Two veteran journalists see their profession and the nation at an inflection point, with no less than democracy at stake.
Amid efforts to discredit the media, the spread of fake and misleading political stories planted by foreign operatives, and a rise in threats and actual violence targeting reporters, Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer say it’s time for journalists to fight back, making sure the truth is louder than lies.
Abramson ’76 is a senior lecturer in Harvard’s Department of English who was the first female executive editor, managing editor, and Washington bureau chief at The New York Times. Mayer is an award-winning investigative reporter and staff writer for The New Yorker and is its chief Washington correspondent.
Mayer and Ronan Farrow co-wrote the magazine’s story about Deborah Ramirez, a Yale classmate of Justice Brett Kavanaugh who accused him of sexually assaulting her at a college party. The accusation played a central role in Kavanaugh’s tumultuous Supreme Court confirmation hearing this fall.
For Mayer and Abramson, the hearing was hardly new ground. After Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was confirmed in 1991, the pair spent three years investigating the sexual harassment claims against him made by Anita Hill and others, in the process revealing sexist political machinations in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s vetting process. Today, they say they were “canaries in the coal mine.”
Abramson and Mayer will deliver the 29th Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics in the JFK Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School Tuesday. They spoke to the Gazette about why the press is so important, the parallels between the Thomas and Kavanaugh hearings, and the links to the explosion of dark money in politics.
Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer
GAZETTE: The title of your lecture is “The Press Has Never Been More Vital to the Survival of Democracy.” And yet Jane recently defended press coverage that is critical of the Trump administration by saying, “It’s not resistance, it’s reporting.” Why do you believe the press has never been more vital? And does stating that it’s “vital to the survival of democracy” play into the narrative that the press takes sides and tries to shape political outcomes?
abramson: No, I don’t think it does that at all. I think it’s vital to democracy for the age-old reason that journalism is what holds power accountable. The founders of this country did the First Amendment first for a reason, and it’s because they were very worried about over-centralized power and saw the free press as the biggest bulwark against that. It’s part of this country’s tradition going back to the beginning. The reason it’s so important now is the same reason it was so important then: There has to be an honest, nonpartisan check on power.
mayer: My feeling is it’s more vital because, at its core, the basic function of the press is to find and disseminate facts to the voting public in a democracy. And we’re at a moment when facts are under assault from many different directions.
GAZETTE: Why now — is that strictly a function of clashes with the Trump administration, the growing number of journalists worldwide who are jailed or killed each year, or something else?
mayer: It’s always been important. But to take one particular subset of facts, even before this administration, there was an issue in climate science of the sciences being attacked and the political forces and monied forces, particularly in the fossil fuel industry, trying to disseminate disinformation in order to confuse the public about what the scientists have found. And so, it’s very important for the press to play its central role of trying to get real information, solid information, unpoliticized information, from scientists [out] and maybe from places like the academy, places like Harvard, where there’s unbiased research being done that’s peer reviewed. Our job is to try to inform the public. Is that a function of this administration? Not just. But when you have a president who ran on a platform calling global warming a hoax that was created by the Chinese, it certainly torques up the politicization of our role. But our role would be the same with or without him.
abramson: [Trump] has singled out reporters for criticism and attack in a way no other president has. It’s been reported that at some of his rallies, journalists have needed protection. He sort of encourages the crowds, he points out where the reporters are, and many prominent journalists, including A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, are very concerned it will be worse, that there will be violence. And [Sulzberger] went to the White House to talk to President Trump about that and to implore him to avoid phrases like “enemies of the people,” but it doesn’t seem to have any effect.
GAZETTE: What can the press do, if anything, to push back against distrust, skepticism, and accusations of “fake news”?
mayer: Jill and I come out of a tradition: Both of us were campus stringers — me at Yale and she at Harvard — for Time magazine. We then both went to work at The Wall Street Journal. I covered the Reagan White House. And then I went to The New Yorker and she went to The New York Times. And the tradition we come out of is a reverence for the truth, a huge care and effort to try to get the facts right, a mindset that brings fairness. It’s not to say that we don’t necessarily have any point of view, but what we try to do is be fair in reaching all sides and allowing people to speak for themselves and putting debates in front of the public so that people can make up their own minds about things, and basically, looking long and hard for the facts. And so, that’s just a very different mindset from what you’re seeing in the really partisan parts of the press, and we think it’s important that it be defended. And we also feel it would be very helpful if there were a resurgence of local news. People in this country rarely interact with members of the press anymore because local news has suffered so. When reporters were in communities and covering town meetings, which is the way I started in Vermont, people see you. They know what you’re covering is not fake news, it’s real news, because they know about it and they know you’re trying very hard to get the story right.
GAZETTE: At the same time, you say it’s a golden age for investigative journalism. Jill, what are you telling your students about where the press is at right now?
abramson: I explain to them the whole concept of filter bubbles and how Facebook has become such a dominant source of news for people and the algorithm has intensified polarization, so you no longer have a common base of accepted information. You have a big, right-wing architecture of media on one side and the unfortunate thing is, because the legitimate, fact-based, truth-based news media hasn’t stood up for itself forcefully enough, we’ve been caricatured as the left-wing opposite, which we are not.
The Thomas and Kavanaugh sagas
GAZETTE: How do the Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh confirmations compare? Some felt like Kavanaugh’s accusers, Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez, the Yale classmate Jane wrote about, were treated worse than Anita Hill, by today’s standards.
mayer: As a reporter who covered both, I hate to try to compare which one was treated worse. Put it this way: None of them were treated well enough by a long shot. I thought this country had come further than what we saw in the Kavanaugh hearings. We took a leave of absence to find out where the truth lay in the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas showdown and it took us three years. That was two people, it took three years to write the book that became “Strange Justice.” The same thing I fear is true here, which is it will take a really long time to get all the facts. And unfortunately, the news cycle is moving even faster now than it was in 1994 when our book came out. If you really want to know what the truth is, the problem is it often takes a long time to get it.
abramson: There were many similarities. One was the Republican strategy was the same. To [isolate] a lone accuser, in the case of Dr. Ford. Designing that hearing so that there would be only two witnesses gave the country the appearance that it was only one woman bringing up these long-ago, from-high school allegations. The hearing was designed to end in a “he said, she said” stalemate, just as the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings were because in those hearings, there were three women waiting to testify with information that supported Anita Hill, and none of them were heard from.
GAZETTE: What did you think of the press coverage? Did the press get caught up in the raw emotion of the testimony and the subject matter to the detriment of objectivity, as some claimed?
mayer: In some ways, it was a great moment for the press, really. A number of reporters at major news organizations were doing the job of advising the Senate [better] than it seemed like the Senate had been able to do for itself. We were managing to dig up information that none of those six background checks that had been done by the FBI previously on Kavanaugh had dug up, and [we were trying] to get the information out to those whose job it was to confirm him or not. So, I felt like we really managed to show why there needs to be a free press in this country.
GAZETTE: What kind of legacy will the Kavanaugh nomination fight have on the Supreme Court, on congressional politics, and on the way we both cover and talk about sexual assault as a society?
mayer: A lot remains to be seen about what the impact of the Kavanaugh fight will be. I’m really curious to see in the midterm elections if it’s anything like what happened with Anita Hill when there was suddenly a tidal wave of reaction, particularly from women, and  became known as the Year of the Woman and a number of them were swept into office. The process in both cases, designed by the Senate, was very unfair. In the case of Kavanaugh, it was never a serious effort to get the truth.
Money in politics
GAZETTE: You’ve both written extensively about money in politics. Jane’s 2016 book, “Dark Money,” was a deep look at the Koch brothers and how they’ve used their fortune to build a network of right-wing influence that touches every aspect of conservative politics. The reporting on the Mueller investigation, especially the prosecutions of Paul Manafort and deputy Rick Gates, has revealed how many others follow the Koch template. Has it gotten worse since you started reporting on this or is the public just starting to learn how common this practice is?
mayer: I think it’s gotten much worse and much more pervasive. There’s just been an absolute explosion of dark money and phony philanthropies that are really political operations masquerading as philanthropy. There’s so many ways now to hide money and so many tricks and so little enforcement, either from the FEC [Federal Election Commission] or the IRS. It’s a plague in politics right now.
abramson: It’s grown and it’s grown dramatically since the Citizens United decision. So the public is now denied knowing who’s giving the really big money, and there are more of these highly partisan interest groups working now than ever before. Some of the Kavanaugh supporters complained about anti-Kavanaugh ads, but what I mostly saw were ads galore from a group called the Judicial Crisis Network, and we don’t know whose money is behind that. That’s unhealthy for democracy.
GAZETTE: Is it more prevalent on the right or the left?
mayer: It’s hard to know because it’s hard to get enough hard data about where dark money is because it’s basically designed not to be able to be followed. But political corruption and dark money is a bipartisan problem. It exists on both sides, for sure. One difference is the Democratic party, at least, has tried to clamp down on it and tried to pass legislation that would make campaign spending more transparent and tried to limit the amount of money in politics, and the Republican Party has taken the opposite position.
GAZETTE: The New York Times’ recent opus about Fred Trump’s fortune and the questionable schemes he used to pass his wealth to his children is the kind of work you say the profession needs to do more of. Why aren’t these stories breaking through?
abramson: What cable TV and TV news are feasting off of, in terms of getting advertising and big ratings, is partisan political argument and fighting. That’s unfortunately what seems to be addicting viewers. And the Kavanaugh storyline fit into that beautifully. [The Times story] got some of the attention, but the fact that none of the Sunday shows focused on it is disappointing. It was fabulous work.
GAZETTE: Theodore “Teddy” White, a Dorchester native and Harvard College alumnus, was best known for his groundbreaking literary approach to covering politicians. In “Making of the President 1960,” he pulled the curtain back on campaigns for the very first time. Much of today’s Washington reporting is either sweeping corruption exposés or behind-the-scenes stories about personality clashes. Has White’s style run its course? Are we missing the forest for the trees in this micro-news reporting environment?
mayer: What I admire about the Teddy White–kind of reporting is — you can say that it’s become cliché and overexposed, but he had a tremendous interest in storytelling and in characters. And I feel that one of the problems with the current reporting environment is it moves so fast and there’s so much: these quick, surface-y, tiny bits of information that come across on Twitter and Facebook and fast postings of this and that. What White did was, he was really interested in history and he was really interested in telling stories, and I feel as if what’s fallen out are issues of character and context and how the little dots fit together to tell something deeper and bigger. It’s kind of what Jill and I are trying to say in our talk. We hope there’s a return to appreciation of slow reporting, the kind of reporting that really goes deep and explains and tells stories so that the public isn’t just plain anesthetized by too many little data points. I think people are almost overwhelmed by it at this point. I really believe, even as an investigative reporter, but even in the course of marshaling huge quantities of information, it won’t work and it won’t matter unless you can tell it compellingly as a story about people. I think we can’t lose that, and it’s that tradition of Teddy White that I revere: the narrative nonfiction tradition.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
To view the live stream, visit the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy’s website.