that stood out to you?


Cecilia:

Nothing that comes to mind.


Brian:

I mean I was disappointed for example the audio quality was sort of troubling. Camera wasn't, there were some issues with the rush to nature of it.


Cecilia:

I don't know. I mean I guess I'll give them a little bit of slack on that one, right? It's the first time anything like this has happened, he was at Mar-a-Lago. Look, yeah they've got to get the technology together. That's not the biggest offense in the world. I think just in terms of coverage this White House's policy has been when it comes to military action we will tell you about it after the fact essentially. I think that's going to be a struggle going forward in terms of our reporting.


Brian:

In our last few minutes, the future of news, writ large with the White House and beyond, David what sort of predictions do you share at your conference and what corporations would you share with this audience about what we're going to see happen between now and let's say 2020 when we're all talking about reelection?


David:

For one thing, I think any politician with a head on their shoulders should be emulating Trump as much as they can in terms of his Twitter and social media presence because it serves him extremely well. I actually think it is a major differentiator from anybody who came before him obviously that he tweets so much and it's a good thing that he has, as Kellyanne Conway said, a direct pipeline, a channel to his audience. And you know frankly, good leaders should probably do that from now on. I mean one of the ironies about the Obama Administration that many of us in the tech world were very critical of was you know he got elected because of social media and then once he got in office basically there was none in evidence to speak of. You know he didn't use it to govern, he didn't use it to marshal a community of support for his policies once he was in office, and Trump is definitely doing that.





And I do think whatever you say about the briefing with totally not my world which has been discussed a lot up here today ... What happens in the White House briefing room, it is a little bit beside the fact at this point because there is another set of channels that exist and ultimately media is going to have to operate more in those channels than in the old one. And I really do think that there's been, especially when I heard Fleischer and Paul Mary talk, they're just like sentimental for something that is no longer the landscape. Cecilia, do you agree? You're in that briefing room.


Cecilia:

Yes and no. I mean I do think that as a reporter from the journalistic perspective we need that briefing room and I think there is a huge value for both sides of this. The president needs that to get his message out, sure he can circumvent the media as much as he wants to via Twitter but you can't get a briefing room message on Syria out in 140 characters. Maybe he'll tweet right now and prove me wrong, it's happened before. But I will just say I think in terms of us going forward to me the mission in terms of reporting in this administration and beyond is no different than it was when I started my career and for all of my colleagues that came before me. It's just the truth, and it matters now more than ever, and we just can't screw up trying to get there. It's just stay in your lane, and do your job, and it's no different now than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago.


Brian:

You say it's no different that implies you think that's enough? That reporting the truth and being clear on air is enough.


Cecilia:

As opposed to what? I mean what's the alternative?


David:

Could I say so? I think the alternative it's not an alternative but it's a addition is celebrating and including the diversity of voices that now exist that were not available before. Truth is all fine and good and I believe in it, believe me. But it's a new landscape and if you don't recognize that and operate accordingly, which Ferran Hold is the ultimate proof point for, you know you're not going to do as well.


Brian:

Carrie, what about Politico and how it views the future news? How is the company changing to adapt what we're describing up here?


Carrie:

As I said earlier making I guess it is I guess an intensive process of examination of like all the stories that we put out, or the stories that I believe are going to have a higher impact, or get a lot of scrutiny. I would say we're looking for new ways to reach new audiences and in new forms of storytelling. New platforms to get to get that message out, thinking about the diversity of my news room, not only racial and gender diversity but geographic diversity, political diversity that is important as well. It's also a time where I have to spend a lot of time talking to reporters about how they're doing. You know our news room has folks have gotten threats, and things mailed to their homes, and they're in a very sort of difficult time doing their jobs. And that can wear on a news room, and I have to be very conscious of that, and make sure that as much as an editor I'm also almost a psychologist for some folks and monitoring the room to see how people are doing.





It is a different environment than the White House I covered and they're doing very important work. It can be adversarial but the sort of unhidden story is that the White House is also very, very accessible in a lot of ways to my reporters and to other reporters. There's a lot of access and that's a good thing. I think it's just maintaining that sense of like doing a good job, we've got to be airtight, we've got to stick to the principles, we've got to you know be above board. We are a nonpartisan newsroom.


Brian:

What you're describing though is evolution not revolution. It doesn't sound like you see revolutionary changes that are necessary right now.


Carrie:

You know I've been asked that question a lot and I have to say that I sort of believe sort of Cecilia where there's cores that we just have to stick to. But I'm always trying to trying to wrack my brain to think what more we can be doing and having those conversations and seeing how I can buttress the journalism that we do in this environment. Because it is challenging and that I'm not getting behind in some way. And I think we're all grappling with that.


Brian:

Cecilia, I wanted to wrap up by going back to the title of this entire event this morning because of course the First Amendment is a evoked right in the title, The First Amendment in the first 100 days, I think we could make the case that there have not been the legal and other kinds of threats against press freedom that some may have feared before Inauguration Day.


Cecilia:

Not yet, right. Not yet.


Brian:

There's a giant asterisk next to that.


Cecilia:

I don't know that they won't come but there were threats before. He's made them and he was very clear about it. In fact, it's funny that you raise this. Somebody tweeted and put on my Facebook today, I wish President Trump would carry out with his threats to improve the libel laws in this country and kick you out of the White House. Look ...


Brian:

You don't reply to the person do you?


Cecilia:

No, in fact it's just [inaudible 00:28:23] on me why I don't check my Facebook.


Brian:

Too bad you have to receive that is what I was going to say.


Cecilia:

I mean it could happen, it may. I don't know that it will. I know that part of my job is to hold the president accountable for the things that he has said early on in this campaign that got him into office. And I think the Breitbart reporter that was on the stage earlier raises one of the most important points of covering this presidency that there is a huge swath of this country that elected Donald Trump because they want libel laws to be strengthened, they want a border wall to be built, they want pick your controversial issue that he campaigned on, and we have to hold him accountable, and ask questions about those promises as well as the ones that he is making now and not following good on. So we'll you know. We'll see I guess is the answer. I don't know, I've given up predicting.


Brian:

Carrie, I'll make you kind of the pinch as Floyd Abrams as well as a First Amendment lawyer. I mean I'm sure your all's lawyers thought through some of these issues before inauguration day, maybe we're a little more on alert than they have been in the past. Is there anything to say so far about how things have gone?


Carrie:

I think there's a lot of awareness of leak investigations that you know sort of we hear that. There's a lot of education going on in terms of me and my other top editors about the possibility of more leak investigations and then preparing now for how we can protect ourselves.


Cecilia:

How you talk to sources.


Carrie:

How you talk to sources, where you talked to sources, what you agree to do, a lot of sort of offensive discussions about how we can protect ourselves now with the assumption that we'll see more leak investigations out of this White House than the last White House even though the last White House was pretty aggressive about this. So that's really what we're hearing.


Brian:

Of course David there's technological solutions to some of the problems that are posed by for example leak investigations.


David:

What are you referring to?


Brian:

New apps, new messaging software that people are using.


David:

Yeah right, some of these very secretive, highly encrypted message systems and tools that can be used to evade a lot of things these days.


Brian:

Are we David more divided or more connected in this world?


David:

Well I think we're more connected. I mean political division is to some degree a function of connectedness and I think a function of the proliferation of voices which has allowed voices to come to the surface that were essentially suppressed before. And I think that's part of what Trump himself is saying and the Breitbart people are saying. And in the long run I think that's healthy even though I don't agree personally with a lot of those voices.


Brian:

Something the president and the press have in common, reckoning with the ability to hear from everybody at all times. To the panel, thank you very much, thank you for being here, and thank you all.








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