BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield. So Brooke, how was your week?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Not bad. Yours?
BOB GARFIELD Busy, not as busy as some.
NEWS REPORT Joe Biden signing 17 executive orders hours after moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Among them, rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, mandating mask wearing to combat the covid-19 crisis and halting further construction of Donald Trump's centerpiece policy, the border wall with Mexico. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT A requirement for people to wear masks in airports, and on many trains, airplanes and buses as well as federal buildings. The establishment of a covid testing board. What's your focus on dealing with shortfalls as well? And directing FEMA to use disaster relief funds to reimburse states for costs associated with emergency supply efforts. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Using the Defense Production Act to increase supplies of PPE vaccines, testing supplies. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Repeal former President Trump's Muslim travel ban. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT The US is to rejoin the World Health Organization and Paris Climate Accord, and the Keystone oil pipeline is being scrapped. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT On the economy. President Biden extended a pause on student loan repayments until September and a moratorium on evictions. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE This Wednesday, two Wednesdays after bloody insurrection one Wednesday after impeachment number two, I heard cheers outside the window of my Brooklyn bubble. I mean, I don't want to mediate anyone else's experience, but I do know that the shepard tone we invoked some years back. That ascending, never resolving sound of nerves stretched to the breaking point that ever tightening band of pressure on the brain – basically the soundtrack of the last five years – for most Americans, seemed finally to switch off. A momentary reprieve.
BOB GARFIELD Momentary indeed, on the reality based front, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Republican California, falsely claimed he did not vote to deny Joe Biden his electors. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell signaled that he would hold Biden's nominees and legislative agenda hostage until Democrats agree to cede some of their newly won power, and President Biden's stimulus package seems to have no Senate Republican support. So it seems the filibuster may have to go after all. Bare knuckles are coming out, the honeymoon never happened. Not to harsh anyone's mellow, but majority rule doesn't have much purchase in Congress. So business as usual so far.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Meanwhile, we could likely see the covid death toll here reach half a million next month, and when it comes to our social, political and cultural maladies, well, we've merely shed a symptom, not the cause, or causes. Those are for journalists to expose, but are they – I mean we – up to it? It's a crucial question. Have we been vaccinated against our own unproductive reflexes, blinders and conventions; the ones that bogged us down for so long? We'll take a deep dive into lessons learned in the next segment. But first, a status report on the condition the 45th president left journalism in. Turns out, being called “enemy of the people” and “scum of the Earth” for five years was sometimes scary, but it wasn't all bad. It offered some of us, especially those from elite mainstream outlets covering the White House, some lucrative career opportunities.
MCKAY COPPINS The fact that Donald Trump was trying to turn reporters into villains made them heroes to half the country. I say this as somebody who benefited, however inadvertently, from it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE McKay Coppins is a staff writer at The Atlantic. How did he benefit?
MCKAY COPPINS Well, when I would, you know, write a story that was skeptical of Donald Trump, I would get, you know, invited to go on The Daily Show. I would get offered speaking engagements. My stories would, you know, be retweeted and travel all over the world. You basically had this huge global cheering section.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You had this great line in your piece that once obscure correspondents were recast in the popular imagination as resistance heroes.
MCKAY COPPINS Yeah, I mean, that was, I think, the strangest part of it. Right. Honestly, journalists tend to do their best work when they're not seen as heroic figures, when they're actually kind of obnoxious, a little too nosy and a little bit on the fringe of whatever world they're covering and they're not glammed up. Instead, they're kind of just these rumpled observers of American life. I think that's kind of the sweet spot for journalism, and so it was kind of uncomfortable when in the imagination of one half of the country, it was almost like we had capes on, right? That, I don't think, is actually where the best journalism is produced, and I think the best reporters and journalists of this era did all they could to resist that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You quote New York magazine's Olivia Nuzzi saying that she could write in a piece, quote, Donald Trump is the biggest a*hole to ever live and he is a terrible human being and a bleepy president, and like, he's ugly and no one would be mad at me except the same people who are mad at me anyway for existing.
MCKAY COPPINS Right. That's the other thing that was happening here, which is that in the Trump era, a lot of the conservatives who had spent time in the past criticizing the mainstream media for being biased and who had a certain amount of pull among, frankly, editors at Washington publications. A lot of leaders of newsrooms really cared about conservatives complaining of bias. That changed in the Trump era, in part because a lot of those conservative critics went so fully off the deep end, frankly. Where it was no longer a debate about whether something was biased or a story should have been framed a different way. Instead, it became just dismissing every inconvenient story as fake news. Inventing facts wholesale. What happened was that a lot of reporters and editors got desensitized to these criticisms and kind of stopped paying attention. You know what I think Olivia was describing there is that when you have conservatives who are going to be mad at you, no matter what you write every day, you end up kind of tuning out what they're saying, and you pay more attention to the rest of the country, which exists somewhere from the center to the left. There's a kind of direct language where you're actually not just trying to convey clearly what's happening. You're trying to kind of preach to the choir, but it's only your audience. It's not the whole country. And I think that making our audiences uncomfortable is often our job. Right. We have to reflect how they're feeling and what they're thinking, but also present them with information and stories that will challenge how they think. That's something that we have not always done well. And I hope we can figure out how to do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What lessons will stay with you now that Trump's gone?
MCKAY COPPINS I'm going to be better about not letting the political figures I write about set the terms of my coverage, right? One of the things about the past five years is that Donald Trump wanted a culture war with the media and too many of us in the media, gave him one. We kind of centered ourselves in this story in a way that a lot of readers and people out there in the public found insufferable, and I think rightly so. Look, it's hard because all the audience incentives again and all the book deals and the cable news contracts and the Twitter followers flow to reporters who are at the center of political drama, but we've hopefully realized, I know I have, that placing myself at the center of every story is not actually usually a service to the reader. And I hope that will all be a little bit more self aware as we move forward.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think Trump was good for the journalism business or bad?
MCKAY COPPINS Well, from a bottom line perspective, almost certainly good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE At least Washington journalism, not local journalism.
MCKAY COPPINS And in the short term, right? I think it's yet to be seen what kind of damage he's done long term, both to the incentive structure for journalists and also to the credibility we have with the public. You know, there was already a credibility problem, Donald Trump was not the originator of it. But I think it's safe to say that four years after he was sworn in, it'll be much harder to reach vast swaths of the country than it was before he became president.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are you worried about journalism's bottom line? As you say, in the short term, some legacy news outlets have benefited, but in the long term, will people lapse into a general complacency, forgetting what brought them out into the streets and that complacency will spill over into even more harm to journalism's ability to inform and to hold power accountable?
MCKAY COPPINS Yeah, I think we're going to have to expect that to happen. How do we move forward when you don't have a president who's shattering norms and breaking precedent and doing outlandish things every day when the stories are more wonky and policy oriented and not so soap operatic as the Trump years have been. Not every story that comes out of Washington is going to be as exciting, to put it crassly, as the last four years have been. And it's really important that we not have our business models depend on that being the case, because if they are, all of us are going to be pushed to insert artificial drama into every story we do. And that's not good for anyone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE McKay, thank you very much.
MCKAY COPPINS Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE McKay Coppins is a staff writer at The Atlantic.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, as promised, lessons learned. Can journalists do better? Sooner?
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