“The Level of Lies is Unprecedented”: Truth in the Trump Era with Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes is a fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. A former national and White House correspondent for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Calmes has covered politics and economic policy in Washington since the early Clinton administration. In 2004, she was awarded the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prize for Reporting on the Presidency. She spoke with the Gate’s Ridgley Knapp on her past, as well as how print journalism should respond and is responding to the growth of internet news and the Trump administration.

The Gate: What made you want to be a journalist?

Jackie Calmes: As a young girl, I always liked reading nothing but histories and biographies. I liked the lives of other people because mine was so mundane and limited mainly to Toledo, Ohio. As I got older, I thought, “I like to write, and I’m pretty good at it. I can’t afford much college, so I can’t go into medicine or law,” so I thought I’d get a four-year degree in journalism and gravitate to politics. This would pay me to be a witness to history, or, as we say in journalism, to write the first draft of history. Hopefully, it would allow me to travel and see different parts of the world, because I had never been outside of Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. And it worked!

My first job after graduate school at Northwestern was in west Texas, in a relatively small city named Abilene. Within a year I was promoted to the Austin bureau of the chain of newspapers to cover Texas government and politics. Quickly, I was able to gravitate to political journalism. Even in Abilene, one of my first stories in 1978 was about a congressional race, and at the end of the story I tacked on a few lines about the results of the neighboring congressional district. This district was partly in my newspaper’s circulation area, so I added, “in the race in the neighboring district, centered in Midland-Odessa, Democratic state senator Kent Hance won as expected, defeating Republican George W. Bush for an open seat.” That was the only race that George W. ever lost. He did better than expected, which was in keeping with that year. I consider the 1978 midterm elections to be the precursor to the Reagan Revolution. Republicans that year did so much better than expected.

Over the five years I was in Texas, in what was then an all-Democratic state, like most of the South. I watched it realign towards Republicanism. After five or six years in Texas, I moved to Washington to break into government and politics there, and I’ve been there ever since. Journalism was a way for me to indulge my two passions, writing and history. People think, because of my age, I was inspired by Woodward and Bernstein and the Watergate scandal in the early and mid-’70s, but my mind was made up before that. I had been a journalism major since I was a freshman in college and the coverage of Watergate only validated my decision.

Gate: As journalism is moving away from small-town papers, like the one you wrote for in Abilene, and more towards online sources, do you think that people nowadays could follow the same path you took to begin a career in journalism?

Calmes: For the first half of my career I would often get invited to things both in and outside of Washington to talk to journalism majors. I felt like I had something to offer to tell them about my trajectory, what I did right or wrong. Since the dawn of the internet and since I’ve gotten farther away from entry-level skills, I’ve felt like I don’t have a lot to say.

I worked eighteen years at the Wall Street Journal’s bureau, and the last eight and a half at the New York Times’ bureau. People think of the New York Times as a liberal paper and the Wall Street Journal as a conservative one, but in their news pages, there wasn’t that much difference in the years I was there. I did not do my job as a reporter any differently at the New York Times than I did at the Wall Street Journal. What the internet and all of these online sites has done is create more openings and more entry-level jobs for new journalists. Of course, some [outlets] will have more of a point of view or more of a bias, especially on the far right, and others are going to try to be more mainstream, some try to be more entertaining or flip in providing the news, like maybe Buzzfeed. There are perhaps more choices for younger reporters than there was when I first started. There’s all this talk about fake news and to me it’s the ultimate example of “Just do your job and don’t be intimidated.” My worry isn’t fake news.

In some ways Trump’s ascendance has made me think that there is still a sort of mission of presenting the facts, and there are such things as facts, and presenting them in a context that helps people understand them. Some people outside of journalism will roll their eyes, but journalists like me have always thought of it as a public service in a private-sector field. In 2017, quality websites are doing the same work I was doing in Abilene, Texas.

I just hope there’s a way for so-called mainstream journalism to monetize this shift to the internet, how to make real money online. Our long-standing business model and its reliance on print advertising has all but disappeared. It’s important for democracy, and some may roll their eyes, but without a trustworthy, factual outlet for news, you can’t have an informed electorate, and you don’t have good election results.

Gate: Steve Bannon has referred to the press as “the opposition party,” and this seems indicative of the Trump administration’s overall attitude towards the press. Do you believe there should be a reaction to Trump in the press, or should the press continue to operate the same way they have with other administrations?

Calmes: Just try to find the news and the facts. A lot of the facts are easy to know, especially in an age where we have not only the internet, but we also have big data. So much of what Trump has said is provably false that it’s almost laughable. Take for example when he was at CENTCOM in Florida, speaking to military, and he said, “There are so many terrorist attacks in Europe that the press doesn’t even cover them anymore, and the fact is they don’t want to report them.” He effectually said the press was covering up for terrorism. People wrote that and would add a sentence saying, “The press gives exhaustive coverage to things that he named like San Bernadino and Paris.” It’s almost laughable that they have to add this sentence, because anyone who can read or watch TV knows that they’ve gotten covered.

There’s always been an adversarial relationship between politicians and the journalists who cover them, because the journalists are always trying to find out things and present things in a way that’s maybe not the way the politician would like it. Trump, Steve Bannon, and everyone else around them have taken this to such a new level that it is unprecedented. When I was at the New York Times, we couldn’t use the word “unprecedented,” because their feeling was that everything has already happened somewhere. I have no problem saying that Trump and his way of doing business is unprecedented. His willingness to lie is as well. I don’t think every false thing he says is a lie, because a lie connotes some motive or intent. Sometimes I think he really believes what he’s saying. I think there was a hesitance at first, on the part of the press, to use the word “lie.” Journalists just need to do their jobs and not be intimidated.

Gate: Do you think President Trump’s tweets should be reported on to the extent that they are currently?

Calmes: As in all news, it’s subjective, and you have to make a judgement. The fact that you’re asking the question shows that you’re aware of the debate and the feeling out there that the press should ignore his tweets, or some of them. I fall into the camp that disagrees. The argument against their coverage is that he’s just trying to distract from something else that he doesn’t want us to report. I think you have to make a judgement of how much attention you’re going to give his tweets, but now that he’s president, everything he says is newsworthy. You can make an argument that the more ludicrous it is, the more false it is, the more people have to know, even if it’s something as small as criticizing Saturday Night Live or some celebrity. To say, “ignore his tweets and cover something else,” implies that it’s a zero-sum game in journalism, and it’s not. People need to know what he says and when it’s false, and frankly idiotic. Every day I think I can’t be surprised anymore, and I am.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

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