Whether you love the press, hate us or have no particular opinion on the Fourth Estate, it shouldn’t be hard finding some common ground: being a reporter today is fundamentally more difficult than it was just five years ago.
Whether you’re working for a community newspaper in Annapolis MD and five of your co-workers have been gunned down, or you were like Jamal Khasoggi, one of the hundreds of reporters who have been jailed or killed across the planet, you’re part of the profession our president now calls “Fake Media” and an “Enemy of the people.”
You may believe treating the press in such a manner is justified and also believe the president isn’t responsible in any small part for the problem, but at least we can or should be able to agree we are increasingly coming under the scrutiny of a variety of microscopes.
What is often lost in this scrutiny is our goal: to provide information not everyone wants known - especially those in power. Thus I believe it becomes easier to attack the press when you take away the reason for our existence and merely look at a perceived effect.
It is the old cry of the oppressor to “Shoot the messenger.” Yet we persist.
This week in Hanoi, David Nakamura of the Washington Post made history when he became the first reporter outside of North Korea to get Kim Jon Un to answer a question.
It was beautiful, pure, understated and drives home why we are vital.
"We discussed a strategy for how to engage Trump — and Kim — in a way that would prompt answers,"
- David Nakamura of The Washington Post
Nakamura later wrote about his interaction with North Korea’s leader which included Nakamura flashing Kim a “thumbs up” to get his attention in a pool spray. “For a journalist, the success of a well-framed question is typically defined by how revelatory the answer. But what about when the very act of answering is what matters most? That was the question my colleagues and I asked ourselves as we arrived at the Metropole ahead of the summit. As the White House traveling press pool for the day, our 13-member group was responsible for chronicling the meetings between Trump and Kim for the hundreds of correspondents in Hanoi and the thousands more in Washington and around the world,” Nakamura told us.
Kim had already kicked out a group of American reporters who were staying in and had set up offices at the same hotel Kim was staying at in Hanoi. There was further speculation he was trying to keep the western press from some of the summit events because he couldn’t control them.
To the pool of American reporters waiting to see an event with Kim and Trump, that never left their mind. “As reporters waited for Secret Service agents to conduct a security sweep ahead of the leaders’ arrival at the Metropole on Thursday, we discussed a strategy for how to engage Trump — and Kim — in a way that would prompt answers.
It’s not that we feared offending them; rather, we wanted to break some news instead of being kept in the dark. The White House had scheduled a presidential news conference for the afternoon, so there was general agreement that it was not necessary to ask Trump off-topic questions that could be posed later in a setting where he would be more likely to answer. The better bet was to ask where nuclear negotiations stood and whether progress had been made.
But no one knew what Kim would say — or whether he would talk at all,” Nakamura said.
Working together, the journalists created an opportunity to get through and Nakamura got to ask a very simple question about whether or not Kim felt confident the U.S. and North Korea could reach a deal. Did he feel confident?
Kim answered through an interpreter, “Well, it’s too early to tell, but I wouldn’t say that I’m pessimistic. From what I feel right now, I do have a feeling that good results will come out.”
The Eagle had landed.
It is the job of the reporter to get information. We ask questions. We stay. Like first responders we run to the sound of the gunshots, not away.
Or as Nakamura later reported, “The bubble had been pierced, a reclusive control freak had revealed something, however small — the fundamental currency between a reporter and his subject had been exchanged. Later in the day, Kim would be asked more pointed questions and provide some answers. And he would not get a nuclear deal with Trump, as the talks collapsed.”
This is how it’s done. Nakamura’s story and the actions taken by the American pool of reporters in Hanoi are a textbook example of how the press actually works together.
We don’t stand up and join hands. We don’t turn our backs. We don’t walk out of briefings if we are lied to or called “Fake News” and/or “The enemy of the people.”
It is the job of the reporter to get information. We ask questions. We stay. Like first responders we run to the sound of the gunshots, not away. We try to burst bubbles and hold those in power - everyone in power - accountable for their actions.
Analysts and opinion writers will chime in with their wisdom or lack thereof. Later comes the twists and turns that lead us to Saturday Night Live skits, dramatic testimony on Congress or indictments and convictions.
But before any of that comes the question.
Helen Thomas once offered me this advice: “Just ask the question.”
I was told that whatever else happens, once a question is asked then it cannot be said the issue is unknown. The question was there - usually recorded and later transcribed and printed out for all to see.
There are also no stupid questions. There are only stupid answers.
There is an oft told story from my youth as a reporter. Those older than myself can testify to whether it is authentic or merely apocryphal. First Lady Betty Ford had an event in the East Wing attended by her in-town press pool. Pools by the First Lady or the Vice President are often staffed by younger reporters who do not have the experience of the senior reporters covering the president. One reporter, fresh off the choo-choo, asked at the gathering, “Have any of your sons ever smoked pot.” The time was the mid 70s. There were chuckles around the room. Someone may have even said, “What a dumb question.” Certainly that was the prevailing thought among the members of the press pool, right until Mrs. Ford said “Yes.”
The young reporter was instantly anointed a genius.
However, he was merely following Helen Thomas’s pointed advice.
Nakamura is an heir to that ideology and a sound practitioner of the craft. So are most if not all of the reporters I’ve known. Like them or not, think them grandstanding, passive, annoying, frightening, laughable, horrendous, feckless, finks, rednecks, racists, apologists, sophists, etymologists or Vikings on a quest, we ask questions.
Effective communication often stems from a question in which both parties share a basic factual premise and at least one of the parties involved struggle for deeper understanding.
Should we ever truly embrace the desire to understand the human condition rather than undermine it, we would ask more questions and those who ask those questions as a matter of their profession would see a lessening need to hire body guards at campaign rallies or install safety measures at our offices.
Aided and abetted by a public that has been unknowingly led to their own political slaughter by a government which benefits from fewer critical voices, our First Amendment freedoms have eroded since the Reagan years and the pressure against reporters has exponentially increased as the government destroys those promised freedoms.
Every government from the smallest municipality to state legislatures and the three branches of the federal government claim to embrace the spirit of Free Speech - yet they do very little to back that support.
What Nakamura and the pool did was textbook journalism and should be taught in journalism classes.
Newspaper chains used to be limited. Networks had rules. Local affiliates had limits. Reagan came into office and removed most of the restrictions. Huzzah! More freedom the bosses proclaimed. Then newspapers began gobbling each other up - and as they did the companies closed down bureaus and fired reporters to increase revenue - in the stupid and misguided notion that if you’re selling a great cake just take out all of the ingredients and replace it with horse dung and no one will know. Thus the government sold out Free Speech. The owners made out like bandits.
The television airwaves used to be considered a public trust. After Reagan got into office the FCC suddenly had another idea. Chairman Mark S. Fowler destroyed the foundation of television news by saying selling the airwaves isn’t a public trust, it’s like selling a “toaster with pictures.”
By 1986 many reporters, including White House correspondents Sam Donaldson and Helen Thomas warned us of the problems of deregulation. They pointed to the longevity of the press corps and the institutional knowledge the combined reporters had in covering the president. “But if deregulation continues unabated,” Donaldson and Thomas warned, “It will mean the end of an independent press.”
Standing outside of the Rayburn hearing room during a break in the Michael Cohen testimony this week I ran into a sound engineer who sat watching the unfolding drama. “It’s like we’re totally a reality show. All of our justice. All of our news and our government,” he said while laughing as he watched the antics in the hall. He thought it funny. I didn’t know what to think - but that particular hallway of the Rayburn building did look like the backstage of a couple of Broadway shows I’ve seen.
Make no mistake; deregulation of the journalism industry has led directly to where we are today: fewer companies monopolizing the product, cutting staff, hiring cheaper and less experienced staff, and at the same time there are fewer protections for journalists. All of it helps create a surreal environment.
Some will say so what?
I point to the Nakamura exchange as to why we must persist.
No one is above being asked a question. All humans are equal. Never mind whether or not there is an adequate answer. How can any real communication take place if we don’t ask each other questions and instead merely make assumptions based on our own beliefs, knowledge and prejudices? Are we merely going to be addicted to our own “reality shows” without bothering to understand reality?
That is the pure beauty and joy of what happened in Hanoi. During the most oppressive times I’ve seen in 35 years as a reporter, the pool covering the Summit still did exactly what we are supposed to do - and this incident involved North Korea - perhaps the most oppressive opponent of free speech on the planet.
In a moment the bubble burst long enough to get a glimpse of Kim Jong Un - though an exceedingly brief one. What Nakamura and the pool did was textbook journalism and should be taught in journalism classes. The strategy, the working concept of what to do and how to do it are the essence of good journalism.
We’d all benefit with more of it - which means doing a lot of things I’m sure neither governments or big business will embrace.
But we must persist.
- Brian J. Karem