On Monday night, about 15 minutes into his nightly news program on CNN, Anderson Cooper told viewers about a Washington Post report that the FBI, as part of its Russia probe, had extensively questioned Carter Page, a former adviser to President Trump’s campaign.
“The question is why,’’ Cooper said meaningfully. “I’ll talk to the reporter who broke the story.’’ After a commercial break, he did just that, interviewing the Post’s Devlin Barrett about what the FBI’s interest in Page signified. When Cooper sought input from his panelists, one of them was New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman.
Then, just minutes later, Cooper brought on another Post reporter, Adam Entous, to get his reaction to a suggestion by White House press secretary Sean Spicer that a story co-written by Entous — finding that the CIA alerted the Obama administration last August that Russian President Vladimir Putin was directly involved in a cyber campaign to disrupt the US presidential election and help Trump — showed there was no collusion between the Trump camp and the Russians. Entous made clear that the Post article did no such thing.
Bottom line: Cooper built at least half his show Monday night on newspaper stories and the reporters who wrote them — and these days, that is far from unusual on cable news programs.
During these news-packed, leak-filled early days of the Trump era, print journalists have assumed an increasingly prominent role on the nightly lineups of talking heads. Tune in at any given time and you’re likely to see reporters from newspapers or wire services such as the Times, the Post, Reuters, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press. Sometimes they’re on the air just an hour or two after their stories have been posted on their news organizations’ websites.
At a time when Trump is seizing every opportunity to demonize and delegitimize the press, shrieking about “Fake News!’’ on Twitter and blasting the media as “the enemy of the people,’’ the steady stream of TV appearances by reporters counter those caricatures with human faces. What we see onscreen is a host of even-keeled, serious-seeming journalists who spend their days in the trenches on Capitol Hill, in the White House, at the Pentagon or State Department. Their commitment to gathering and verifying information comes across as anything but fake.
Without idealizing them, it sometimes feels like these tenacious reporters (and a little thing called the First Amendment) represent the strongest bulwark against the “post-truth’’ world we sometimes seem to be slipping towards.
For newspapers, struggling with the challenges of transformation in a digital age, TV provides a platform for their staffers to talk about their enterprise stories, thus enabling that work to reach a broader audience while reminding viewers what still makes newspapers distinctive. Since these days newspapers need all the subscribers they can get, they are only too happy to have reporters promote their work.
For TV viewers, the onscreen presence of reporters delivers a welcome, if partial, corrective to one of the worst and most ingrained reflexes of cable-news networks: the way they stock their lineups with partisan pundits whose squabbling generates far more heat than light.
No doubt there are print reporters who savor the limelight, but their main interest is in offering factual information gleaned from the practice of actual journalism. While TV pundits talk to (and over) each other, reporters talk to sources; while pundits contort the news to fit their ideology, reporters go where the news takes them; while pundits speculate, reporters nail down what really happened, unearthing verifiable information.
What a concept! And what an unintended admission of television’s own shortcomings this constant showcasing of print reporters amounts to, really.
CNN and other TV news organizations may boast about the resources they devote to investigative reporting, but the reality is that newspapers — the Post and the Times in particular — have done most of the heavy lifting when it comes to breaking stories about Trump et al. (Which is why he ripped the Times and the Post again on Twitter Wednesday with his favorite epithet of “Fake News.’’ He also gleefully pounced this week on the fact that three journalists in CNN’s investigative unit resigned as the network retracted a story on its website about a supposed congressional investigation of a pre-inaugural meeting between a close Trump ally and the head of a Russian investment fund.)
This is not to discount the fine work of the TV journalists who insist on accountability from public figures, such as NBC’s Andrea Mitchell or CNN’s Jim Acosta, who has been vigorously challenging Spicer’s decision to hold some White House press briefings off-camera. And obviously shows like CBS’s “60 Minutes’’ don’t shrink from long-form stories.
But for the most part TV-news operations gravitate toward the daily bang-bang of politics — who’s up, who’s down, what did Trump tweet today, can Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell round up enough votes to repeal Obamacare — more than painstaking, below-the-surface digging.
Consequently, just as in the 1970s, when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Post relentlessly pursued the Watergate story that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, newspapers have broken most of the high-impact stories during Trump’s presidency.
Consider New York Times reporter and frequent cable TV guest Michael S. Schmidt, who broke the story about a memo written by former FBI director James Comey that said Trump had asked Comey to shut down the federal probe (“I hope you can let this go’’) into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Or the Washington Post’s Entous, who recently coauthored a story about a December meeting between Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, in which Kushner, according to US officials, discussed the creation of a secret channel of communication between the Trump transition team and Moscow.
A potential downside of constant TV exposure for print reporters is that they will be tempted to cross the line into commentary. But when I recently interviewed Woodward — who has done his own fair share of television — he said emphatically that citizens benefit from TV appearances by reporters because of “the quality of information, the depth, the understanding’’ journalists acquire while doing their jobs and can pass on to viewers.
He’s right. Diligent reporting has seldom been more necessary than it is now, when Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway blithely champions “alternative facts’’ as if such a thing exists. So here’s hoping TV viewers continue to see a lot of Helene Cooper of the Times, or Pulitzer winner David Fahrenthold of the Post, or Yamiche Alcindor of the Times, or the Post’s ubiquitous Robert Costa, who takes frequent pains to say “according to my reporting,’’ apparently to avoid the impression he is giving his own opinion.
Mere opinion is now a greatly devalued currency, anyway. Thanks to the ubiquity of the aforementioned pundits on TV and the mushrooming of social media, opinions aren’t just a dime a dozen these days, they’re about a dime a thousand.
But the value of facts, verifiable information, truth? Priceless.
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.