Podcast: Journalism in the Age of Trump


Episode produced with Taylor Moore, American University Dean’s Intern at the First Amendment Center

What’s it like running a newsroom today and covering an administration that’s often hostile towards journalists?  Carrie Budoff Brown, editor of POLITICO, gives us the inside scoop.

EPISODE 15: SUMMARY

In this episode of The First Five, Lata Nott talks to Carrie Budoff Brown, editor of POLITICO, about the unique challenges of covering the Trump Administration, running a growing news media company, and being a woman in journalism.

 

HOST

Lata Nott is the Executive Director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute.

 

GUEST

Carrie Budoff Brown is the editor of POLITICO.  Previously, she was the managing editor of POLITICO Europe, and prior to that served as POLITICO’s White House correspondent.

 

TRANSCRIPT
Lata Nott:

Welcome to the First Five, a program of the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C., dedicated to the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. The First Five is a podcast where we cut through the legal jargon and explain to you exactly how your First Amendment freedoms work, and what you can do to protect them. I’m your host, Lata Nott.

 

My guest today is Carrie Budoff Brown. She’s the editor of Politico, and also host of a fantastic podcast called Women Rule, which focuses on female leaders. Carrie started at Politico in 2007 as one of their first reporters, and between 2009 and 2014 she served as Politico’s White House correspondent. She was instrumental in the launch of Politico Europe in Brussels as their managing editor, and she took over as editor of Politico this fall, right after the presidential election. And she has agreed to be on this podcast, which is amazing to me given all the other stuff that she has going on, so Carrie, thanks so much for being on the show.

 

Carrie B. Brown:

Yeah. It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

 

Lata Nott:

Well, I mean, as a podcast host yourself, you understand the value of guests, seriously, that’s great.

 

Carrie B. Brown:

Yes.

 

Lata Nott:

So, you’ve been editor of Politico since the 2016 election. How has that been going so far?

 

Carrie B. Brown:

It’s been great. I took over the week after the election, so it’s almost a year now. Yes, like when I was asked to come back last summer, in full disclosure, it wasn’t necessarily the candidate I thought we’d be covering this year, or the president I thought we’d be covering, but it’s been such a fascinating, important, wild time, and I can’t imagine life any other way at this point.

 

Lata Nott:

President Trump has expressed quite a bit of hostility towards the media. The term enemy of the people has been tossed around, and last month he tweeted an accusation about NBC releasing fake news and threatened to revoke their FCC license, so it’s a pretty different atmosphere, I would expect, then it would be with another president. So, how has covering this administration been different from say covering the Obama administration?

 

Carrie B. Brown:

It is very different. I covered the Obama White House, so I have some good perspective. It is a different west wing, it’s a different White House for reporters. It is far more accessible despite the obvious outward hostility that the White House expresses towards reporters. It’s actually, for our reporters, extraordinarily accessible west wing. People like talking about it. Privately, the process of being a reporter, I think, is people have more access than they ever had to principles in the west wing. The Obama White House was very challenging to cover, because they were pretty good about containing leaks, staying on message, having one thing they were saying and sticking to it. That’s obviously not the hallmark of this White House, so it’s been a presidency where we simultaneously know so much and yet sort of struggle to put it in confines of how Washington normally works.

 

It’s taken a bit of telling reporters, in the early months in particular, when Sean Spicer was the Press Secretary, was a particularly challenging time for Politico in part because he was very outspoken about Politico, and some reporters that we’ve had here. He’s very sort of direct hits on my reporters here that I’ve never seen before from a Press Secretary or a White House, and that required, I think … it was a challenge, in those early months to sort of tell reporters that even though the rules of engagement feel like they’ve changed a bit, that the rules of journalism still applied, so even though it’s sort of an environment where private conversations would become public or used against reporters publicly, that they still had to go back the next day and remember what journalism is about and give people a fair chance to engage on a story, comment on a story, and that we’re non-partisan news organization. I do believe that the credibility of our reporting is the most important thing, and that comes from remembering what journalism is about, which is that you make lots of calls, you give people a chance to respond, you aim to be fair. It doesn’t mean you don’t call balls and strikes, which we do, but you gotta go in there and test assumptions, and report out stories just as you always would whether it was Donald Trump, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton.

People have asked me before like, “How are you doing things differently then you would’ve under Clinton?” I don’t believe we would’ve done anything vastly different from how we would if Clinton were president. My view was that we cover Washington aggressively, and I was setting up a newsroom to cover Clinton as aggressively as I would’ve covered Trump, so it’s just about keeping people sort of focused on the mission, fact based journalism, put aside assumptions, test assumptions, and I believe at the end of the day that that journalism is strong, and the First Amendment’s strong, and that we all benefit when we do our jobs.

 

Lata Nott:

That’s a really good way to put it, just keep doing your job, even when the rules of engagement have changed.

 

Carrie B. Brown:

Yep.

 

Lata Nott:

So, in your view, do you think freedom of the press is threatened? It sounds like you think that it’s … some people have speculated that the hostility that the administration has shown towards the press has like trickled down into like a public attitude, but it sounds like you’re saying that people are still doing their jobs, and it’s not like the freedom of the press is under attack.

 

Carrie B. Brown:

Yeah, I mean I think you’ve heard some rhetoric out of the President and the administration, and there are examples of it being a more challenging environment to be a reporter. That is for sure. But I really can’t point to any instance where we haven’t been able to do our job, and that I do believe the power of journalism and the First Amendment is so strong, and is showing its importance everyday by so many great news organizations and great reporters out there. There’s just so much interesting, fascinating work that’s being done, here and all over this town and the country, and that we’re proving our value all the time. I do believe that that is always going to win out when we do things based on facts, on reporting, our authority, and that that is … I used to say this when my reporters would get sort of bummed out about how the White House would treat them, or how Sean Spicer would treat them, and I would say, “You know, you guys are gonna be here longer than Sean Spicer.”

 

Lata Nott:

Much longer.

 

Carrie B. Brown:

And you know what? They have been. Like if Sean Spicer was attacking Tara Palmeri, one of my reporters, or Alex Isenstadt, I’d just be like, “You know, we’re just gonna deal with this, and I guarantee that you will be here long after he will.” And that’s the truth, you know. We are just going to keep back at it every day and do our jobs. That’s the best retort to any of these challenges that we’re facing as journalists, is just that we have a job to do and we just have to do it.

 

Lata Nott:

You didn’t stop being the watchdog just because they you don’t like you much.

 

Carrie B. Brown:

Yeah, yeah. Exactly. We’re not the opposition party, either, even though critics will try to make it that the press is the opposition party, we are not the opposition party. We are journalists who are doing our job, and we’re gonna do it.

 

Lata Nott:

That kind of brings me to some questions I had about news media and the perception that the media is biased, or different media outlets are biased in one direction or another. Every year we do a stay of the First Amendment survey, and so we found that a fair number, I think the majority of Americans, more than 50%, think that the media does report the news with bias, but here’s the interesting thing. We also found that 61% of Americans expressed a preference for news that aligns with their own point of view, or aligns with their own political views. So, it’s like they think the news media is biased, but they kind of like that.

 

Carrie B. Brown:

Yeah.

 

Lata Nott:

Do you think ideally, should media outlets express a point of view, or should they strive to be as neutral as possible? What do you think does the most good?

 

Carrie B. Brown:

Well, I think just my philosophy is that … I mean, I can only speak for the place I work, which is, you know, I work for non-partisan news organization that covers Washington, and covers politics and policy around the country and in Europe, and that our value proposition is that we cover the news, and we write about the news, and people of all political persuasions need to come to us and believe that we’re a credible source. And no doubt on any day, I mean, if you looked at our website today, you’d see stories that obviously are highly critical of both parties, but we don’t aim every day to be like if we criticize one party then we have to do the other. Like obviously we don’t do decide our news coverage that way or assigning that way. How do I say this?

 

I came up on sort of a traditional … I came up through newspapers, regional newspapers, where I would go and cover small town halls where I had to write about the town manager, and then go back the next day and see the town manager, which meant, and what I learned over the years, was that I had to be able to defend what I wrote the next day, which meant I had to be diligent, I had to get my facts right. I had to not do like false equivalency, but I had to be able to defend what I wrote, and that meant that like if that’s the story that I reported, then I had to be able to stand by it, and I had to do that every day, because I had to go back into those town halls every day and face the people I wrote about.

 

Honestly, a lot of people watching me don’t necessarily … or journalist these days don’t have to do that because we can do things over Twitter, and we can write about things, and we move on to other things. So, in my view, that’s the world I grew up in, where if I wrote something, I had to be able to defend it. I wrote lots of stories that the Obama White House didn’t like, but I always … Sorry. My view on journalism was I didn’t want to surprise people. If I’m writing something really negative about somebody, they’re gonna know the vast extent of what’s in that story before it’s published, and that usually happens with a call right on deadline, even if I’m working with them beforehand, but they’re not gonna be surprised. I think that that sort of follows the school of journalism which is just like “We’re gonna write what the story is. If it’s favorable. If it’s not favorable.” And that’s the sort of style of journalism that I adhere to, that we’re gonna state things plainly, simply. If Donald Trump does something that’s wild by conventional standards or whatever, like obviously that would sort of be part of the story. If Nancy Pelosi screws up because she cut a bad deal that endangered her party, we’re gonna write that.

 

So for me, expressing a point of view, I feel like there’s a lot of viewpoints out there right now, there’s a lot of opinion, there’s a lot of analysis that’s based on other people’s reporting. I believe that in this day and age the most valuable thing that a news organization can do or provide is reporting. New information, putting out into the world, that’s what people respond to, it’s what drives successes in journalism right now, and I think there’s enough opinion on Twitter. A lot of people have opinions, but my newsroom has is 250 journalists who are out there trying to find new information every day and put it into the world, and I think that’s extraordinarily important and valuable. We do it across the political spectrum, and I think that’s a highly unique value proposition that is very valuable, so that’s what I’m here to protect and defend.

 

I think there’s lots of great news organizations that do come at it from a point of view, and that’s fine. That’s not the world I came up in, so I believe very deeply in non-partisan journalism, where we call balls and strikes no matter what the party is. We have a credibility from across the political spectrum. I know there’s probably people on both sides, I know there are people on both sides of the political spectrum who view us as too left or too right, and that’s just the world with live in. All I can do, though, is make sure that we do it as clearly as possible not … I don’t know. Sort of we’re here to cover everybody.

 

Lata Nott:

I think it’s actually a good sign when people on both sides of the political spectrum are like, “Oh, man. They went too far in the other direction there.” I think you’re striking a good balance when you’re pissing a wide range of people off, just generally as a rule.

 

Carrie B. Brown:

Yeah. Absolutely, yeah. That’s true. Yeah.

 

Lata Nott:

Just talking about Politico for a second. I know that … I can definitely see as a non-partisan publication that focuses on issues, I think, more than just horse race journalism. That’s a good place to be right now. You guys launched in 2007, and you’ve grown just astronomically since then. You mentioned that you have 250 journalists on the ground right now, and that’s pretty great in a time when a lot of news media outlets have had to cut back and shrink their staff. Do you think there’s anything that makes Politico different?

 

Carrie B. Brown:

It starts with a pretty clear mission, like who are we writing for? We’re sticking we it. We’re not a general interest publication, so we don’t have to please a lot of different audiences. We know we’re writing for people who have a personal stake, or a financial stake, or professional stake in politics and policy in a time when there’s a ton of interest in politics like that is a very good place to be. I think, additionally, just like from a revenue standpoint, we have a diversified revenue model that about 50% of our revenue comes from a subscription service, a high end subscription service on policy news, and we have an events business, and then we have digital ads, and sort of the advertising space, but we’re not reliant on clicks. We have more visitors than ever coming to our site, so we get a lot more money than we ever have from programmatic advertising, but it’s still a fraction of the revenue we make, so we’re not a news organization that has to do tested, sort of put a lot of stuff out into the world hoping that millions upon, you know, tens of millions of people come back to us, because if they don’t we won’t make our revenue figures. We have all these different buckets of revenue.

 

Lata Nott:

You know, journalism is a pretty male dominated field, but if listeners haven’t caught on to this yet, you’re a woman.

 

Carrie B. Brown:

Yeah.

 

Lata Nott:

You’re a female editor, and what’s more, you actually replaced a female editor, excuse me, last year when you took charge of Politico.

 

Carrie B. Brown:

I did.

 

Lata Nott:

So, can you tell me about the particular challenges related to being a woman in journalism, if you feel there are any?

 

Carrie B. Brown:

I definitely felt like there were more challenges when I was a reporter covering Washington. There were some unique things about being a reporter in Washington when I was, you know, being a woman, just how I really reported stories, how I would do source building. I was a person who didn’t … if I was gonna meet … Like I didn’t love doing the like happy hour, drinks at night thing, and I think there are certain challenges of being a woman. I think we’re seeing with these stories about sexual harassment, like there’s reasons that I didn’t put myself in certain situations as a reporter.

 

I think that also put me at a disadvantage in terms of cultivating sources, so I found work arounds. And you know what? I covered the White House. There were a lot of women who covered the White House with me, and we did these dinners with administration officials. We would do a lot of, even though we were competitors, supporting each other, and I think sometimes I reported on the White House with a colleague of mine as Edward Isaac Dovere who is now still a reporter at Politico, but he would sometimes say, like I would come back from a dinner, and be like, “Oh, yeah. I just had dinner with Denis McDonough, who’s Obama’s Chief of Staff with a bunch of women.” He’d be like, “Why can’t I get those opportunities?” I’m like, “Well, you’re not a woman.” And so he would sometimes joke that he felt like he was at a disadvantage for not being a woman, at least in the White House. It was always kind of a joke. But I think we just found ways around it. I did find being a reporter in Washington is a little more challenging being a woman.

 

As an editor, I can’t say that I find myself at a disadvantage in any way. This company is practically run my women. It is run by women. There’s a lot of times … I sort of did this exercise a couple weeks ago, 50% of my senior leadership in the newsroom is women, and 50% of the executive leadership of the company are women. There’s this often that I’m sitting in a budget meeting where the president’s a woman, the CFO’s a woman, the head of our advertising, digital sales department is a woman, the chief finance person is a woman, and it’s me. There’s five women in a room trying to figure out the budget for this company, and I’m very proud of it, because I think there was a reputation of Politico in the early years as being a boys’ club. I don’t think that was a fair characterization, but that has lingered to the point where I was named one of Washingtonian’s most powerful women this year, and I’m not saying that to boast. I’m saying that to-

 

Lata Nott:

Oh, congratulations nevertheless.

 

Carrie B. Brown:

Thank you. But the funniest part was that right above me, which no one contacted me to talk about, it said that “Despite being a boys’ club, Budoff Brown has continued to thrive at Politico.” This place is so not a boys’ club right now that it was funny to me, because of what I just said. 50% of my newsroom, senior leadership, the people who are making determinations on what we do are women, and 50% of executive leadership are women. This is not a boys’ club. I’m proud of the fact that it’s not a boys’ club. It was just kind of funny, ’cause that’s like a lingering perception of what Politico is, and in fact, like the facts are very, very, very different, and I think that’s awesome.

 

Lata Nott:

Yeah, this is a girls’ club. A women’s club.

 

Carrie B. Brown:

Yeah.

 

Lata Nott:

That’s cool. I was listening to a podcast you did with PulseCheck, which is also fantastic, and this was months ago, but you said something about the media coverage of health care. You said something that was really interesting to me, that “Politicians tend to simplify health care into soundbites.” Which is bad, obviously, but you follow that by saying that “That’s kind of the point of being a politician. You have to speak about things rhetorically in a way that people will understand, but ultimately people do need to do their homework to understand the issues.” I thought that was great, and that made me think about what is it take nowadays to be an informed citizen? We’re always talking about how people need to be more educated about how civics works, and how different things work, and I was thinking to myself, “Oh, I barely understand how health care works. I’m so ashamed.” But I was just wondering, how much do you think the average citizen needs to know about various policy issues?

 

Carrie B. Brown:

Being an informed citizen depends on how much individuals want to be informed. I think there’s more information then ever out there, but people have to be willing to test ideas that come from lots of different places. The same reason why if you only watch Fox you should probably turn on CNN and MSNBC, and if you only watch MSNBC, you should turn on the other channels, too. I kind of like this feature that the New York Times does, which is like the best writing from across the ideological spectrum, so this is how this one issue was covered in these different places.

 

Now, that requires a lot of effort. A lot of people don’t have time to do that. I don’t necessarily have time to do, and so I think it really depends on how much people individually want to be informed and aware that when they read Huffington Post or Vox or any other news organization that sort of has a lens or a frame on it, they know what they’re getting, and they should also then look at Breitbart and others.

 

That’s sort of a cliched answer, but it’s kind of the truth. Understanding where your neighbors come from, and understanding that there are other viewpoints out there than your own, and accepting that and wanting to engage with that, and not be dismissive of it. It’s really a very individual effort.

 

I mean, people have to want to make the effort. I think what we all sort of worry about is that we’re all just burrowing deeper into our own echo chambers, and that’s concerning, both as a citizen and as a journalist who wants to be able to reach as many people as possible, and produce a product that people across the political spectrum consider credible. I think that’s sort of the biggest threat to journalism right now, is just that, which is that that there’s no authority. The authorities have been … we don’t have as many, and that those who do have just … being under constant assault from lots of different sides. It’s just a challenge. It’s a challenging time.

 

Lata Nott:

Maybe the test for how informed you should be, should be if an issue makes you very angry and you’re very passionate about it, maybe you should be informed about all sides of it.

 

Carrie B. Brown:

That’s exactly it. Yeah, and when you’re going to talk about Donald Trump, don’t just take a headline from a tweet and start opining about it. Click open the story. Read it. Think about the alternatives. Think about why he did it. Think that there may have been a good reason. Just think.

 

Lata Nott:

Thank you for being with us today for another episode of the First Five, a production of the Newseum Institute located at the Newseum in the heart of Washington, D.C. The Newseum, where there’s more to every story. For more information about the Newseum Institute, go to NewseumInstitute.org.

 

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