Jerry Ceppos, former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News and vice president of news at Knight Ridder, got to “sit out” reporting on the Trump administration, thanks to his current position as a distinguished professor of journalism at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication.
He’s kind of sorry about that.
“I’m jealous of the people who had the experience,” Ceppos said. “I’m pretty sure it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
On the other hand, he says that watching the fracas from the ivory towers of academia provided a certain intellectual distance — and plenty of fodder for the media ethics class he teaches every semester. “The last four years have been very easy to teach, because every session involved Trump in one way or another,” he said.
In a sense, Ceppos will get the last word on Trump’s dealings with the press. His just-released essay collection, “Covering Politics in the Age of Trump,” offers reminiscences from two dozen national journalists about what it was like to report firsthand on the Man from Mar-a-Lago. “This is a great chance for readers to get inside our heads and realize we’re not the creatures that Trump portrayed,” Ceppos said. “I think when people read the essays they’ll understand just how hard most of us work to be fair, even when we’re under attack.”
Quill had some questions.
How did you get the idea for this project?
Martin Johnson, who succeeded me as dean of Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, called me in November or December of 2019 and suggested the book. I thought it was a great idea. The sad postscript is that he died in his sleep at the age of 50 just ten months later, during the week when I handed in the final version to the publisher. I hope he would have approved of the final product.
What was the general reaction when you contacted journalists and asked them to participate?
I tried far more people than are represented in the book. From those who didn’t participate, I didn’t get philosophical objections. It was time objections. We were about to go into a new administration, and they were going to be working all the time. Though obviously the two-dozen people who agreed to participate were excited about it.
Have you ever met Trump personally?
No. Part of the reason is that I left the profession in 2005. I haven’t been a newsroom person since then.
What sorts of recurring themes did you notice in the essays?
“Concern” is what I heard over and over again. For example, McKay Coppins of The Atlantic wrote about the terror campaign that Trump unleashed after disliking a story he wrote. “The sheer volume of the smear campaign was impressive,” he said. “Scrolling down Breitbart’s home page yielded seven different stories related to my betrayal of ‘Mr. Trump.’” And Mark Leibovich of The New York Times remembered Trump hounding him for a profile in the Times Magazine. After it appeared, Trump told him, “You treated me very badly.” Quint Forgey, a young reporter at POLITICO, asked, “Was it always like this?”
But while there was concern about the way Trump dealt with the media, there was also concern about the way the media did its job. Charlie Cook, head of Cook Political Report, called his chapter “The Downfall of Journalism.” At least three contributors write about whether the media’s aggressive coverage of Trump threatened long-held standards of objective reporting.
What lessons did you take away from this personally?
It really is inspiring to see or read about very prominent journalists getting yelled at from the podium, and still saying, “I’m still going to do a fair and accurate job.” I think a lot of readers don’t realize that we are human beings. When you read almost all the essays, it really comes through. The front essay by McKay from The Atlantic is really interesting. He describes a smear campaign, as he puts it, to take him down after he ran a profile that Trump didn’t like. I’m not sure readers realize all the things that go through our heads. It told me, in terms I hadn’t realized, just what a difficult mess we were in. I’m not sure people realize the emotions we all have. We’re all human. I believe that comes through in the book.
It does bring home what it feels like to be sitting at a MAGA event and have the president of the United States call you out in front a crowds of his backers.
I loved the description offered by Ashley Parker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post, who was singled out by Trump at a massive San Diego Rally. She says that at one point she could feel her cheeks turning pink. Then, when he circled around for a second attack on her, she hurriedly covered up the sign on the press table that had her name on it. It’s a very, very human reaction.
Do you think there are reporters out there who still don’t understand how Trump got into office, and how he survived as long as he did?
Absolutely. A few threads of that run through some of the essays. When you’re getting attacked I’d assume you’d think that this is just off the rails. But then, as Rebecca Buck and Ashley Parker suggested, when you have everyone around you booing and hooting as your name is mentioned, you start to wonder, “What kind of alternative universe am I in? I know I’m a good journalist and trying to be fair, and these people are responding not to me, but to these absurd allegations.” I haven’t heard any journalists say, “I got used to it after a while.” I don’t think anybody got used to it.
What are the lessons learned for reporters covering Trump? Or are there any lesson to learn, because this is a one-off aberration?
I think it would be hard for any other political candidate to use the same playbook, because I don’t think most people have the confidence or the ability to fabricate stories, or the ability to act like you’re a populist when you’re a millionaire. But I do think there are some lessons. The first one you’ve heard over and over. I do think many of us have slightly changed our definition of what it is to be fair. I’m really antsy on this subject. I’m sure kids in my classes leave wondering which side I’m on. I do think one of the everlasting lessons is that objectivity doesn’t mean that you can’t call out lies. I think that’s one lasting lesson.
And I hope that another one is kind of the opposite of the first. That you need to be careful how you say the president is lying. I agree with Charlie Cook that some of the reporting, even in mainstream media, probably went too far. I guess what I’m talking about very much relates to broadcast and to some degree to print and online. I tend to watch Anderson Cooper every night, which I admit I enjoy. But there’s no distinction on shows like this between columnist and reporter. He mixes everything up, though he does it in a very capable way. In print media also, I sometimes wish word choices had been pruned down a little bit. I thought some news stories drew conclusions based on their worst thoughts rather than based on quotes and such. Definitely not all, but some stories drew conclusions without building the bridge to get to those conclusions.
I suppose outlets like CNN and The Washington Post might be more careful about separating news from opinion. But what about outlets such as Fox, which make no attempt whatsoever (or at least no attempt that the average viewer would grasp) to do this?
The reason I didn’t think to mention Fox in the previous question is that in my mind, Fox is no longer a news source. It’s almost entirely a source of opinion. I just write it off. Ironic that I would criticize CNN, when Fox is almost entirely opinion. But the viewer doesn’t know that, and I think that’s a real problem.
What did minority reporters have to say about Trump?
The essays that bothered me most were from journalists of color. For example, Jesse J. Holland, formerly of The Associated Press, explained that during the Obama Administration life had briefly changed for the better. “Just as the president wasn’t the Black president—but THE president—African Americans seemed to be elevated in the industry from being just Black journalists to JOURNALISTS, seen finally as equal to our colleagues,” he wrote. Then Trump was elected. “And something changed…. (We) were just Black journalists again.” Mary C. Curtis, a CQ Roll Call columnist and host of its “Equal Time” podcast, wrote, “Never have I felt as vulnerable as I had at any Trump rally…. When the president trained laser-focused attacks on the press pen, colleagues who were not Black or brown were covered in a sort of camouflage as I was laid bare.” Fernando Pizarro, then of Univision, wrote of the dismantling of the office that handled Spanish-language media, a signal that the administration didn’t really care about reaching Hispanic viewers. Those were really moving essays.
How have things changed with the new administration?
The publication of the book seemed a good time to ask the three journalists of color who provided essays, along with some of their colleagues, if things have improved in the first six months of the Biden Administration. The answer unanimously was yes — but. Pizarro noted that the White House’s Spanish-language website is up and running. There now is a director of Hispanic media and a variety of Spanish-speaking communications people in the White House and the agencies. But he said that some Hispanic reporters, particularly foreign correspondents, are left out of important announcements on immigration and other issues.
Curtis told me about a couple who recognized and confronted her at a gym as the wife screamed, “70 million people voted for Trump.” Both later apologized, but that experience and others were a warning about what can happen when she is recognized: “For two seconds, I hold my breath,” Curtis said. “It would be naïve to say we have a different president and things have changed. It’s never over.” But she, too, sees “a calmness in the country. People are not tweeting every day.”
Holland finds “a sense of a return to normalcy” even if the Biden Administration, like every other one in our history, doesn’t “think of the press corps as their friend.” Juan Castillo, editorial page editor of the Austin American-Statesman, summarized everyone’s thoughts. “My sense is that it is better,” he said. “I think what happened with Trump was extraordinary, the way he treated journalists of color. These journalists of color felt like they were not treated as equals. I think that’s all that journalists of color want, a fair shot to do their jobs.”
But not all reporters of color had only bad things to say.
I talked to two journalists of color who believe that the Trump Administration triggered positive changes. Long-time journalist and educator Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez said “one thing that Trump forced us to do” was to lead “some really neat conversations” in the classroom about media and politics. The situation caused a lot of journalists, even outside of the classroom, “to think more deeply about what we’re doing.”
Joie Chen, who was a CNN anchor and covered the White House and Capitol Hill for CBS, saw another unintended gift from Trump. “The most positive thing you can say about the Trump Administration is that it exposed some of these fault lines that were rather hidden,” she said. “If you were thoughtful, you would have recognized that the White House press room has been predominantly white for a long time and that journalists of color often have been marginalized. A lot of the racism of the White House and of the Washington press corps was not on the surface until we reached the Trump Administration.”
But Chen also sees a challenge in the new recognition that the Washington press corps has not been diverse. “In today’s environment, what we’ve learned is the value and importance of bringing your identity and your diversity into coverage,” she said. “So now the question is how do you balance that? I don’t know what the answer is, but this is really that moment when we are trying to decide how much of yourself do you bring to the coverage. How do you balance that, or should you even try?”
Given a choice between the question of bringing racial and ethnic identities to reporting and dealing with a formerly all-white, mostly male Washington press corps, I’ll settle for that tough first question.
How is editing a book different from editing a newspaper page?
It was a lot of fun. Everybody came up with their own angles, which I would OK because I didn’t want them to overlap too much. Just making sure that they stayed in his or her lane was interesting. Also, I wanted everybody to express a strong opinion. This was not objective journalism. And then the pure joy was that I was editing 24 fabulous writers who do it for a living and know how to do it. And the editing was very light in almost every case. It was a ball and was something I’d never done before. I tweeted that in 52 years of journalism, it was the first book I edited. It got me thinking a different way. It was challenging and intellectually interesting.
How different would the book have been if Trump had won reelection?
I think the abuse that a number of the writers describe would still be there. Trump certainly would not have let up on the media. I think things would have kept going just as they had been, and may have gotten even more intense.