To Be A Journalist, Part II

GUEST: Steve Coll
AIR DATE: 07/13/2013
VTR: 05/02/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today has recently accepted what in these times must be an extraordinarily challenging position … that of Dean of Columbia University’s noted Graduate School of Journalism, the “J” School”, as we knew it from across the campus in my own undergraduate days at Columbia College.

Historian, author, New Yorker writer and journalist Steve Coll now takes on the ever greater challenge of pointing students the way to be a journalist even as all things change, and we change with them.

Steve Coll spent many years at The Washington Post … as a general assignment feature writer, as financial correspondent, as a foreign correspondent and the paper’s South Asia Bureau Chief.

Together with a Washington Post colleague my guest won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting, eventually becoming an Associate Editor and then the Post’s Managing Editor.

In 2005, Steve Coll joined the writing staff of The New Yorker based in Washington, DC … and in 2007 he also joined The New America Foundation, resigning as its President five years later.

Now it is Dean Coll … and it was about his new academic challenges that we spoke most last time. Let’s continue where we left off. We were in the midst of a … I had to …

COLL: I think you were calling me hopelessly naïve when we left off. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Ah … naïve, innocent … no, wonderfully inspiring and I hope you inspire your students with your beliefs …

COLL: Well, we were talking about whether journalists can work with subjects, induce them to cooperate and talk without betraying them, in effect, which was the Janet Malcolm sort of provocation. And I think you were … I was making the case that that equation is changed a little bit, because subjects now see themselves as more … are, are more aware of the way media works and you were challenging …

HEFFNER: And, and as an occasional subject, I was saying “No, we’re just as …

COLL: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … not innocent …

COLL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … but eager to speak directly to the public and the press makes us feel we can do that.

COLL: It’s true. And, you know, there is a vanity that journalists recognize in, in humanity and exploit to persuade people to talk with them. But I think Janet Malcolm’s proposition, that we were talking about last time, goes further, which is to say … it’s a form of betrayal. Now that seems to me higher standard of perfidy …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

COLL: … than just playing with someone’s vanity. And, and I’m … I don’t accept that. I, I do recognize that there are lots of different reporters with lots of different senses of obligation to an ethical code or to their subjects. But I do believe, not out of my own practice, but watching others very closely as an Editor, and also as a colleague, that there are some journalists, anyway, I’m no claiming a particular sort of plurality, but there are some journalists who take their relationships, their professional relationships in the course of working on very complicated subject matter, very, very seriously.

Some times that involves protecting sources from disclosure, so there are journalists who’ve been willing to go to prison to protect individuals. Sometimes it involves making sure that there subjects do understand the consequences of a piece of journalism before it’s published.

Don’t ambush their subjects by surprising them in print in a way that they were unwilling to discuss before a story comes to print.

These are important, kind of ethical dilemmas that I think, for example a journalism school should teach because there are different ways to confront the problem of naïve subjects.

You can just whistle past it and, and feel smug, “I’m a journalist, I’m protected by the First Amendment, this is my sucker”. Or you can do something harder, which is actually wrestle with the problem that sometimes people disclose information in ways that they’re not aware will have consequences for them as individuals or professionally and wrestle with that as part of the process.

I find journalism born of that willingness to take, to take on the ethical problems is actually much richer, lasts longer and is more credible in the, in the eyes of readers.

HEFFNER: I have another question. Ahh, I don’t know how you will react to this. So frequently when journalists are my guests here … sit where you’re sitting … I ask whether they don’t think of themselves as having the responsibility of the historian and most usually … I should disclose to you … most frequently … almost always … say absolutely not. No relationship, or very little relationship between the journalist and the historian. How do you feel about …

COLL: Well, I’m, I’m … I embrace the borderland … that sort of liminal space and that’s where I’ve tried to work, that’s where I wanted to work when I came out of school many moons ago … I, you know, read history as an undergraduate and, and wanted to write the kinds of works of narrative non-fiction that, that strayed into the sort of aspirations of academic history and tried to meet their standards of, of evidence and argument and presentation. So I embrace that.

I worked at a newspaper where, I think Bob Woodward or Ben Bradley … one of them famously said that newspapers are the first draft of history. Which seemed to some people kind of a grand claim … just even “first draft”, but …

HEFFNER: They are.

COLL: … but they are and they’re often wrong as a first draft, which then raises … and this is the purpose for associating oneself with the kind of, the aspirations of historians which is that it seems to me a good historian is skeptical about any particular body of evidence and is looking to synthesize as many bodies of evidence about a subject as possible. And to constantly sort of interrogate what a person may claim to remember or what a document may claim to represent about a meeting. Not to accept any one source as definitive. And, in fact, it seems to me historiography … the, the revision of history is about continually re-discovering what was limited in earlier drafts of history.

So, now, on deadline, if you were working on a real time television broadcast, it’s very difficult to get passed the first body of evidence. What can we see? What is somebody telling us credibly as an eye witness? Let’s just get that right. At a newspaper you, you can do more than that. You can put the paper to bed one day and then go back at the same subject the next day and the next month and the next year if it’s of public importance.

And, as a book author, or a magazine writer you can go much further than that, which is to say, “What about the public record that newspapers and broadcast media has created about this important subject is incomplete? What can I take advantage of the time and the resources that I’m privileged to possess to illuminate that was missed the first time around?” And that’s what takes you towards the aspiration, at least, of a professional historian.

HEFFNER: What about the newspapers themselves or the contemporary news reporters. Maybe calling them newspapers will soon be out of style … and their revision … their continuing revision of a story.

Now I know, my father used to send me out at 8 o’clock in the evening to pick up the first editions of the newspapers and I know that you could go out at 11 o’clock and get the next editions and the next morning … that some stories could be totally different.

How, how well do you think we handle our ability now using the web constantly to change things.

COLL: Well there’s not much transparency for readers about corrections and changes that have been made. And I, I find that frustrating myself. The Times does a pretty good job of pointing out significant up-dates or corrections in web editions. They take more of the kind of edition based approach to revision that you’re recalling, then most outlets.

But when you read information, eyewitness information, or breaking news information on the web, you often are at a loss as to when corrections have been made, whether the thrust of a story has been reversed on the basis of new information and you’re sort of on your own with that.

You know I do think that newspaper “editioning”, even under the extraordinary pressure of time that a daily cycle creates … did have a beneficial effect. And I don’t think I’m just being nostalgic, or sort of extrapolating my own experience into some larger truth.

Because there is an intersection … and one thing that if you’ve ever been in a newsroom on, on a deadline … whether you’re calling a state on the night of a Presidential election … is Florida red or blue … there is a fixed time when all of the best information and the best reporters and editors and experienced political analysts, people who have called Florida right and wrong through previous Presidential … they all gather around and they’ve got 20 minutes to make a decision … yes or no … and you’ve get a better judgment out of the discipline of “editioning” than I think you get out of the sense that the world is continuous, if we make a mistake, we’ll just paper it over and change the paragraph and move on.

And, and so it’s not … it’s the, it’s the professional culture that’s associated with finishing something that I think is challenging in a broad … in a continuous broadcasting environment … you see it in live broadcasting.

And, you know, there was a day when the networks, with their privileged positions, their strong business models, their big budgets, their license spectrum, they worked very hard to try to define excellence in that continuous environment.

And very rarely they would rather be right than first … was a lot of the ethic in that era … and …

HEFFNER: Today?

COLL: … today … it would be … you’d be hard pressed to make the case that even a strong, the strongly branded networks whose businesses depend on their credibility and, and their reputations, you know, that they, that they have distributed down the chain of their newsrooms that sense “We’d rather be right than first”. I think the ethos today is much more “Let’s try to be first and if we make a mistake, we’ll correct it honestly and move on”. That’s the sort of response you see now. There’s not a lot of perceived consequence to these mistakes. People like us will call them out and express dismay, but are there really consequences to being wrong in a big way any more?

HEFFNER: Well, that does raise the question for me, at least, of a National News Council. How have you felt about that in the past? I mean the, the Council’s birth and demise I suspect, came before your time.

COLL: It did, yes. I was talking to somebody just the other day who …

HEFFNER: Old enough to remember?

COLL: Old enough to remember and been involved in its birth and passing. I’m skeptical about these kinds of bodies because … in the past I’ve been skeptical about them … because I wasn’t sure what value they added to the self-regulation that these quasi-monopolistic licensed, quasi-licensed entities like the broadcast networks and the major newspapers were doing themselves.

And, you know, there is a, a danger that these well-intentioned, self-regulating bodies can start to creep out of their original mission over time into, into other forms of censorship and, and control.

But, what I think is required now to a greater degree than five or ten years ago is a serious national conversation about the kinds of ethical questions and, and practices that, that such a council would take on, because those subjects are, are now much more contested and much less honored than they were even five or ten years ago.

HEFFNER: Explain that … I, I don’t understand that.

COLL: Well, well I think … look, when I was starting out at the Washington Post, in 1985, the question of what was ethical conduct by a reporter for a professional news organization was a very mature subject in the newsroom. I got a handbook that told me all kinds of things that I could and could not do while I declared myself to be a reporter for The Washington Post.

I could not walk into … I could not trespass … certainly not without the approval of the general counsel of The Washington Post company (laugh). If I walked into an open meeting, as a Washington Post reporter and didn’t announce myself and you came up to me and said, “Who are you?”, I was not allowed to lie … I had to say, “I work for the Washington Post”.

And so on … I could go down the handbook … and, and I spent, you know, much of my first year being schooled about these practices. Now these would be subjects that the National News Council would take an interest in.

My point is that in those days such a Council would have been superfluous because of the self-regulating professional cultures that had grown up in newspapers and newsrooms.

Today I’m not so sure. The question is what would … where would you house such a beast? What institutions would support it? How would it establish its credibility and legitimacy? Because ultimately if it doesn’t reach the people who are coming to Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, or who are out working as self-appointed reporters on the front lines of the, you know, the Boston bombings a few weeks ago, and tweeting, you know, live feeds into blogs that are publishing them … you don’t have a, a form of that kind of standard setting, or at least debate and, and discourse about what professional journalism is, that reaches those people than, you know, it’s just an exercise in, in kind of nostalgia.

The, the form of the discourse has to be relevant to where journalists are today.

HEFFNER: And today are they at a place where you believe the School of Journalism can have an impact?

COLL: I’m, I’m completely committing my professional life (laugh) to that proposition. And I think, you know, Columbia’s in a great position to make a difference in this.

You have 400 plus self-selecting college graduates coming to one of America’s great universities for the sole purpose of studying and advancing themselves and thinking about themselves as journalists at a time when that profession is in flux, to be kind about it … is in crisis in some respects where the path to institutional careers that I enjoyed, that was available to J School graduates in, in 1980 or even 1990 looks much more uncertain … and yet here they are, highly qualified, applying in droves to get into this program … I can’t wait to meet them.

Who are they? Why do they, why do they want to be journalists in a world where they can’t be guaranteed civil service careers at big newspapers or television networks. Where they may even have to invent their own employment when they come out of school by innovating or, or finding someway to create a new model at a time when the world is still trying to figure out what forms of journalism will pay for themselves.

Who are these kids? They are motivated by, presumably, the role that other journalists have played in our society, in our democracy and, and, and in … frankly, there’s one thing about journalism that hasn’t changed. It’s still a thrilling way to live. I mean it is such a great life. You are out there in the middle of history with a notebook and a pen, or a camera, or a video recorder, or a twitter phone (laugh) and you, and you are in the middle of great events trying to document them, trying to interpret them, or you are digging in courthouses on the trail of something important … the misuse of power or the abuse of … you know, the environment, the, the failure of institutions to serve the citizens that they are meant to serve. All of these subjects are … it’s a great privilege to, to live as a journalist.

When I was foreign correspondent, every six weeks, I’d be in some situation where I would turn to the person next to me and then spontaneously say, you know, “They pay me to do this. (Laugh) It ought to be a crime that they pay me to do this, it’s such … it’s such a thrill.”

Now when you become an editor … it’s not quite the same. I then find myself turning to the person next to me and saying “They don’t pay me enough to go to this meeting … (laugh) …”

HEFFNER: (Laugh) And when your copy is received and printed or disseminated in whatever way electronically … and some Ombudsperson has a comment. What do you think about that?

COLL: (Laugh) It’s a, it’s a … yeah, it’s good for journalists to be disciplined by criticism because in fact … in comparison to other professions and, you know, I use that word advisedly … journalists, you know, have an enormous scope in our constitutional system to do things their way. To make their own decisions, to make their own consequential choices about what to publish, what not to publish and they are not accountable in the way that some other professions are accountable.

Lawyers and doctors are disciplined, for example, by litigation, without the benefit of the Sullivan standard to protect them from, from mistakes.

HEFFNER: You think it will continue to be that way?

COLL: I think our Constitutional system will endure absent, you know, some terrible crisis in our nation’s history. Yean, I do think that the … that a remarkable consensus and really, I mean it’s been tested by, by so many errors and problems in our media, but a remarkable cross party consensus around the First Amendment standards that have grown up since Sullivan seems to be in place.

Now you see in the Obama Administration some encroachment on that in these prosecutions in national security cases. You saw, after September 11th a kind of informal pressure on journalism to, to mute itself and to mute criticism and there has always been a tension between government and the press around the press’s willingness to follow national consensus as perceived in any time of crisis and so forth. But that’s journalism’s failure, that’s not the government’s failure. And it certainly …

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

COLL: Well, the, the … if, if journalism missed an opportunity to hold the Bush Administration to account as it planned the Iraq War without announcing that it was planning the Iraq War … it … that missed opportunity was not because it was constrained by encroachments on the First Amendment … I mean that was, that was a failure of … that was a failure of leadership … it was a failure of journalism.

So I … we have the most permissive environment for journalism in the world. And if you go anywhere in Europe as a journalist, as I … you know … fortunate to do sometimes and you try to do the kind of investigative work that is routine for journalists in the United States … working in courthouses, working with public records, filing of Freedom of Information Act requests … knocking on the doors of government ministers and asking them uncomfortable questions … exploring sensitive, classified information in the public interest. The scope for journalistic activity in the United States is so much greater than anywhere else.

HEFFNER: But you, yourself … have said and you have written about the fact that this has been true, but one might look at the last few years and say it is getting less and less true.

COLL: I’m, I’m concerned about the Obama Administration’s record of prosecuting national security cases by taking advantage, essentially, of what … appears to be that they’re taking advantage of the Patriot Act and other post-911 permissions that have been granted to the government to carry out electronic surveillance essentially of government officials and they’re, they’re scooping up electronic evidence involving interactions between government officials and journalists and using those to prosecute government officials sometimes using the Espionage Act and other draconian laws …

HEFFNER: How do you explain this?

COLL: It’s complicated. I don’t believe that it is … I think President Obama things that leaks are a problem. Every sitting President thinks leaks are a problem …

HEFFNER: Indeed.

COLL: … so he sends a little signal to his Justice Department … “leaks are a problem” … but that’s about as far as he gets involved. The Justice Department has a national security division that is responsible for investigating these kinds of cases … they bring the cases to a certain stage of ripeness, because of these changes in the way that evidence is available to them, they have better cases than they did in the era before email because they can collect this email surreptitiously and make cases on the basis of that.

They kick it up to the Attorney General. Now the Attorney General is where the rubber meets the road. The Attorney General could exercise prosecutorial discretion and say to the National Security Division … “You know what, this is a good case on paper, but in my judgment, the public interest associated with a permissive First Amendment environment for whistle blowers trumps your particular case, I’m not going to bring this as a felony. If you want to bring an administrative proceeding against this person or strip him of his security clearance, that’s fine … he crossed a line, but I’m not going to bring a felony.”

HEFFNER: But he’s not been saying it.

COLL: He’s not been saying it. He’s not been saying that and I, I am puzzled that the Obama Administration has tolerated this pattern because it is now … it has a momentum of it’s own at this stage.

HEFFNER: It’s so puzzling to me, though, Steve, that, that you want not to point a finger at the President. I mean this is not a naïve person who has not been trained in, in the law.

COLL: Well, it’s his Attorney General. I think that’s the, that’s the mechanism he has. It’s inappropriate, I would say, for a President to reach into the Justice Department’s professional prosecutions whether it’s at the National Security Division or anywhere else and say, “Bring that case, don’t bring that case”. Nixon did that. We don’t want Presidents doing that. But the way the President sets policy around these questions is through his relationship with his Attorney General and if he … and the Attorney General requires a certain amount of prosecutorial independence, but if the President is unhappy with the pattern, then he should replace his Attorney General. In that sense I agree with you. It’s his responsibility because it’s his Attorney General.

HEFFNER: What was it that Maureen Dowd wrote recently … “There’s no bully in the pulpit”. Well, the opposite has to be true here, there must be a bully somewhere there if this keeps happening and certainly a few of you in the press have made it known to the rest of us, the reading audience … to what’s happening.

COLL: Yeah, it really is anomalous what the Obama Administration has done. Some of these prosecutions germinated in the Bush Administration, it’s true, but more than two-thirds, I think, of the historical cases of government officials being prosecuted for leaking to the press have occurred just in the Obama Administration.

HEFFNER: And I’m told I have to say “Good-bye”. Thank you so much for joining me today …

COLL: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: … Steve Coll. Promise to come back.

COLL: I will.

HEFFNER: Okay. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.

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