Margaret Talev: Senior White House Reporter, Bloomberg News
Vivian Salama: White House Reporter, Associated Press
Beverly Kirk: Fellow and Deputy Director for Outreach, International Security Program, and Program Manager, Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Experts discuss the changing role of the media within this administration and beyond and how the media should proceed to cover the Trump presidency.
CARTER: So good morning, everyone. Welcome to the second day of the 5th Annual Conference on Diversity in International Affairs. The Council on Foreign Relations is delighted to host this conference and collaborate with the Global Access Pipeline—GAP—and with the International Career Advancement Program—ICAP.
I am actually an alum of ICAP, having participated in the session last fall in Aspen, Colorado, and I’m actually on the board of directors of ICAP as well. My name is Amy Carter. I am the managing director of corporate affairs here at the Council on Foreign Relations and I want to share two experiences from my background that highlights just a tiny bit, I think, of why I think diversity in international affairs is important.
In the mid-90s, I worked at Booz Allen Hamilton. It’s a consulting firm based in McLean, Virginia, and I led a team assessing the business environment in Kazakhstan in Central Asia, and we had meetings in Astana, which at the time in the mid-90s was being newly constructed as the new capital of Kazakhstan. And my colleagues and I walked into a covered market, I think what most of us would think of as a combination farmers market and a flea market, and there was hundreds of vendors and stalls and all kinds of food and different wares and whatnot, and there was, you know, a huge hum like you would imagine if there’s several hundred people walking around shopping and hawking their wares and whatnot.
But as we walked into the market, suddenly a hush fell over the entire market and we got about a third of the way in and it was dead silent, and when I approached a vendor and said in a little bit of Russian that my Bulgarian colleague taught me, I said hello. The vendor literally shrieked and ran away. (Laughter.) But immediately the guy next to him, the vendor next to him, came up to me, smiled this huge toothless grin and said, hello—shook my hand and said hello, you know, in English and he was just—you know, I think he was thrilled and then he started talking in Russian to my Bulgarian colleague. Anyway, I bought my almonds that I wanted to buy and then eventually the market hum just sort of went back to the normal buzz that you would expect in a market.
That same business trip a young security guard at one of the government buildings where we were having meetings—worked it out again with my Bulgarian colleague because I didn’t speak any Russian—he worked it out with my colleague that the next day on his day off we would come back and said he could take photos with me in his—in his uniform so that he could show his family all the international friends he was making in the new capital in his big new job there.
So, you know, these interactions did not change the world, but I do think I was helping to maybe dispel some myths about Americans and I think that’s one of the important things about diversity in international affairs. And now I work at the Council on Foreign Relations where several years ago the president of the Council, Richard Haass, introduced me to Colin Powell, who then turned and introduced me to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
I managed to stay calm, cool, and collected, and I must have done something right because I didn’t get fired. I’m still here, which is great. But then, again, that’s one of the great things about working in international affairs.
So many of you were here last night when we had Calvin Sims speak, and if you missed it you can watch the video on cfr.org, as my colleague, Stacy, mentioned, and today’s plenary sessions will also be live streamed at cfr.org. And also, since the plenary sessions are on the record, we encourage you to share on social media with the hash tag—make sure I get this right—CDIA2017.
So the goal of this Conference on Diversity in International Affairs is really to connect professionals and students from underrepresented backgrounds with career opportunities in international affairs and also give you guys the opportunity to network and to learn from each other and to give you also an opportunity to discuss some of the, you know, global issues that we are all seeing and facing these days.
So we’ve got a number of interesting and valuable sessions today. The plenary sessions include “The Changing Role of Media,” an introduction to the world’s current hotspots, and also we’ll have a session on career transitions. And related to career transitions, following our first plenary, from 12:00 to 12:30, representatives from CFR’s human resources team will be available to discuss opportunities here at the Council.
So that ranges from internships to full-time staff positions to some of the fellowships that we have here at the Council, and they will be sitting in the lobby area just outside this conference room and so I encourage you to sit and chat with them. They are very lovely people, very lovely colleagues, and can, I think, help you out not only with discussing things that are available here at the Council but also talking about international affairs in general.
We hope you’ll take advantage of the broader network that we’ve gathered here today. You know, I’d encourage you to introduce yourself to people that you don’t know. I’m going to try and do that myself and not talk to my colleagues, which sometimes I tend to do. I also encourage you to pick up information in the lobby also behind us about the different organizations that are doing important work of trying to diversify international affairs. And then, obviously, of course, we’ll have a wealth of really fantastic speakers who have great knowledge, who come from a variety of different backgrounds, and I encourage you to listen, learn, and question them.
Lastly, as you all move around the building, please don’t hesitate to ask any of my CFR colleagues for directions if you get lost or if you’re not sure what session you’re supposed to be in. Let’s see. So CFR is delighted to host this conference. We’re glad to have you all here today and hope you enjoy today’s sessions, and then now I’m going to turn it over to Beverly Kirk, who is moderating our first plenary about the changing role of media. (Applause.)
KIRK: Thank you so much for being here for today’s Council on Foreign Relations Conference on Diversity in International Affairs plenary session on the changing role of media, and I also want to thank those of you who are watching online and watching our live stream.
I’m Beverly Kirk and I’m a fellow in the International Security Program at CSIS. I manage the Smart Women, Smart Power initiative and I’m joined here on stage by Margaret Talev—she is the senior White House reporter for Bloomberg News—and Vivian Salama, who is the White House reporter for the Associated Press. You should have their bios, but I’m going to tell you a little bit about these very accomplished journalists. So, if you’ll indulge me for a moment, we’ll start with Margaret.
She has also worked for McClatchy newspapers the Los Angeles Times, the Tampa Tribune, and she is a board member of the White House Correspondents Association and president of the Washington Press Club, and I mentioned the White House Correspondents Association because, as many of you may know, tonight is Nerd Prom—(laughter)—also known as the White House Correspondents Dinner.
Vivian spent 12 years reporting abroad and was most recently the AP’s Baghdad bureau chief. In fact, you’ve only been back about a year, right?
KIRK: She has reported from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, and has been a contributor to Newsweek, Time, the Daily Beast, The Atlantic, and previously worked for Bloomberg as well as NBC News.
Now, we will open up this conversation to questions in just a little bit and, as Amy mentioned, this session is on the record so I want to give everyone that reminder. So, ladies, the premise of this conversation is that the role of media is changing—the changing role of the media. Is that really the case or are we just seeing the way people in power deal with the media changing?
TALEV: Well, the technology of media is changing and that’s what’s overwhelmingly driven what you see in terms of the changes of the media. You know, I’ve only been covering White Houses since President Obama’s. I was here for President Bush’s but I covered Congress and was over at the White House a couple of times.
But just from the time of the Obama campaign until now, which is the blink of an eye, things that seemed really pioneering at the time, like when Obama was running in his first campaign Oprah Winfrey endorsed him as, like, a really big deal at the time—talk about the changing role of media—and we were in the stadium in South Carolina and what they did is they gave everyone slips of paper who entered the stadium and then asked them to use the paper to, like, do stuff on the internet to connect to the campaign. And at the time, it was, like, wow, that’s really smart—it’s, like, crowd sourcing or whatever.
Like, think about how much has changed since then and in terms of the way White Houses operate. President Obama, because of the combination of the timing, the evolving technologies, and kind of some of the people he had working for him really sort of pioneered or took what Bush’s guys had done to the next level in terms of using Twitter and eventually Instagram and some of the photo services—photo sharing, Flickr, and stuff—both to, really, to bypass the media and to reach their own audiences. And then—and then Donald Trump, obviously, through his own personal brand and personal commitment to Twitter, has taken things to a new and different level.
So that’s part of the answer to your question. I mean I’ll let Viv jump in, but I do think that the way—at the same time on a parallel track there’s been a real—I don’t even—what’s the right verb for this—just like the creation of a ton of different kinds of niche media that couldn’t have been possible before the era of social networking and a lot of the technologies that allow that.
SALAMA: And from my perspective, especially working abroad, I’ve worked as a freelancer and I’ve worked as a staff reporter and that landscape has changed so dramatically over the time that I was abroad. I mean, in the mid-2000s, you had very few publications. The internet was still kind of a new thing. And so if you got a string, you were very, very lucky, but you could make a lot of money as a freelancer overseas.
There wasn’t that much competition and you could even work for multiple news organizations and no one really cared because, you know, only the local readers would see your article. Flash forward 10 years, you were in the Arab Spring. Everyone and their mother was in the Middle East covering the news out there. It was oversaturated.
You had all these new emerging publications like BuzzFeed and Mic and, I mean, Huffington Post and all these different publications that hadn’t existed 10 years earlier. And so you had so many more journalists, so many more outlets, so much more exposure. But the salaries, the pay, was starting to drop because of the internet taking away a lot of, like, you know, revenues from the newspapers and whatnot.
And so that’s been the biggest change I’ve seen, and then, of course, also the way that people consume news has changed so dramatically in terms of, like, Margaret was saying, social media changing things. We were getting our news from social media for a time during the Arab Spring where we had to rely so heavily on it to know what was going on because, remember, some of you may have read that in Egypt, for example, the government shut down the internet. They shut down mobile phones.
So we were cut off from the world. I was with Bloomberg at the time. We couldn’t even call our editors to file stories. We had to go to landlines and file to the bureau chief, who was sitting at his house in Cairo, who would then use his landline to call the bureau chief in Istanbul, who would then file our stories because we were cut off from the internet, and it was such a shocking thing to suddenly have to not rely on the internet again and go old school. And so we now rely so heavily on this new technology, both for the information we receive but also for the way we also put the information out, and so it’s changed a lot.
TALEV: It was really—now it’s Saturday morning, I’m fuzzy—but it was Libya, wasn’t it, or was it Syria? It was Libya, wasn’t it, where a lot of the initial reports about what was actually going on and what was happening were people—were accounts that were being driven from Twitter—
SALAMA: All of them. Egypt, Gadhafi—
KIRK: Gadhafi was—
SALAMA: Gadhafi—yeah, Libya, Syria.
TALEV: It really was Gadhafi, I think, was where it was, like, almost like a tipping point where it was, like, oh, this is how it’s—this is how we’re going to report stuff now when we can’t get—
SALAMA: Mmm hmm. Yeah. Egypt, too.
TALEV: —before we can get to the place.
SALAMA: Mmm hmm.
KIRK: The other question that I had for you to start the conversation is what is the media’s role. There was a definition way back when, listening to you talk about what’s going on now in the way that you report, it’s—this is one of those when I was a reporter 20 years ago—in covering the second term of the Clinton administration and the Monica Lewinsky story broke. It was really new that the Drudge Report, which is now old hat, was a—was a source of—
TALEV: Still drives a lot of traffic, though. I mean—
KIRK: Still drives a lot of traffic.
TALEV: —if you get Drudge, that’s your day. It’s good.
KIRK: Yes. But at the time, that was really novel and that, to me, wasn’t that long ago. But there were defined—there was a defined thought about what the role of the media was. Essentially, hold up a mirror to the public and you’re the messenger, not the message.
TALEV: Well, and it occurs to me that you’re—we’re talking about new media but you’re—the people on your panel are two of the kind of most traditional media forces. We’re wire services, you know, which is, like, once upon a time there was a really clear delineation between what’s a wire service and what’s everything else and I would say there still is, to some extent. If you look in the White House briefing room, because I know we’re going to talk about the White House, right? If you look in the White House briefing room—
KIRK: Yes. (Laughter.)
TALEV: —those front—those first two rows tend to really be—
KIRK: The traditional.
TALEV: —what you would think of as traditional media. It’s wire services, it’s networks, and it’s major newspapers, and those—and the third row, to a large degree, is also major newspapers, radio outlets, TV, and wires. And so those media are still a lot of that kind of traditional media where the central mantra is tell people what’s happening and try to bring some context to what’s happening by bringing in other analysts, to a large extent establishment analysts who have had years of experience, are sort of battle tested, are considered kind of tested arbiters of—barometers of a situation, what’s going on—and it is meant to just tell an average person who wants to spend five or 10 minutes thinking about this, this is what’s happening—this is where it might be going.
But there’s all kinds of stratifications of other media now that are weighing in and covering those kind of stories and so there’s—when you say, like, the media there’s, as you—as you well know, no such thing as the media. There are several different mediums and within those mediums several different types of outlets with different types of purposes for existing.
SALAMA: Yeah. I mean, it’s exactly what Margaret says is that each one kind of serves a purpose and has an audience, and the wider the industry kind of grows in terms of the different—the different types of outlets there, the more niche some of these newspapers get and you have, you know, some more mainstream, like the news organizations we work for, who kind of try to just as objectively as possible tell the news and then some people who really cater to a certain audience.
And so that’s also changing and it’s really influenced the way people perceive news a lot and we’ve seen it so much in the last, you know, couple of—in the last year, especially with this campaign that we just went through where people would say, well, I don’t know what real news is anymore because you’re getting so many different perspectives told from different news organizations. And so it may all be true, but when you’re only showing one perspective in a story versus the whole kind of every side of it, it tends to kind of skew what the full story is.
KIRK: Uh-huh, and—
TALEV: But it also can bring in different sources, people you’ve never heard of, kind of tells you what a different segment of society is thinking about or interested in or looking at. It’s all information that’s all useful.
SALAMA: Of course. Yeah.
TALEV: But it’s gotten—it’s more, more complicated than it used to be.
KIRK: Way more complicated. So you mentioned the White House. Let’s talk about the White House.
KIRK: How is the—(laughter)—how is covering the Trump administration different from covering previous administrations? And, Margaret, you have covered several administrations so I’ll go to you first on that.
TALEV: Well, Obama’s is the—Obama’s term one and term two were really the ones I had full-time experience with and it—I mean, it’s, obviously, very different. So and I think when we do a Q&A we can talk about whatever you guys want to talk about. But the—from a press perspective, I would say there’s two main differences. One is that the public face of the relationship between the administration and the press is a lot more kind of strategically antagonistic on the part of the president.
KIRK: They’re very aggressive on pushing back more so, wouldn’t you say?
TALEV: I think it’s—I would say it’s much more part of the public narrative. In covering the Obama administration, they wanted to control information and tell the stories on their terms and keep reporters on their heels also. But the public face was like—I mean, you would hear President Obama talk about the press and it was, like, plays a vital role in democracy, you know, and then, like, behind the scenes they, like, shot you down, redirect you, whatever.
This is—(laughter)—this is completely different and the idea of fomenting and encouraging the public to turn against the media it’s a completely different strategy and it is required—I mean, it’s like disturbing and all that when you talk about that but put that aside for a second. It’s required the press to think strategically about its own role and, like, kind of how we want to play that, which is not something that we’re particularly comfortable doing.
I mean, most reporters and media outlets don’t want to be part of the story and this has forced us to become the story or it’s at least baited us into become the story. And so you have a whole series of decisions to make like is this the—is this a situation where you just, like, ignore it and put your head down and keep working or do you have to put out some sort of statement and say something and what would that really accomplish and is he succeeding by undermining public confidence in the press anyway and how do you address that.
So it’s just—none of that was an issue with Obama. With Obama, it was a different issue. It was an issue of them wanting the world to think that they’re the most open and transparent administration of all time, completely accessible, and then, you know, there’s, like, in reality five or six people who know anything and, you know, the depth of your ability to report depends on whether they feel like playing ball with you. It’s a different scenario but—
KIRK: And that had been the tradition previous.
TALEV: That’s how White Houses have always worked.
KIRK: Previously, yeah.
TALEV: This is a lot—this has a potential to be a lot more destabilizing, which is, obviously, the entire point of it, and not just destabilizing to our profession but destabilizing to government institutions, democracy, geopolitics, all that kind of stuff.
So it’s minor—you know, minor stuff. So it’s—(laughter)—it’s—and then but on the flip side of it, because of the changing role of the media and the changing kind of mandates of media, all these news organizations are businesses. If the president wants to go live and say whatever he wants to say, if people want to watch it, if people are clicking, then—
KIRK: They’ll broadcast it.
TALEV: —the networks are going to carry it and print outlets are going to feel like if they’re carrying it we should write it. And so it’s been a—that’s almost even a different topic but that set off a different weighing of circumstances, which is, like, how do you handle this, right.
TALEV: And then—there’s news, which is, like, what you want to actually be covering—what’s happening in the agencies, what’s happening in regulations, what’s the legislation they’re pushing, what’s the executive policies that don’t require legislation.
KIRK: What’s happening with Russia.
TALEV: And doing that while managing the kind of media thing off to the side has been—it’s—I’ve aged, like, 10 years in the last three months.
KIRK: In the last 100 days.
TALEV: I looked much better in December than I do now. (Laughter.)
KIRK: Vivian, you’ve been abroad and you’re back here for a year. What does the rest of the world think? Not that you can speak for the rest of the world, but you have—you have a different perspective because you’ve been able to watch U.S. media from abroad and talk to people on the ground in other countries and find out what they think about what they see.
SALAMA: Well, I mean, first of all, in terms of—you know, a lot of people were concerned that the Trump administration would kind of crack down on the media and wouldn’t be as accessible. I mean, to Margaret’s point, I can’t speak with authority. I can’t compare with authority because I haven’t covered other White Houses.
But I know my colleagues have been very pleasantly surprised just because of President Trump’s public rhetoric during his campaign and through the transition of, you know, this sense that we got that things could really change and he could really kind of pull away some of the, you know, First Amendment freedoms that we have in terms of open press.
So that’s been a pleasant surprise in terms of their—it’s a work in progress but every administration is a work in progress in the beginning and so they’ve definitely come a long way and I know my colleagues have been very pleasantly surprised in a lot of circumstances. So that’s important to kind of note.
In terms of my biggest comparison, I mean, for me, I looked at it in a very different way because, I mean, frankly, just coming from some countries that I worked in in the Middle East, I’m just glad that I’m not arrested for everything I write because literally, like, that’s what you’re dealing with in the Middle East in some of these countries where it’s, like, OK, you write one bad thing about them and you need to hide out for a while.
So, I mean, that’s, obviously, a really big change for me. It’s, like, not—just not worrying about the stories you write, like, actually having security implications on you and that was a constant concern for me overseas.
In terms of how the world is looking at this, I mean, it depends on the country and it depends on the national interests of that country. You have a lot of—a lot of countries that are pleasantly surprised with Trump. You know, you—he’s brokering deals with the Israelis and with the Saudis and, you know, he took a warmer stance on Russia in the beginning and so the Russians said, this is going to be great—it’s going to be so different than before.
And the Israelis, they said Obama wasn’t—you know, did not have a great relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so everything is going to change and, you know, and every week is different. We’ve been seeing sort of this evolution. It’s been a hundred days today and it’s—every single day is literally an evolution and he’s learning in the public. In front of our eyes he’s learning and sometimes he even says that he’s learning on the job, you know. I mean, he’s not exactly very private with his thoughts.
And so we really—(laughter)—see firsthand this—like, this learning process and even when there are bumps in the road it’s, like, we kind of just bump—we go through the bumps together and it’s been really interesting in that regard. I mean, this is definitely unlike anything I’ve ever covered before and I’m coming from wars, you know. (Laughter.)
And so it is definitely—it’s been extraordinary just seeing how open he is with everything that’s on his mind and the way that we have to sort of sometimes interpret it. I mean, there’s so many situations. There was a tweet two days ago that kind of randomly mentioned Puerto Rico in the middle, and our Puerto Rico bureau called us and they’re, like, what did he mean by this and we were, like, we have no idea. You know, sometimes there’s a little bit of interpretation that goes on and we have to sort of pester the—and we can’t just report his tweets without understanding and so we’ll have to pester the administration and say, well, what did the president mean by this and sometimes the administration will be, like—
TALEV: We don’t know.
SALAMA: —we’ll get back to you, you know. (Laughter.) And so it’s really been interesting. It’s very different than anything I’ve covered but it’s definitely not been boring.
TALEV: You know, can I jump in real quick?
KIRK: Sure. Absolutely.
TALEV: Because she made a point that I meant to make and I got carried away. But the idea of access, that is really another difference between Trump and the Obama administration or Obama himself. President Obama did not love wasting his time having daily interactions with the press. So for sometimes several days in a row, maybe even a week in a row, we just would not even see him if there weren’t public events on the schedule.
Then other times we would. We’d—there would be what they call pool sprays, when the tighter group that can—that covers stuff when the—when there’s not enough room for all the reporters would get called into the Oval Office or the Roosevelt Room. We would do that with President Obama. We’d toss him a question and maybe he’d answer. But it was always very, like—you know, he was just, like, you could—his body language was, like, I would really rather not be dealing with any of you right now.
And so with President Trump it’s really different. I think initially we were concerned did they want to move us to a different building—do they want to keep the press at a distance from him. And in kind of our negotiations or discussions with the incoming White House before we started we sort of said, you know, we know you legally have the right to do a lot of things but before you make any drastic changes, like, there is a history of this—of there being something in this for the White House as well, just to have proximity and the ability to engage with the press that’s covering you. And so, sure enough, the term began with us still in the briefing room, thank goodness, still in our work spaces. It’s very hard to change that back if it were to change.
So, anyway, and the president having these pool sprays in the Oval Office and the Roosevelt Room, and it turned out that he loved them because—(laughter)—
SALAMA: He really did.
TALEV: —he appears to love them because sometimes they’ll be on the schedule maybe two times a day when you think the pool will be called in to watch him sign an executive order or, you know, whatever—meet with coal miners or whatever it is. And but then those two will turn into four things, because you’ll be escorted out and then you’ll hear him say, get the pool back, and all of a sudden you’re being rushed in the Oval Office because he wants to, like, do a photo op with the guy who’s the coal guy and then he wants to tell you something. And so the press actually is engaging so far in the first four months much more on a day-to-day basis with this president than with the last president.
SALAMA: And he also wants to show everybody who comes through the Oval Office—this has been his thing now is that, you know, you come to the Oval Office, you have—you come to the White House you have to see the Oval Office. And so we’d be in the Roosevelt Room, which is not too far from the Oval Office, and suddenly, as the media is starting to kind of file out, he’d be, like, let’s all go to the Oval Office—media, you’re coming with us—and all of us just sort of look around because we’re being escorted out. It’s all this confusion—
SALAMA: —and then he’ll be, like, yeah, I want the media to come, too, and suddenly Secret Service, like, their heads are spinning because for all of us to redirect and go into the Oval Office it’s a—it’s a security issue. Like, they have to secure the way and make sure that everything is fine. And so it’s actually been great because we—we’re happy about it because it means access and it means he wants us now.
TALEV: But it’s a—but it is a real fundamental question of what does that get you. So you’re there in front of the president. He’s taking a picture with an astronaut or whatever. But do you really know—(laughter)—more—do you know more about what he’s doing, right. And by some of the other measures of access like the visitor logs, which, by the way, the Obama team made really hard to use also but they—but they had them. They were available. Now the White House is not releasing visitor logs.
There were always bypasses around that anyway. Some administration official would go across the street to Peet’s Coffee or Caribou—now it’s Peet’s—and then oh, it’s not on the visitor log so it didn’t happen in the White House. So there’s always been short circuits to this but now it is considerably harder to get public information through a standard venue.
So you may have access to the president to shout him a question but it doesn’t mean that you really have visibility into what he’s doing and that kind of permeates at other levels, too. There’s still a lot of concerns and question marks about the ability to—you know, the tax returns. I mean, you guys know all of this. So there’s a lot of concerns about this. But on some of these measures just qualitatively there’s—it’s a different kind of interaction, a different kind of feel.
KIRK: Before we open it up to the audience for questions, I want to follow up on something that you said. You talked about reporting from countries where if you wrote something bad you were just happy if the security folks didn’t come after you.
Is there any concern with the aggressive push back from the White House or the aggressive talking about fake news, everything that’s written that they don’t like is fake news, in some instances? Do you feel that that sends a signal to the people in these other countries where there really aren’t press freedoms anyway that, hey, the White House is now doing some of the things that we would like to do in terms of saying, oh, everything is fake news? Do you worry about that at all?
SALAMA: It’s a concern, definitely, that—I mean, not myself—not speaking on behalf of myself but even, like, human rights groups. You know, we just had the president of Egypt who was here who’s notorious for violating, you know, basic human rights in his country and the president called him a fantastic guy and sort of didn’t really discuss any major human rights issues with him. You had him congratulating the president of Turkey for his win in the election just last week, I guess. I don’t know. It’s all a blur. (Laughter.) But I think it was last week and—
KIRK: It was.
SALAMA: —and that raised some major red flags because, you know, election monitors said there were major irregularities in that election that were not—but the administration sort of said, well, you know, we realize there are concerns with this election but he’s a partner in the fight against ISIS.
And so they are—they are not necessarily ignoring the fact that there are problems in these countries but they are not addressing it, and for them to not address it probably makes them feel like it’s OK to proceed with business as usual. That seems to be at least what the human rights groups on the ground are saying right now and, you know, of course, you know, if they—if they don’t see an example playing out in the United States then a lot of them probably would believe that what they do is OK.
TALEV: Yeah. I think it’s a concern.
SALAMA: That’s—in brief.
KIRK: In brief, it’s a concern.
Well, I want to open it up to the room for questions because I’m sure that you all have a lot of questions. Just a reminder, again, this conversation is on the record and we do have microphones. So please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it because do remember that we are live streaming and you want the people who are watching at home to be able to hear your question. Please state your name and your affiliation or your school and please ask just one question because we do have a lot of folks in the room who, obviously, want the opportunity to ask their question, too.
So let’s see some hands and we’ll start right here with you. Yes, ma’am.
Q: Good morning, everybody. My name is Simone Williams. I am a student at American University—graduate student.
One, thank you, guys, for being here. Also, I appreciate this in the sense of you were talking about the news that you—like, what you see when you’re looking, like, those press briefings and, unfortunately, you don’t see people who look like you. So it’s amazing being able to see you guys and hear you guys talk today. So my question for you is your opinion and insight on—we’re talking about the changing role of media, knowing that social media does play a critical role there—how can we help facilitate that to make sure that voices aren’t getting lost.
At this point now, it’s just a lot of information out there and it’s a great opportunity for that civic engagement, which is great for us as individuals. But how do we just make sure those voices don’t get lost in the chaos of all the comments?
KIRK: Thank you.
SALAMA: That’s a good question. So which voices do you mean, particularly? Like, which voices are you concerned that are getting lost, just so I understand?
Q: Diverse voices. I think you can lose—like, we can all now have a chance to speak but what if whoever is out there choosing to respond to a certain thing is, like, overlooking those diverse opinions? Like, you’re just—now, all of a sudden, with all the diverse comments that are out there it still can then go to the mainstream and, like, how do you just keep the diversity out there?
SALAMA: Hard question.
KIRK: Is the White House press pool fairly diverse? I mean—
TALEV: We’re both in the—we’re both in the pool. I think you’re just not watching the briefings on the days when we’re in the chair. It is—you know, I have found that Sean, in his daily briefings, actually has broken a more longstanding tradition of starting with the AP but also of spending a lot of time on those front two rows and then, you know, it’s the rows behind those rows that are actually more diverse, not necessarily in terms of the correspondents but in terms of the outlets they represent—foreign press, specialty press.
And so he’s—we all know that he’s made a point to call on conservative outlets and that might be what you’re thinking about. But he’s also calling a lot more on foreign press and he’s getting all around that room. To that extent, I think that’s to be applauded, even if it means every once in a while we don’t get a question in the front two rows. But he’s moving quickly and he’s encouraging a diversity of input.
If I were going to be a media critic, which I’m not, but if I was going to do it for one second I would say that sometimes he skips around too quickly and doesn’t—the answer you get is too short to do very much with. But let’s be honest, those press briefings, at least in some critical time in Bill Clinton’s presidency, have not been the most revelatory and over time through—over the course of the Iraq war, over the course of the Obama administration, what the press briefing is, to a large extent, is the ability for the media collectively to get the questions it considers, collectively, important placed on the record and to press the administration to put its response, however short or long it is, on the record and that’s the main function of it. If you’re a reporter and the only conversations you’re having with the White House are in that venue, you got a big problem because there is not a lot of divulging of a whole lot of substance—
SALAMA: Substance, yeah.
TALEV: —beyond the president has—may have been made aware of the attacks. He was in the situation room. The principals are being briefed. OK, that’s great. You can write that. Or, you know, he opposes this. He’s for it, or some—you know, some tweak at the Democrats or something.
But if you really want to get into substance, what is happening with the North Korea policy or, you know, aspects of health care negotiations, none of that is happening in the briefing anyway. But to the extent that he’s bouncing around the room and calling on different people, you are hearing a broad kind of encompassing of the types of questions that various constituencies and the media are interested in.
KIRK: So was your question more specifically about who’s asking the questions in terms of are there more women, are there more women of color, from varied backgrounds? Is that—was that the gist of your question in terms of whether you’re asking—
TALEV: Or the diversity of the reporters themselves?
KIRK: —the diversity of the reporters themselves?
SALAMA: It’s a work in progress, I think.
TALEV: Oh, no. I think—
SALAMA: I think women—there are a lot of women.
TALEV: There are a lot of women.
SALAMA: There are a lot of women. As far as minorities, I think every news organization is working to address that more and more, and I’m speaking as a minority myself.
TALEV: But if you looked at the Clinton campaign, there was, you know—like, probably the majority of reporters covering the Clinton beat day to day were women, which always made me feel a little awkward, too. It’s, like, what’s the deal with that, you know, but—
SALAMA: There are a lot of women. There definitely are. I think it’s great.
TALEV: President Obama—you know, in the beginning of his administration when he was elected I think there was a real effort of news organizations to try to make sure that their Obama—the team covering Obama included African-American reporters. He’s the first black president, you know. But in terms of—I think there’s a lot of diversity in the press corps but not as much ethnic racial diversity in the—in the major mainstream outlets that you see the faces of those people. There’s some. I mean, there’s some. But it’s not—but it’s not—
KIRK: People are familiar with April Ryan, who has—
TALEV: Well, sure. I mean, and there’s women. There’s people of color. There’s people from different ethnic backgrounds. But it’s—it is—I agree, it’s a work in—it is a work in progress. But there’s some diversity. It’s not just all white guys covering the White House. It’s really not anymore and it hasn’t been for many years and it’s not now.
SALAMA: Right. And I’m going to keep on saying over and over again, I was actually astonished at the number of women, like, and I know even at my—at my news organization all the senior people are women. It’s definitely changing as far as, like, various ethnicities, various ethnic and racial groups. It’s a work—it’s a work in progress. Yeah.
KIRK: There’s a question in the back, gentleman with the glasses.
Q: Hi. Thank you so very much for your comments. My name is Winslow Robertson. I’m a management consultant for my own China-Africa company.
And I’m asking—having lived in China where the press—the state-owned press basically functions as stenography for the government —whether the role of American outlets that deal with the White House maybe might want to think about different ways of reporting besides taking official government statements, carrying it live, and making that a story. And really good China reporting is a lot of palace intrigue, reading the tea leaves, although I’m not a very big fan of that phrase, and I’m seeing a lot of American media do reporting on that.
But is it necessarily the best use of resources to have highly-paid very good journalists basically do photo ops for government mouthpieces rather than perhaps doing more shoe-leather journalism? And that’s the long meandering question I’m asking.
KIRK: Thank you.
SALAMA: I mean, I want to make sure I’m understanding your question correctly. So you’re asking why there aren’t any—why Americans are not doing more diverse reporting beyond the government, comparing it to China or why China—what China can do to do more?
Q: Why American media outlets—why White House—why White House reporters or correspondents are not perhaps—religiously reporting the words of the White House as a news story in and of itself. If I read Xinhua, for example, a government story from a Chinese government minister—
SALAMA: Right. OK. Got it.
Q: —is interesting as a press release.
SALAMA: I mean—yeah, go ahead.
TALEV: Actually, I think it’s a really provocative and interesting question. Just so you can see our behind-the-scenes intrigue and how we work, at, like, a major news outlet like AP or Bloomberg, there’s the White House team and then there is, like, the investigative team and the campaign finance teams and money teams and the people who cover the State Department, the people who cover defense and there’s long-term projects reporters based out of New York and some in Washington, and we are all coordinating our coverage of the Trump administration.
So my team—my team is six people and we take turns “staffing the booth,” which means—it’s, like, basically, ours is not a 24-hour operation but it’s, like, maybe a 19-hour-a-day operation at the White House. We always have somebody there. If the president jumps in the motorcade, we go. If there’s 12 sprays in the Oval Office with the coal miners and astronauts, we’re there. If we—spend four hours sitting in the briefing room getting almost no information but putting our questions on the record. And that’s what you’re talking about. It’s, like, why are you 44 sitting in the back of a van trying to figure out whether Rand Paul has a baseball cap in his back pocket, right? (Laughter.) I agree with you completely.
So but that’s not happening instead of the other stuff and so we’re constantly coordinating. So if I’m at the White House and I hear a tip about some business person who is there who was never on the schedule, I’m going to let our guys know and somebody else is going to do that while I’m sitting there with my glasses trying to figure out if that’s Rand Paul. (Laughter.)
So you see and you hear things and then you work with other teams who don’t have to be there all the time. I think the real challenge in covering the White House is not at these large news organizations that have a lot of people and resources. The real challenge is if you’re part of a small—a smaller news operation—a regional newspaper, an outlet that covers, you know, immigration or gay rights or the conservative agenda, and you’re, like, one or two people trying to cover the White House.
Then you have a decision, a real decision, which is, is the best use of my time to be here or is the best use of my time to be talking to people outside this building, to be doing document searches and traditional investigative work to be—you can devote one person to reading the Federal Register and you can cover the White House just that way.
We don’t have to decide because our news organizations are lucky enough that we have the resources and, if we coordinate well, the ability. And that’s what you saw with some of the tremendous coverage. Like, what’s the most memorable coverage of the Trump campaign, right? It’s a lot of the business stuff and the Russia stuff, right, and some of the—I don’t want to talk about the other stuff right now. (Laughter.) But so most of those people were not the campaign reporters, the people on the bus, the people at the speeches. Those were the other people—the other parts of those teams.
But they’re all working in a coordinated fashion, and those people who are doing the investigative work they benefited greatly from some of the visibility that we may have before getting to know people, if we’re in a room.
The palace intrigue stuff, like, I go both ways on it. On the one hand, is it really that important, and on the other hand, it kind of is because you see in these different channels of power different ideologies that are competing for the president’s attention and opinion. And if there’s the more nationalist isolationist kind of traditional—that agenda, and then there’s the more globalist, you know, Goldman Sachs agenda, it’s important to know that. It’s important to, like, to see the shivs because then you understand a little bit more about the contours of debates like what to do about NATO or NAFTA or how to approach China.
But to get really deep into the substance, you can never do it if you’re sitting in that chair or in that van, looking at Rand Paul’s baseball cap. So—and so it’s—there’s a real coordination that happens. But I agree with you, and I think that to some extent an internal debate inside the administration may have been if we limit the access—the daily access, all it will do is drive them into the other access. We’re lucky, I think, that we can do both. But I think the folks who are just a couple people in D.C. it’s a—it’s a real—it’s a really good important question to be asking.
SALAMA: So just to build on that and actually to use China as an example is a lot of this palace intrigue stuff, even though it may not be that exciting for a lot of readers to see on a day-to-day basis, it’s really helped us to understand prevailing ideologies inside the White House. And so we just had Xi Jinping here down at Mar-a-Lago recently and we kind of knew ahead of time because of the palace intrigue stuff that a lot of the sort of pro-trade guys were starting to prevail inside the White House and so that he wouldn’t—might not necessarily cut off China or, you know, from trade or really crack down on some of the issues that he had raised or in the campaign like a lot of his China advisors had been advising him to do because these other people were kind of becoming—they were kind of rising stars and they were a lot more open to these bilateral trade agreements that were—you know, that basically engage China a lot more.
And so that’s just one example. And by the way, we also have our international teams on board with us, too. So a lot of the stories that we did about Trump’s assets in Turkey, for example, our Turkey team was very much on board with us. We also have an international investigative team on top of our domestic investigative teams. And so it’s very much a group effort and, again, like, because we’re large news organizations we definitely benefit from that. The smaller ones really struggle. But they still—a lot of them still do great work. They just have a lot more legwork to do to get those stories, you know.
KIRK: Great. Let’s go back to this side of the room. I’m going to stay in the back. The gentleman—
Q: Thank you very much. My name is Ricardo Gibson (sp), and in a previous life I tried out journalism.
I just wanted to go back to the comments that you all were talking about regarding fake news. How do you all operate in a climate where information is defused, facts are challenged, and every news story appears to be scrutinized for some kind of political bias?
SALAMA: Make sure that you’re right. I mean, I’ve gotten asked this so many times and for me it’s always really daunting because of the amount of effort I put into just making sure my stories are right and that we get multiple sources. We don’t do—for most stories we don’t do one source, and that’s really important.
I know there’s a big conflict right now in the—between the administration and the news outlets because of anonymous sources. You know, that’s done, obviously, to protect the sources from any retribution that might come. You know, and this was something that we did overseas as well. It was a different kind of retribution. We were worried that, you know, our sources would, you know, disappear, in Iraq and places like that.
But, you know, obviously, people not wanting to lose their jobs or, you know, get harassed or anything like that we have to do it. But we take extensive measures to make sure and I—having worked for Bloomberg, I know Bloomberg is, like, really, really tough on sourcing as well.
SALAMA: Yeah. So, I mean, that’s really the best you can do is just make sure you do the best stories you can get. Double check, triple check. You know, we always ask the administration for comments ahead of time when we’ve got source stories just because we give them the opportunity to speak on it so that they can’t come up to us afterwards and say, well, you’re publishing this story and it’s not correct—well, we gave you the opportunity to dispute it beforehand, and still it happens sometimes in a lot of cases.
But it’s—you know, it’s hard. It’s hard when a lot of people have sort of made that—like, made up their minds about what the media is all about and we have to just work very hard to try to convince them that that’s not the case and that we really do work hard to tell the truth.
TALEV: You know, I would say two things. One is that a lot of reporting is based on statistics and your reporting is only, in that case, as good as the statistics are. So I think there is kind of a renewed attention on making sure that the sources of your statistics are good and one concern about some of the early signals from the administration was were they going to make statistics harder to find or kind of muddy statistics—would they calculate economic or labor indicators in a different way or make that data less available. Same with climate data, environmental data.
So that’s been something to watch. And the other is with the stratification of the media there are outlets—information outlets, entertainment outlets—that might call themselves news outlets that we wouldn’t think of as news outlets in the traditional sense. The information is not always reliable. Sometimes they sort of peddle conspiracy theories. Is that part of the media?
The media is whatever you define it to be. The media is whatever you guys think it is. And so the media at large suffers when—if there’s a growing segment of the media that’s not entirely reliable. I don’t think there’s any way for an individual reporter to really tackle that. All you—what you do is—at our level, you know, our job is to report stories and it is, I think, probably at the management level, entrepreneurial level, society’s conception of this, that those other issues shake out. But I—but I think there’s been certainly renewed pressure, just like Viv said, to make sure that your own reporting, that your own sources and stats that you’re dealing with are right, and there should be that anyway. That should always be what we’re trying to do.
KIRK: Right. Let’s see. Lady here with the glasses.
Q: Hi. Kristen Sherry (sp). I’m a graduate student at George Washington University and, basically, all my full-time work is in the cyber realm.
So kind of going off of the fake news, because I seem to spend all of my time looking at Russian sources nowadays and watching the dissemination in the—in the U.S., one of the things you touched upon was focusing on how the Obama administration wanted to be looked at as more transparent. But then you compared it to how open Trump has been with the press. So my question revolves around if the Trump administration were to be more transparent, do you think that would have any push back on the amount of fake news from an international perspective?
TALEV: Can you follow the thread just a little bit more? I’m not sure if I understand.
Q: Yeah. So—
TALEV: Seems like a smart question. I’m just not sure if I get it.
Q: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. No. So the amount of fake news especially that’s come from Russia and Eastern Europe just has skyrocketed since the election, and I’m wondering, if there—the administration was more open and, like, transparent in what they’re doing, would that have an effect on the amount of fake news that’s coming from these areas?
KIRK: I don’t think so.
TALEV: I’m not—I guess I’m not sure why it would. I think—I think of those as distinct pots but maybe because I’m just not—I mean, actually I would say when we’re done leave us your card. We’re both going to want to call you to talk about cyber. But—
SALAMA: Right. Exactly. (Laughter.)
TALEV: But I’m not sure if I see the connection. If by releasing which corporate executives had come in to talk about sanctions, let’s say, who was in the White House, if six months from now we were, like, let’s go back and see who was in the White House for the month of February or who did—who did Gary Cohn meet with for the first month of the presidency, I don’t know why that would help fake news. I think it would help us because we’d have a better—we’d be able to tell the American public a better sense of who was coming to meet with the administration—who the administration wanted to meet with. It’s possible that there could be some vulnerabilities to the administration but I’m not sure if I know what they are.
SALAMA: And so much of the accusations of fake news kind of stem—like, toward the mainstream media stem from some of these deeper, more investigated stories that, you know, maybe just don’t jive with people—some people well. And so I think that that’s—you know, and that, again, like Margaret was saying earlier is that, you know, what we get on a day-to-day basis from the White House isn’t necessarily the ones that influence those deep dive stories and so I guess what you’re saying I don’t think that that would change the fake news issue.
KIRK: Right here.
Q: Thank you. Hi. My name is Michael Overton. I’m also a Master’s student at George Washington and my question is about disinformation in Russian—as a Russian tactic.
So my Master’s thesis focuses on disinformation in Sweden specifically but in Washington, more generally, and I know that Russian disinformation campaigns have been used to kind of sow doubts about Western values like tolerance and diversity and liberalism as a whole.
So I wanted to ask kind of what is your assessment of the role that Russia is playing in using disinformation as a tactic in the media, not just here in the United States but also around the world.
SALAMA: Russia as a whole.
TALEV: Easy questions.
KIRK: Easy question, but Russia does have this whole info war kind of little green men, and their job is to basically disseminate disinformation.
SALAMA: Kompromat, right?
TALEV: What do you think? Do you want to start? (Laughter.)
SALAMA: I mean, you know, the intelligence reports that came out a couple of months ago were really very telling about the way that they’re using this—you know, this to influence a narrative and that they always have in elections all around the world. It’s not just the United States.
I mean, Germany has been very concerned about this, a number of countries, and we just had—the White House, actually, when the missile strikes happened in Syria a couple of weeks ago—again, I don’t—my time is all blurred so the timeline is blurred. But I guess it was the beginning of April. The White House briefed us and a big part of their briefing wanted to emphasize the Russian attempt to influence the narrative of what took place with those chemical attacks as a counter narrative to what the Americans were putting out.
And so, obviously, this is a major concern not just to the previous administration to this one, and they are acknowledging that the Russian—you know, the Russian kind of propaganda campaign is very strong and alive and it’s not spared this administration. We haven’t heard much from the president himself apart from just coming out one time and saying, you know, that he thinks that the relationship with Russia is at an all-time low.
But he never elaborates. He never mentions Putin directly in that context. And so it remains to be seen if anything is really—if they’re going to take any serious action against that. But it’s definitely been a concern both for the previous and current administration.
TALEV: I think there is a fundamental question that I still don’t totally know the answer to as to how much awareness President Trump and his inner circle had about the Russian efforts before the investigations began to reveal this information. So do they know more than they’re letting on? Because if not, that must have been a huge and terrifying revelation, right. You only know what you know, and then to find out what you didn’t know, which is one thing if you’re a candidate and another thing if you’re running the free world.
So there’s that, and then I think there’s this kind of parallel trend or question about, you know, did Brexit beget Trump and does Trump affect France and Germany and all this stuff. And if so, did Trump think he was going to be the winner or is Putin the real winner, right. That’s, like, the big dork political question of 2017, right? (Laughter.) So that’s really interesting.
But I think that most Americans and, frankly, a lot of American political reporters, really, we’re not spending a lot of time thinking about what Russia was doing or cyber or any of this stuff. These are—these have not been—until this year and until the revelations of the ongoing investigations have not been part and parcel of the narrative of, like, what’s driving American politics. Now they are. Everybody thinks about it now.
And then the third piece that I would say is that, like—(laughter)—who was alive when Ronald Reagan was president in this room? So this is, like, insane, right? (Laughter.) And so but I—but the—but if you look at what’s happened in the rest of the world and if you look at what drove a lot of the Arab Spring stuff and the simple but mostly accurate explanation that it’s economic uncertainty in the rest of the world that drives a lot of violence or instability or just kind of young men sitting around with nothing to do, right, and then if you look at what’s going on with this country after the 2008 financial crisis and kind of just the trajectory of globalism and automation and what that’s meant for the working class, right, what would it take another country to fundamentally turn the U.S. on itself or against itself?
That would be one factor. And so it’s completely separate from what any other countries want to do. It’s just the question of U.S. economic stability and how that makes us potentially vulnerable, and if cyber is the mechanism, fine, then through cyber, but to—through a fundamental weakening of that sort of trust and fabric in government.
KIRK: Does the media have a role in countering the disinformation?
KIRK: And what is that—what is that role? Since we’re talking about the changing role of media, what’s the responsibility of the people who cover the White House to try to counteract the disinformation? I mean, because sometimes it’s not all that easy to identify that it’s part of a disinformation campaign.
TALEV: Yeah. God, I don’t even know how to answer that. But, like, just the fact that we all know what we’re talking—
KIRK: I’m sure we’re not—I’m not playing stump the panel.
TALEV: I know, but, like, the fact that we all know what we’re talking about and that I can talk in not complete sentences is because, like, is because it’s been a news story. It’s because we’re talking about it. I think the media is talking about it. But it depends on how people, you know, get their news.
If you look at a network news show, either—kind of the morning programs, but even a night time—nightly news program and you look at how much of that is about foreign policy, how much of that is about investigative stuff versus how much of it is about kind of more pop culture stuff, I mean, that’s just like an ongoing—but all this information is there and the great, like, power of this is that if you want to know something real and true and deep you can find it, usually for free, right here in, like, four seconds. At least everyone in this room can.
If you don’t have a smart phone, have a limited data plan, live in a place that, you know, doesn’t have good internet service or busy all the time and have five jobs, OK, that’s harder. But, like, everyone in this room, if you want to know a substantive assessment of what’s going on can find it. It’s out there. It’s just not always as right in your face out there as other stuff.
KIRK: But the fake news that got filtered through places like Facebook and social media—
TALEV: OK. Don’t get your news from Facebook. I mean, that’s just—(laughter)—so don’t.
KIRK: Rule number one.
TALEV: I mean, you can get an idea from Facebook and say, oh, I wonder if that’s true and then go—
KIRK: And then search it.
SALAMA: Don’t they cater their—like, it’s all catered to what you, like advertising.
TALEV: Yeah. But so that’s—but that’s it.
SALAMA: I wish I could remember what it’s called. There’s a name for it.
TALEV: It’s people sort of self-select and fragmentize, and then pools become susceptible to that stuff driving itself into your inbox.
KIRK: I interrupted you. You had something you wanted to say.
SALAMA: I actually want to just—one more point to your question on—do you remember the days when President Trump, then President-elect Trump, used to really come out against the intelligence agencies? That doesn’t happen anymore since he’s been getting his daily briefings. And it seems really clear that that’s really influenced his perception on what the intelligence community does, how important it is for him to do his job.
And a very interesting thing happened. I actually did a short story on this a couple of weeks ago. My timing is all—it’s all a blur.
TALEV: It was all a couple of weeks ago.
SALAMA: It was all a couple of weeks ago. It might have been three years ago, but it was a couple of weeks ago.
TALEV: Really, really busy two-week stretch. (Laughs.)
SALAMA: But we did a story, because basically we saw Putin and the U.N.—and the Russian ambassador to the U.N. literally almost verbatim parroting the criticism that President Trump was doing to the intelligence—our intelligence agencies during the transition in terms of you had the Russian ambassador to the U.N. holding up—no, sorry, it was the Bolivian ambassador to the U.N., who sided with Russia on the Syria vote, holding up a picture of Colin Powell in 2003 insisting that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and, you know, citing U.S. intelligence, something that President Trump has repeatedly done through the campaign, saying, well, how do we know, and, you know, we got the weapons-of-mass-destruction thing wrong. Putin did the exact same thing that same day.
And so this was the danger. And I think he’s coming to realize that is that, you know, what he says matters, and it can really influence, you know, that sort of rivalry between the Russians in terms of them being able to take what he says and use it against the United States to cast doubt over the intelligence agencies and just what the Americans are trying to do. So this is all the changing sort of learn-as-you-go, 100-day-learning-curve situation that we’ve seen. And it’s really been interesting.
TALEV: It’s the—I think the bringing on board of a few key members of President Trump’s team—
SALAMA: The national-security team.
TALEV: —the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, to replace Michael Flynn; Mattis at the Pentagon, who the president hugely respects and who we think pretty much tells it to him like it is.
SALAMA: Dunford, Kelly.
TALEV: Dunford. Pompeo is in these daily briefings, the real hands-on role. And it’s people that he’s—
KIRK: And, just for those who don’t know, Mike Pompeo is CIA—CIA.
TALEV: We’re talking about the CIA director.
SALAMA: Dunford is the chairman of—the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
TALEV: The Joint Chiefs, the national security adviser, Pentagon secretary. You know, it’s—President Trump has made a shift, is making a shift, from campaigning to governing. And he’s still campaigning probably more than he needs to be. (Laughs.) But his—
SALAMA: He’s campaigning today.
TALEV: But his—but the stuff he’s dealing with now is real. It’s not—it’s not just about driving votes. And so the people—those people on the national-security team who are advising him are—have—you have seen the kind of direction, the focus, change in the group that has filled in around him.
KIRK: More questions. In the red here. Right here. Raise your hand again.
Q: Oh. (Laughter.) Good morning. My name is Bloomia Kinasotu (ph). I have no affiliation other than I was a former Obama appointee at the EPA.
My question is very simple. If you could go back to that day, November 9th, 2016, the day after the election, could you talk about how you felt, one? But then, two, are there any learning opportunities that the media has taken from covering that election? And how do you think things will change for the next election?
KIRK: Very good question, since there was a media bubble.
SALAMA: Well, we were feeling tired. It was an all-nighter, so definitely feeling tired.
TALEV: Yeah. I mean, I think this is going to almost sound trite, because we’ve all talked about it so many times, but the whole, like, middle-America thing, right. I covered the—I don’t mean middle America geographically. I mean the middle class, the working class, and not coastal elite communities, although I still struggle with how much of it was that and how much of it was the disenchantment on the coasts with the other alternative. I mean, it was both, right?
So I covered—many years ago I was in California and covered the recall election in 2003, which I always thought had a lot of parallels to this election, and although I think Schwarzenegger was a more benevolent campaigner in terms of his message, but it was the same idea—disruption. He used to say I’m going to blow up the boxes. (Laughter.) That was his expression, right, boxes.
But, you know, like, you had Gray Davis, who was the governor. Even Democrats didn’t really like him that much because he wasn’t very good at, like, making alliances that lasted or doing stuff for other people. And he was kind of, like, sort of—and so he was a hardworking guy but he was unpopular. And there was the energy crisis, and people blamed him. And there was a collapse in the .com. And so people blamed him for the economic stuff.
So you had a lot of the same circumstances. It was different. One’s a state level. One’s the presidency. And also Davis was the sitting governor and Hillary was just the president in waiting. It was sort of different, right. But what I saw in that election was this—a lot the same as what happens here, where the public just gets disenchanted with the situation and was always a little disenchanted with the figurehead and attaches the situation to the figurehead and says I know if I do this other thing, it might be, like, kind of crazy, and there’s a few red flags for what could be the perils of doing it, but I don’t care. I’m doing it anyway.
And, like, once people have decided I’m doing it anyway, that’s what they do. And so it doesn’t—there’s like a point at which—and we all know what those points were in the last campaign—where none of the stuff that traditionally you would have thought, oh, my goodness, well, that’s the end; you know, it’s over—none of it mattered, because people had already decided that’s what I’m going to do.
And the people who were kind of like—had decided, well, I’m probably going to vote for Clinton, if their heart wasn’t in it anyways, they didn’t. And so he—Trump was not just a candidate of—it wasn’t just his own attributes. It was his own attributes at a moment when people wanted that and had decided that’s different; I’m going with that.
So I think one of the lessons to learn is, like, a lesson that anyone who’s covered another thing like that in another place already knows, which is, like, society goes through cycles. And it’s hard to always separate someone’s disaffection for a particular candidate with just their disaffection for the time. Maybe in Clinton’s case it was both. But I don’t know. If Donald Trump had been running against a different Democrat, I don’t know if this would have happened. If Donald Trump was running against a smaller pool of Republicans, I’m not sure if he would have emerged. Maybe he would have, because maybe he was that disruption that people wanted for a time when things seemed stuck.
But I think, you know, for a political reporter, the conventional wisdom is that’s so crazy it can’t happen. And the truth is that there are times when—well, I guess I’ll revise. That’s never the right way to think, because it’s—there are many reasons why that won’t be true.
KIRK: Right here.
Q: My name is Mesica Hudboi (sp). I work for the federal government, but my question is not about that.
To pick up on this issue of the campaign and the disruption, as a consumer—and I really tried to follow the campaign—it just hurt, as a thinking person, to watch that. (Laughter.)
SALAMA (?): As a thinking person, did you say? (Laughter.)
Q: And so I couldn’t help but sitting and thinking at home that this disruption that happened was enabled by—
TALEV: By the media.
Q: —excessive attention to behavior that a 4-year-old at a dinner party, at a birthday party, would not get away with, and that somebody who comports themself in that manner is not fit for a country as complex and as important as ours. And that never came out.
TALEV: Are you saying the media had a responsibility not to just turn on the cameras and the tape recorders and let it stream?
Q: And the microphone and the pictures and all those things that go with it.
SALAMA: But that’s just the culture that we live in, the media culture that we live in. I don’t think it’s—you know, I don’t think this election was special in any way. I mean, maybe it felt like it. But, I mean, when there’s a terrorist attack somewhere, it’s like 24/7 live coverage of, like, you know, every police officer running in the street in that city for weeks and months. You know, I don’t think it’s that different.
TALEV: So you’re saying it shouldn’t be, right? You’re saying that the media should begin to re-impose filters on things, things or people that happen.
Q: There were other Republican candidates who had platforms that were moderate and addressed the social issues that our country faces. And I don’t feel like people were given enough opportunity to learn about them and perhaps say, sure, I appreciate living in this country is tough, and if you don’t have stuff and things and access, you can be very angry. But to not hear what some of the governors who were candidates were saying in a loud and clear voice that you could actually seriously consider it, because there wasn’t enough space.
TALEV: I think it’s—I think this is a real—I think part of this is that it’s very challenging to cover a 17-member field. And nobody wants to watch 17 people talk all the time. And so then it’s chicken-egg. If you’re 2 percent, how much coverage do you get? Are you really going to emerge as the breakthrough candidate if you have 2 percent, 1 percent, 3 percent, right?
And so any media is going to look at a 17-member field and say who are the five people that we need to be paying attention? Because it’s not going to be 17 people. Who are the five? And that’s where some of the problems began. Some of the other problems were specific to Trump, because he’s such an incredible communicator. He’s got such an incredible instinct for how to galvanize people’s attention that it was very difficult to look away. And I’m not sure that that’s the media’s role either to look away.
I’m not going to make this case from zero to the finish line. I think at some point on that finish line every media organization had that internal debate about can he just call us in the middle of a Sunday show and demand to get on the air, and do we have to take him? And I think there were a lot of postmortems, not because of who the winner was in the election.
Look, Donald—for the record, let’s—so you know where we’re coming from, or at least where I’m coming from, Donald Trump is president of the United States, whether you voted for him, whether you didn’t vote for him in this room, whether you are glad about your decision, whether you regret your decision, whether you think, well, it’s not as bad as I thought it would be, whether you think it’s worse. Wherever you’re coming from, he’s the president.
And so I don’t even want to have this conversation in the context of what does the media learn so that this never happens again. That’s, like, not what we’re here to do. But I think every news outlet, because this election was so unique and there were so many questions and controversies raised, did do a postmortem about how do we cover this in the future? What are our rules about engagement and about whether we’re treating all candidates fairly and giving them equal access? There were a lot of those discussions. And I think they—I don’t know if any lessons will be learned, but there was an attempt to have lessons.
KIRK: Always a postmortem. Oh, my goodness; so many questions. You’ve had your hand up for a while.
Q: Well, hi. My name is Emanuel Dabaleyu (ph). I’m an international student from Venezuela, doing my graduate program at American University.
And having lived for 14 years under Chavez, I understand the phenomenon of fake news. It’s nothing new. But it does have the power to create this kind of toxic political climate, and specifically a changing landscape in the media. Do you think, in your experience in this first 100 years, that there is more—
SALAMA: Days; 100 days.
TALEV: A hundred days. (Laughter.)
SALAMA: But it does feel like a hundred years. It does. (Laughter.)
Q: That’s right. We’re on the same track right here. (Laughs.) In the first hundred days—thank you—
SALAMA: Someone’s going to tweet that, you realize.
Q: (Laughs.) That’s OK.
SALAMA: A hundred days felt like a hundred years.
Q: Yes. Do you think that this is driving more cooperation or more competition within the media outlets since there’s so much to cover, so much content? And how much of it is it an illusion that you’re chasing something like a coal miner, an astronaut? And as women in this business, how much agency do you feel you have in making those calls? Thank you.
TALEV: That’s like 12 questions. (Laughter.)
SALAMA: That’s like what we do at the briefings—five in one.
TALEV: Right, the five-part question.
Q: I had my hand up a while. (Laughter.)
SALAMA: Oh, gosh. OK, so—
TALEV: —among news organizations.
SALAMA: Honestly, as someone who’s new to covering the White House, I was astonished at how well the White House press corps works together. The camaraderie is honestly amazing. And I was so impressed by that. I honestly thought the White House was going to be so cutthroat. We were going to be like, you know, in brawls.
There is competition; don’t get me wrong. But, you know, everybody produces great stuff. We scoop each other. We congratulate each other when we scoop each other. Everybody is really civilized and really, really great. But when it comes to the day to day, you know—and we were like this overseas too, you know—we work better in a group. We’re going to get further as a group, sort of, you know—it’s that team spirit that we have to do it together. And so it really is the case at the White House, and I’ve always been very impressed.
TALEV: I think the collaboration is not so much—you asked a fake-news question. It’s not so much vis-à-vis—it’s not news organizations saying how do we make sure that nobody thinks we’re fake or how do we contend with an outlet that is reporting disinformation. The collaboration or strategic thinking tends to come more about in dealing with the administration.
Like, if a foreign leader does a news conference in Washington—and this was true during Obama also—then the president will typically—they’ll take two questions from the U.S. press corps and two questions from the diplomatic—from the traveling press corps for the foreign leader.
OK, so if everybody is thinking we’ve got to ask him the Russia question or, like, we’ve got to ask him if he’s considering a military strike on North Korea or whatever it is, then kind of the regulars will often get together and go upstairs or downstairs, visit each other’s workspaces and say, have you heard who’s getting a question? Because in the past the White House, they wouldn’t—you would never—they would never ask you what you’re going to ask, but they would often give a heads-up, like even a vague heads-up, like, are you going to be there today or—you know, like that. And so you would get the sense, oh, I’m probably going to get a question.
And so there’s—just our tradition is there’s always a back channel of, like, does anyone know who’s getting the questions? And then you kind of, like, huddle together and be, like, ask whatever you want to ask, but I’m really dying to ask, you know, one on Syria. Or if you know who’s one and who’s two, you might kind of coordinate so that the questions that the room wants to know are addressed. That’s very common.
And it was—that’s how we did it during Obama. It’s harder with Trump because you’ll think, you know, who’s getting the two questions, and he’ll change his mind and just ask two other people who had no idea they were getting questions, which you can tell sometimes, by the way. (Laughter.)
And so the game’s changed a little bit. But we still try to do our part. Or if there’s—you know, early on, as they were trying to figure out their media strategy, you know, there would be some gaggles in place of a briefing, and the folks who were invited to those might be limited, or cameras or no cameras; a lot of kind of sticking together to try to say, look, we all want to preserve our ability to get scoops, to get our own information, to have exclusives, but there are some times when everybody needs to be included.
A daily briefing needs to be accessible to everybody. The briefing for a foreign-leader visit needs to be accessible to everybody. There are just kind of rules of engagement that we think are good for democracy, even if it reduces competition. And on those points we all stick together.
Oh, the woman question? I don’t—I don’t have, like, a whole—a lot of thoughts on it. I do think that the increasing numbers of women in that room do make a difference. I think there’s—I think there are still issues. Maybe we could have a different symposium on that sometime. But I don’t think it affects—I don’t think any women that I know of who cover the White House feel like they have to do it a different way or they don’t have, you know, an equal voice.
SALAMA: No. And, by the way, I felt like that in war zones too. A lot of people said you had to change things because you were in, like, certain countries that were really hard for women. I actually thought it was—I thought we had a benefit, if anything, which, I mean, I won’t—again, that’ll take us—
TALEV: That’s a different symposium.
SALAMA: —that’ll take us on a totally different topic.
TALEV: That’s a woman panel.
SALAMA: But I actually think that women had a lot of—yeah, had a lot of strengths, actually, abroad.
KIRK: That’s a fascinating question, though, that we need to have a conversation about, absolutely—not here today, because we are up to our absolute last question. And I’m going to go right here.
SALAMA: Her name’s Safi. She went to grad school with me. I’ve known this woman for 10 years.
KIRK: I did not know that. I just saw her hand. (Laughter.)
Q: Mariam Safi. I’m in the secretary’s office of Global Women’s Issues.
It was interesting you mentioned the sort of gender balance in the media sector, but then the sort of work in progress on the racial and ethnic diversity. So why is there more gender balance? Why do you think there is? And what are some of the barriers to entry for people of color? Thanks.
KIRK: Entry for people of color.
SALAMA: I don’t know. I mean, look, (ma’am ?)—(laughter)—I think that it’s the natural progression on so many things in our country is that, you know, women, African-Americans, kind of, you know, made strides before other groups did. And so I think we’re just seeing women making strides. African-Americans, to their credit, are starting to make significant, you know, advances in the media; not enough, but significant.
You know, the other, which, you know, probably you and I fall into the category, you know, it’s—you—it’s a work in progress, like I said earlier. (Laughter.) I mean, there—you know, there are not a lot of—there’s not a lot of ethnic diversity that I see. And I’ll admit that, even in my news organization, in—at the White House briefings. There’s some. But, you know, you mainly see white and black, and everybody else is—they’re making their way in. So I don’t know. Maybe my—maybe it’s different in this particular White House than before. I don’t know. I can’t speak for that. But, you know—
TALEV: I have to say that in my shop, if someone who had experience covering politics and also was fluent in Arabic or Mandarin showed up and was, like, I really want to cover the White House, there’s, like, a very good chance I would get bumped from the team tomorrow to make way for their person. I’m kidding, but not really. (Laughter.)
But it’s—I think there’s a tremendous interest and demand in news organizations for people whose diversity—whose ethnic diversity, life-experience diversity, brings skills, contacts, sources to the table that really expand our ability to do a certain kind of reporting.
In my experience—and I’m old, and I came up, like, the traditional newspaper way, which was I started covering obituaries, then I covered, like, local government and, like, I lived in random places and covered city councils and that kind of stuff. In my experience, the politics reporters in all of those outlets were basically white, for the most part, and were more men than women, but over time more of an equalization of women.
For many years—and this has only very recently changed—the White House correspondents—there was a farm-team system. You covered state legislatures and then you covered Congress, maybe Pentagon and the State Department, and then you got to the White House. With the changing media technology, social media and the collapse of a lot of newspapers across America and just all the changes to the media landscape, there are different paths now to the White House.
I’m one of the older White House correspondents. If I had to come to the White House in 1980, I would have been on the younger to medium age range. So there are now people covering the White House who have never covered any government system. I’m not sure—I’m not saying that’s good or bad. That’s another panel. (Laughter.) But I actually do think that that—that the silver lining of that is that it may expand the diversity, if that’s possible, because if you’re using the farm-team system, if you—I think, so, like, you have more opportunities in some ways if you have that kind of diversity that makes you different than other people, like, maybe you don’t want to cover the city council. Maybe you can go straight around that to another beat. But in doing that, you have bypassed—you have foreclosed the opportunity.
There was a time not that long ago in America where I think diversity would have been an obstacle to getting to a beat like the White House. I don’t think that’s true anymore. I really don’t. I think the obstacle is previous experience and your kind of natural pathway. But the resume—the minute you get in the door for that interview and they realize that you understand something culturally that the rest of your team doesn’t understand, that you look the way the rest of the team doesn’t understand, that you have lived in a place, speak a language, know people, that’s huge. That’s a huge asset. It’s just a matter of is that the job you want, and are the prior experiences you had building toward that?
SALAMA: And, I mean, just, like, I think the answer, direct answer, to your question is, remember, like—and you know this—like, you’re an Arabic speaker. We want you in the Middle East, because that is such an asset to be on the ground, working for an American newspaper, being fluent in English and also being able to speak the local language. And so they want you there.
I mean, I remember when I moved to Pakistan, like, literally I had my editors being, like, you know they don’t speak Arabic there, right? Like, I’d be like, I know that, yeah. I just want to go someplace else. You know, I’d go to China and literally everybody would be, like, you’re going to China. That’s interesting. You know, that’s different. And I’d be, like, why is it I want to go to China? But you’re an Arabic speaker; like, you should—you know?
And they want—it’s an asset for them definitely, but they also want to use you where that asset is most useful coming to the White House. I don’t speak a lot of Arabic, you know, but I do—you know, I have come with a knowledge of the region, that that’s why they put me there, I think. I think. (Laughter.) I don’t know.
And so, I mean, there is that too. There’s definitely a lack of that kind of experience abroad, that there’s this, you know, kind of conflict between do we keep them abroad or do we bring that experience back here? And I think that that’s where we are now is they’re trying to bring that back here. So—
KIRK: And that’ll be the last word. (Laughter.) Vivian Salama, Margaret Talev, thank you. (Applause.)
TALEV: Thank you, guys.
KIRK: And thank you all for being with us.