For many Americans, the greatest reason to cheer during the sleepy, low-scoring game that was Super Bowl LIII was not the Patriots’ victory. In certain circles, it was the highly anticipated, multimillion-dollar commercial produced by the Washington Post, featuring the voice of Tom Hanks and heroic footage of journalists from various outlets that proclaimed, over a soaring score, these simple truths: “Knowing empowers us, knowing helps us decide, knowing keeps us free.”
It was a good ad, inspiring even. Who doesn’t love Tom Hanks? But you could find The Washington Post commercial uplifting and also saddening, insofar as it was deemed necessary.
It was an astonishing thing to witness — an iconic news organisation feeling the need to hawk not the quality of its writing and reporting, but the most fundamental virtues of its entire industry’s mission. Like truth. And knowledge. Values thought to be long settled. Merely having your business model enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution is no longer sufficient; now you need airtime during the Big Game to respond to crude and corrosive attacks on the free press by a president and his supporters with their incessant charges of “fake news!”
Fake news. It is a juvenile epithet, but it has power because it is both thoughtless and memorable. It is also a debate stopper. When uttered with a contemptuous smirk, it’s the equivalent of “shut up!” No intelligent response can suffice, no evidence-based retort can win. “Fake news” has the charm of comedy, the ease of a sound bite and now the imprimatur of the president of the United States of America.
In his fine new book, Truth in Our Times: Inside the Fight for Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts, the New York Times deputy general counsel David E McCraw thoughtfully (and entertainingly) addresses this state of affairs as he takes us behind the scenes of the venerable (or failing, depending on your perspective) New York Times. A self-professed “raving moderate,” McCraw is in prime position to provide this backstage view as he draws equally on his experience as a writer and a lawyer. He excels at both, explaining legal issues in lay terms and unspooling the stories that propel the book.
But McCraw’s job was far more interesting than assisting in occasional ad-making. He faced the challenge of vetting articles for libel, obtaining blockbuster documents through the Freedom of Information Act, greenlighting the publishing of purloined secret information and standing up to intimidation from unhappy subjects of stories, one of whom is the current president.
There is plenty about Donald Trump here, whose danger to the free press McCraw concedes he was slow to acknowledge. His professional experience with Trump went back many years, and he adroitly tells the story of how Trump, in 2004, threatened to sue over the one slight he truly could not bear — that he was less wealthy or successful than he claimed. The Times had reported that his boast on “The Apprentice” that he was the “largest real estate developer in New York” was plainly false, by every objective measure. This was an intolerable slight, and it drew the future president’s wrath. But Trump’s outlandish claim was indefensible, and the matter was dropped.
Then there was the occasion when a portion of Trump’s 1995 tax returns showed up one day in a reporter’s mailbox during the heat of the 2016 campaign. McCraw describes the warring that ensued. Belligerent Trump lawyers threatened legal action, as usual. In the end, as in every other instance of high-decibel Trumpian legal threats, the dog barked but never bit.
McCraw also takes time to meditate on journalistic practices and ethics. He is candid and cleareyed about the lean of his paper’s readers and its opinion writers. He says that by the “time of Trump’s election there was no doubt about the politics of our core readership: It skewed left, and, in any measure of its opposition to Trump, it went off the charts.” He concedes, moreover, that The Times’s “Op-Ed columns and contributors are overwhelmingly anti-Trump, every day.” But he is insistent about the overall political objectivity of the news people, the beat reporters. He argues that the everyday news folk, at The Times and elsewhere, are not generally partisan. He doesn’t claim that they are perfectly detached, disinterested, nonideological chroniclers. He acknowledges a certain lean on their part too. “Many journalists are biased,” he concedes, but “just not in the way that most people think about it.”
By McCraw’s reckoning, reporters tend to champion the underdog, and it is this worldview that skews their coverage. “The easy rap,” he writes, “is that most reporters lean liberal (true), and that dictates how they cover a conservative like Trump (false). … They believe, all other things being equal, that the little guy is getting screwed. … The reportorial default is to think that most regulations are good, the rich and connected don’t need more money or more power.” He insists, therefore, that any bias “is not a left or right thing.”
McCraw is rightly proud of his role in defending The Times in so many controversies. But there is also a whiff of helplessness in his telling about the degradation of truth and of people’s trust in the press, neither of which is really a matter of law or legal policy. The law, it turns out, is in good shape.
Legal freedom, as an attorney might say, is necessary but not sufficient. Just as important, McCraw explains, is public trust: “It doesn’t really matter how much freedom the press has in a society if the press is not believed. A distrusted press is little different from a shackled press.” This is the crisis, well identified. One need not literally shutter press outlets in the manner of Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin to render the press irrelevant and impotent.
But occasional and understandable bouts of pessimism aside, Truth in Our Times is not dire. It is spirited and hopeful and even, at times, lighthearted. It is, in a way, a love letter to the First Amendment. McCraw captures the mood best in one early sentence: “It was a hell of a time to be a lawyer for The New York Times.” It sure was.
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