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The Assignment with Audie Cornish

Fiery Twitter threads and endless news notifications never capture the full story. Each week on The Assignment, host Audie Cornish pulls listeners out of their digital echo chambers to hear from the people who live the headlines. From the sex work economy to the battle over what’s taught in classrooms, no topic is off the table. Listen to The Assignment every Thursday. 

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Journalism on the Ropes
The Assignment with Audie Cornish
Dec 22, 2022

The debate among journalists over how to regain the public’s trust is increasingly centered around the idea of objectivity. In this episode, Audie turns the spotlight on herself and the media. She invites journalists to help her reckon with the idea of objectivity: what it is? Does it still work? And, what’s the way forward for both the press and the public? You’ll hear from Jelani Cobb, Dean of Columbia Journalism School; Margaret Sullivan, former media columnist at the Washington Post, and Maggie Haberman, reporter for The New York Times.

Episode Transcript
Nicholas McBride
00:00:06
Hey Audie.
Audie Cornish
00:00:09
Hi, Nick. How are you?
Nicholas McBride
00:00:12
I'm really good.
Audie Cornish
00:00:12
Am I allowed to say, Nick? I feel like I still have to call you Professor McBride, even though I know you don't like it.
Nicholas McBride
00:00:19
Nah, if your comfortable...
Audie Cornish
00:00:20
Back in college. I really had no interest in being a journalist or, frankly, meaningful understanding of what that meant until this guy.
Nicholas McBride
00:00:31
I'm okay.
Audie Cornish
00:00:35
It's good to hear you smiling.
Audie Cornish
00:00:36
Nicholas McBride is an associate professor at UMass Amherst, where I went to school and where he still teaches in the journalism department. Unlike the other professors who focused on the who, what, when, where, why and how, a basic news writing. He played us a VHS copy of Akira Kurosawa's legendary crime thriller about unreliable narrators Rashomon. And Professor McBride introduced his syllabus with an essay he wrote that began like this. News writing and reporting is both science and art.
Nicholas McBride
00:01:13
News writing and reporting is both science and art. We observe, collect what we believe to be facts and verify those facts using established methods. But too often now we have become stenographers.
Audie Cornish
00:01:32
I've been thinking a lot about that essay, trying to square it with the moment that we in the media face now.
Nicholas McBride
00:01:39
We have become stenographers. We become criminals through our own laxity, laziness and lust for comfort and celebrity.
Nicholas McBride
00:01:55
I mean, he wrote this in the nineties, but we are still having the same conversations around what it means to be a good and honest journalist. And I am well aware that many of you listening right now have lost trust in that idea in us.
00:02:14
I'm not going to give you a question. Can you state? You are fake news.
00:02:18
Trust in media has declined, but for a lot of younger voters in particular. They've never known an era where you're just trusting at face value the stuff you see in your news.
00:02:26
They don't trust the media. They don't trust the election process. And that is a fundamental threat to our future existence. And we have to overcome it.
Audie Cornish
00:02:35
According to the polling folks over at Gallup, around 16% of people trust newspaper journalism. A whopping 11% trust TV news. And why is it so low? I mean, the list is long. Critics say journalists share too much of their opinion, acknowledged too little about their biases, are prone to both sides ism putting bad faith or even immoral arguments on par that common sense and that the media mainly amplifies partisan talking points. Maggie Haberman of The New York Times is one of several journalists we're going to hear from in this episode about the objectivity wars, that internal and external conversation being had in newsrooms and on social media about whether objectivity is over or not.
Maggie Haberman
00:03:29
The concept of both objectivity and fairness, they don't always go hand in hand, but in my definition they do. It's a basic journalistic tenet.
Audie Cornish
00:03:36
Or whether the post-Watergate era glamorized the role but didn't do enough to cure its ills. What would it take to regain the public's trust? One story at a time.
Nicholas McBride
00:03:51
You have to be as willing to look in the mirror and to look inside of yourself to see, okay, why am I framing it this way? And asking yourself that? And progressively you get better at showing clear pictures of the way things are. But it's never perfect. It's another country.
Audie Cornish
00:04:15
I'm Audie Cornish. And this is The Assignment.
Audie Cornish
00:04:25
Today, I'm turning the spotlight on myself and three of my peers whose views on objectivity span the spectrum. And we're going to start with two people who have taken up the work of thinking about these challenges.
Jelani Cobb
00:04:36
My name is Jelani Cobb, and I'm the dean of Columbia Journalism School.
Margaret Sullivan
00:04:41
I'm Margaret Sullivan, and I guess I'm most well known as a media critic.
Audie Cornish
00:04:47
Margaret Sullivan was the media columnist for The Washington Post. She was the public editor for The New York Times. She ran a newsroom herself, the Buffalo News. So she's got a good sense of what it's like to make decisions in a newsroom and how to critique the decisions of others. And the new dean at Columbia Journalism School, Jelani Cobb. He sits in an influential position at an institution that launches new generations of journalists into newsrooms across the country each year. I wanted to get us all on the same page. So let's start with the basics. What is objectivity, really?
Jelani Cobb
00:05:23
It's one of those terms that, you know, like how scientific terms mean one thing to scientists, but they're used in a completely different term, in common parlance. And so when the general public talks about objectivity, it doesn't necessarily align with what journalists or what kind of the theory of object of journalism was meant to be. It's meant to echo science in a particular way. It's supposed to be empirical that if the three of us were sent out to report on a story, we might have different quotes. We might talk to, you know, different people, but we would fundamentally come away with a similar away.
Audie Cornish
00:06:04
Right. And by methodology, I'll throw some ideas out there and you can tell me if I'm wrong. It's seeking, assembling, and then verifying the information that you get. That is the method, so to speak.
Margaret Sullivan
00:06:17
And it also presumes that there is a single truth that can be found through scientific method.
Jelani Cobb
00:06:24
Right. Which, of course, is where it gets a little, you know, question, a little shaky. And so there's no way of kind of refereeing human affairs in the same way that you can do in a kind of controlled environment like a laboratory. But it's an aspirational thing.
Audie Cornish
00:06:41
Are we talking about objectivity as a problem or neutrality as a problem problem?
Margaret Sullivan
00:06:46
I think what the problem is is a kind of performative neutrality. It's the effort to look neutral. Right. And the effort to look fair, which isn't the same thing as actually being fair. Yeah. But I think that if you change your mindset from what is the most exciting story I can get, that's going to get a lot of attention to what is the journalism that serves the public interest. If that is the mentality that is articulated at the top of news organizations, you make a whole lot of different kinds of decisions.
Audie Cornish
00:07:17
One thing that happens when you challenge people in that way is you are cut off from access and you do find you're in a position where people from a certain political persuasion will no longer talk to you at all as a journalist because of their beliefs about either you or your organization.
Jelani Cobb
00:07:36
I mean, I think that I keep going back to the idea that this is not a job for you to make friends. Certainly not with the people that you cover and that there are certain costs that you have to be willing to brook. And, you know, when we're looking at the things that like white nationalists became a mainstream constituency or close to one, and we have just proceeded as if this were the same as environmental.
Audie Cornish
00:08:07
Scoccer Moms.
Jelani Cobb
00:08:07
Exactly. Or soccer moms or any other constituency. The kind of volatile element of American society that has found a home in one of the major American political parties. And there should be alarm. We sit and proceed with business as usual. In those circumstances.
Audie Cornish
00:08:27
What do we do now? What does it mean for the people who are not opinion writers, who are news gatherers and journalists? How do they repair the relationship with the public? What are some of the steps the industry could be taking?
Margaret Sullivan
00:08:40
I mean, I think I said earlier that I think we need a recalibration that comes from the top, that changes our overall sense of our mission or purpose, that we are here to do a constitutionally protected job of serving citizens in a democracy. I mean, I don't think that's how most journalists define their role.
Audie Cornish
00:09:01
What do you think they think?
Margaret Sullivan
00:09:02
I think they think on a given day, I want to do a good story and I hope it gets a lot of traction and helps my career.
Jelani Cobb
00:09:11
You know, Dean Baquet made a really interesting point and he said.
Audie Cornish
00:09:13
From the New York Times.
Jelani Cobb
00:09:14
Of course, the former New York Times editor in chief and executive editor, he said that it's very difficult to think in the big picture when you're doing daily stories and that you are chronicling everything that's happening right now in the moment. And so it's hard to step back and see what the themes are. And so I think it is important for people to do that periodically.
Audie Cornish
00:09:39
Well, this is where the trust is built. Just like in any other part of your life, right? Like every conversation is building trust.
Jelani Cobb
00:09:44
And even kind of. What are we doing here exactly? Like, what are our objectives? Who are we here to serve? Like, what is the purpose of the media? The fundamental questions. I think that we have to revisit those if we hope to start repairing a relationship with the public.
Audie Cornish
00:10:01
I don't want to leave out the news consumer. I don't know if that's even the right word.
Margaret Sullivan
00:10:06
I like to call them citizens.
Audie Cornish
00:10:07
Yes, citizens, because it feels like there's a responsibility there that is also being shirked, that people want to be passive in taking in things. And.
Margaret Sullivan
00:10:21
Not only passive, but I think there's a tendency to want to shut it out. Shut out the news now. I hear so much of this like I can't take it. There have been years now with COVID, with Trump and all this other stuff, all the bad news, the school shootings. I'm not going to pay attention anymore. And I think that as citizens, if we want to live in a democracy, we owe it to ourselves and each other and the country to stay informed, to stay connected.
Audie Cornish
00:10:47
But given all just said about what we do wrong.
Jelani Cobb
00:10:50
Can I quote Margaret back to herself? So I think in in your prior book Ghosting the News, you make a really important point about what local journalism does and sure. You know, it covers what's happening in the school board. That's important. It covers like what's going to happen with these municipal tax rates, etc., etc.. But they also cover the local high school football game and they cover the 4th of July parade. And the.
Audie Cornish
00:11:24
Concert.
Jelani Cobb
00:11:25
The concert. The letter to the editor written by the nine year old. Those are things that forge real civic bonds. And it's been difficult for us to figure out how to do those things. And so I do think that.
Audie Cornish
00:11:38
Difficult because there's been fewer local papers. because like as that industry is decimated.
Jelani Cobb
00:11:44
Is being cratered, and in the absence, I think we've made it easier for the kind of worst consumer instincts to become more prevalent among readers, among viewers, you know, among that kind of audience, among.
Margaret Sullivan
00:11:59
Stay in your tribal corner, find an echo chamber on social media and otherwise turn away.
Audie Cornish
00:12:10
That's media critic Margaret Sullivan. Her latest book is titled Newsroom Confidential Lessons and Worries from an Ink Stained Life. And we also heard Jelani Cobb, dean of Columbia Journalism School and staff writer at The New Yorker. Now, we need to know what it's like for someone in the thick of it.
Maggie Haberman
00:12:32
There are a number of stories that I would go back and do differently that I think a lot of people would. But I don't think that anybody was coming away with a picture of this White House as as typical or normal.
Audie Cornish
00:12:43
After the break. New York Times writer Maggie Haberman on objectivity covering Donald Trump and the relationship between the public and the press.
Audie Cornish
00:13:06
Full disclosure, Maggie Haberman is also a CNN analyst. We're often on panels where she's asked to share her reporting on Donald Trump. And I almost always want to ask her about how she does it. Yes, she's been following him since her time at The New York Post and The New York Daily News. Yes, she has a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Trump World connections to Russia. At the same time, she takes a lot of heat for how people perceive her journalism practices. Some sample headlines. New York magazine, "of course, Trump hates Maggie Haberman. Why does the left?" The Huffington Post, "a running list of cowards, courtiers, strivers and suck ups" features one of her tweets. But Maggie Haberman stands by her method, and objectivity is crucial to it. So I asked her for a definition.
Maggie Haberman
00:13:56
It's a term in journalism that doesn't have, I think, a ubiquitous meaning for everybody, as most terms in journalism don't. And that's one of the things that I think is difficult for those of us on our side of the wall in trying to explain what we do to people who are not. To me, it is about presenting fairness in in coverage and in copy. But that doesn't mean describing something as different than what it actually is.
Audie Cornish
00:14:26
Back in 2018, you wrote this article about Donald Trump called a president who believes he is entitled to his own facts. And in it, you said that, quote, objectivity is not something he expects of people. And he long ago came to believe that facts are really arbitrary. So what did that mean for your reporting on him?
Maggie Haberman
00:14:46
Establishing a baseline of facts has been one of the hardest things about covering this man, because he he treats facts as if they are things that can be bent and changed. And they're only real if he says they're real. And that creates a culture where people around him either expect that they can get enhanced credibility just by not being him and sometimes saying things that aren't true and sometimes offering self-serving accounts about themselves. Or they can say things that aren't true for other reasons.
Audie Cornish
00:15:23
What's that like when you have a constellation of people doing it?
Maggie Haberman
00:15:26
It's it's it is covering a hall of mirrors, and it's very difficult and.
Audie Cornish
00:15:29
A hall of mirrors.
Maggie Haberman
00:15:31
It really is. I mean, his world is a hall of mirrors. I don't have another way to describe it.
Audie Cornish
00:15:36
How has the last couple of years kind of affected how you do your work? I mean, are there things you think about differently now?
Maggie Haberman
00:15:47
I think what I think about differently is that one of the things about Trump is that Trump exists in these tiny increments of time, but realistically, so do the media. And we tend not to think about the cumulative effect of what we do, which really.
Audie Cornish
00:16:00
We don't think about the cumulative effect of all of our coverage.
Maggie Haberman
00:16:04
Correct that things sort of amass over a period of time. Now, again, I, I think that a nominee under federal investigation is a story, I understand that others might not see it that way. But just as I think that that would be the case with any candidate anywhere in any race, and I came to this thinking less about the last four years than I did about the work I was doing researching this book on Trump. It became very clear, going back and looking at the coverage from the seventies and eighties and nineties, just how much myth building he did about himself and creating this artifice of himself as this titan of industry that he just wasn't you know, he was.
Audie Cornish
00:16:45
Through the media, though, right through? His public image.
Maggie Haberman
00:16:48
That's entirely what it was.
Audie Cornish
00:16:50
Do you feel like you can still report on him objectively?
Maggie Haberman
00:16:55
I do. I you know, I think that it's important to speak plainly, as I said earlier, about what he's doing and things he says. And I, I think we're well past the point when things that he says should confound people the way sometimes they do.
Audie Cornish
00:17:10
But for us who don't know your process and I want to ask you to reveal every little bit, but, you know, the show is kind of about being on the inside. And I get it. You now, all of these years in New York, all of these years in Washington, now the book. What are you doing differently?
Maggie Haberman
00:17:27
I'm trying to be mindful of not rushing ahead with certain stories. That's the big one. But in general, I mean, I guess is your is your question, do you think that I owe a debt of penance? Is that what the question is about my coverage over the last.
Audie Cornish
00:17:40
No, just. Okay. Do you do things differently? Do you say to yourself, you know, like, yeah, I'm being very literal here. I know I'm doing things differently. Right. Like this whole podcast, the approach of it is much more transparent. Right. I'm in terms of my own business, which was a very voice of God business. I am now in a posture of I'm not the voice of God I want. And in terms of. Even doing a podcast of this style. I know that I'm walking into the lion's den argument of platforming, right? Putting people, giving people a spotlight without that opposing point of view sitting right next to them to jump into the fight. I'm cognizant of these things in the way that I wasn't before. And I'm wondering for you, what are things you're cognizant of now in a way that maybe you weren't before?
Maggie Haberman
00:18:28
But let me ask you a question just since you raised that. Yeah. Please tell me, what are you doing differently in terms of what you just said about platforming people? How are - What are you doing differently that you wouldn't have done before?
Audie Cornish
00:18:39
Well, you know, in my old life and I was doing many more interviews live, it's hard to fact check people on the fly like that, especially when the lies come fast and furious. Yup. And you're sort of interjecting and then jumping in and then following up, and then you tumble down the rabbit hole, arguing over a fact that is incredibly obvious. But because of the, quote unquote rules of objectivity, the kind of norms of our job, you're supposed to kind of engage in it, right? And go back and forth and tell the audience instead of being like, this is a distraction because they haven't answered the question in the first place. There's a kind of transparency you forego as you engage with them, and it's essentially on their terms. So I'm giving you this is just my little. What's interesting is like what it's like to do a live hard news interview. So, of course, what a surprise. I'm doing something now that's taped.
Audie Cornish
00:19:31
That I can fact check, that I can add context either before or after. You know, in a way I am probably respond to I'm thinking in real time here. So it's interesting. I'm in a way, I'm kind of responding to the last couple of years where I had to do an ungodly volume of interviews in which I just thought, this is a blitz of nothing.
Maggie Haberman
00:19:53
Right. Well, that's so I would say that I think I am doing I don't think I am doing the print version of that, which is trying to contextualize as much as possible. I don't I don't have the opinion that we can't cover Trump. I just don't think that's feasible. He is the leader of a party. He literally is suggesting suspending the Constitution so that he can be reinstated. Whether, you know, he's doing that just to try to troll for attention or because he wants to draw attention to another story. I almost don't. I think that's important to note in a story, but I don't think that's the headline of that story.
Audie Cornish
00:20:29
Right. Whereas in the past, it might have been the headline, the clickbait and the way to frame the story.
Maggie Haberman
00:20:32
Exactly. And so I think that I will say an area where I think the media has been very good. The mainstream media for the last year and a half is contextualizing the lies that Trump is telling about the 2020 election. I think that the dearth of stories that are basically blah, blah, blah, Donald Trump said yesterday is a, I think, an important data point forward. I aim to do the same thing in my coverage. I try to do less. You know, even something simple like on Twitter, like just tweeting lines from one of his rallies devoid of context. I don't think that works anymore. Right.
Audie Cornish
00:21:10
So whereas in the past, there was this sense that the leader of the free world speaks. We quote unquote, kind of repeated for the record. Exactly right. Or does sort of amplify that. And suddenly, I think as an industry, the question was, well, wait a second, why do we do that? Should we ever have done that? That's right. And maybe this doesn't make sense anymore.
Maggie Haberman
00:21:30
That's right. And so and so I'm I'm cognizant of that. You know, again, I still really do believe in the mission of journalism. And I, I think that if there was something that I could wave a magic wand and do Audie it would be to prescribe news literacy classes in every high school in the country, taught not just by a professor explaining sort of what reliable news sources are, but honestly also by a journalism professor to explain how the process works and sort of what the aims or even with all the caveats of everything we've discussed about how how varying journalism is as an endeavor.
Audie Cornish
00:22:07
Let's fantasize about that curriculum. Sure. Your first lesson and then I'll add one.
Maggie Haberman
00:22:13
Oh God.
Maggie Haberman
00:22:15
You're putting me on the spot. The my first lesson would be honestly a tutorial on what the goal is of journalism historically, where it has done well, where it has not. The fact that it is not a single thing that, you know, we are not a union overall, we are not a single entity, that we don't all operate from the same book and how what that looks like realistically, but essentially why the free press is so important in this country. And then I would look at news sources. That would be my first lesson.
Audie Cornish
00:22:46
Yes, I was I was going to add my lesson, too, would be thou shalt read widely.
Maggie Haberman
00:22:50
So that's good.
Audie Cornish
00:22:51
That's very good. And occasionally deeply. Right.
Maggie Haberman
00:22:54
And I think I hopefully more than occasionally deeply. Right. I mean, I think that one thing that I would try to make people understand is what journalism. Is and what it isn't. And we haven't really talked about this. One of the problems with social media is everything looks, it's the great flattening, right? Everything is flat and the same. And I remember complaining to a colleague in 2011 when there was the first cycle that I really used Twitter that I couldn't at first campaign cycle, I couldn't tell the difference between what was and what. You know, if I'm looking at a newspaper, I can tell by the placement in the headlines what the news organization thinks of the importance of the story. But everything looks the same on Twitter and right.
Audie Cornish
00:23:35
And or social media in general. Right. Which is why they call it a feed. Correct? That's exactly which I think is what farm animals use. So it's bothered me, but it's the idea that the opinion person, the fact finder, the tabloid person and the rando are all putting out information at the same time about the same topic. And it's all kind of coming to you passively. Exactly.
Maggie Haberman
00:23:58
And it all. And it's very hard to tell what's real and what's not. And it's hard to tell what comes from expertize and what doesn't.
Audie Cornish
00:24:03
And so what is that? Also something we have done to undermine objectivity in ourselves as journalists, meaning hopping on to social media and putting out our thoughts about lunch, your joke about Pelosi and your news headline of the day, and that it's all coming from you in the same feed and hasn't helped.
Maggie Haberman
00:24:23
And to be clear to your listeners, you're not talking about me. Actually.
Audie Cornish
00:24:27
I'm talking about me. Okay. You know what? I'm just like. Sure. The idea that, like, all of these journalists got on to social media. Yep. And everyone's trying to be cute and clever and quippy quip.
Maggie Haberman
00:24:36
Well, or Explain the way journalism works to people who aren't in journalism in 280 characters. And that doesn't work either. And I've been guilty of that myself. So I you know, yes, I think we have all except for the very smart ones who have stayed off social media. And there are some we have all played a role here and it would be great if we can start to undo it. You know, no time like the present.
Audie Cornish
00:24:56
I want to move to solutions. So what's your advice on how we can repair trust? And I'm using the royal we because I don't want to absolve myself of anything here. So what's your advice on some steps that can that newsrooms can be taking for people who have lost faith?
Maggie Haberman
00:25:17
I honestly think that telling everybody to be on social media lists, which the Times has done, or at least indicated that it would be a good idea, I think is a way I think it's it's just a good way to not be out there all the time. I'm talking about the thing that you were referencing earlier, which I think is a very real issue, which is popping off about this joke or that joke or treating it like a Slack channel, which I think many of us, myself included, have done. And it's been unwise. I think doing things that undermine the faith in and seriousness of the report is real. But in terms of how to have confidence, look, I think it's going to be a very long process, and I think it's going to be, you know, continuing to do what I think most of the media is doing, which is speaking pretty plainly about who we cover and why we're covering things and presenting things to scale, not presenting things differently than what they actually are.
Audie Cornish
00:26:09
And in the meantime, are you going to be getting off social media?
Maggie Haberman
00:26:13
Probably not, but I am not going to be using it the way I used to.
Audie Cornish
00:26:17
For yourself, girl. That's what I feel like. I'm Whoopi Goldberg being like you in danger girl.
Maggie Haberman
00:26:23
I appreciate that. But I do appreciate that. But I don't think that there's a way in modern campaign life to not look at social media.
Audie Cornish
00:26:37
Maggie Haberman is a correspondent for The New York Times and a political analyst at CNN. Her new book is called Confidence Man The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.
Audie Cornish
00:26:51
That's it for this episode of The Assignment. We're taking a short winter break for some more reporting. So the next new episode will drop January 12th. In the meantime, if you like what you hear, share these episodes, leave us a rating, write us a review and please send us your assignments. Tell us what the media gets wrong about your story, about controversies in your corner of the world. You can leave us a message with your pitch in a voicemail at 2028548802 or record a voice memo on your phone and you can email that to us at the assignment. CNN all lowercase at gmail.com. And because you are still listening, I want to say thank you. And that the assignment is a production of CNN audio. Our producers are Madeleine Thompson, Jennifer Lai and Lori Galaretta. Our associate producers are Isoke Samuel, Allison Park and Sonia Htoon. Our senior producers are Haley Thomas and Matt Martinez. And our editor is Rina Palta, mixing and sound design by David Schulman. Dan Dzula is our technical director. Abbie Fentress Swanson is our executive producer and special thanks to Katie Hinman. I'm Audie Cornish.