Margaret Sullivan

Margaret Sullivan: The State of the Media in 2018

February 6, 2018— Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan discussed the challenge of covering President Trump, public trust in media, social media platforms and news, and more during a visit to the Shorenstein Center. Below are some highlights of her conversation with Shorenstein Center Director Nicco Mele, as well as the full audio recording. The Shorenstein Center’s podcast is also available on iTunesGoogle PlayiHeartRadio, and Stitcher.

On use of the term “mainstream media”

I have an alternative that I like better, ‘the reality-based press.’ I think that like the phrase ‘fake news,’ the term ‘mainstream media’ has been weaponized…I do say mainstream media from time to time because people understand what it means, and it’s a sort of shorthand. But I’m trying to point out that there is an element of the journalistic ecosystem that tries to hew to the facts and reality, as opposed to other things.”

The challenges of covering Trump

“We’re struggling, I would say, to cover a very unusual, abnormal president. He’s out to turn things on their heads, to destroy norms, and so on, and yet, the way we cover things tends to be in a system that wants to put him into a normal kind of coverage. So, those things don’t go together very well, and I don’t think we’ve fully figured out how to change what we do in order to adjust to what he does.”

“One of the things that we’ve done that actually has worked fairly well, and has been a good development, is a lot more real-time fact checking, which has been very necessary, because Trump doesn’t tell the truth a lot. He uses a lot of misstatements, and I don’t think it’s going too far to say that some of them are actually lies…it took the reality-based press quite a while to use the word ‘lie’ to talk about Trump’s misstatements.”

The president’s tweets

My feeling about covering the tweets is that we cannot ignore them entirely because they are, strangely enough, presidential statements of a sort. But I don’t think we have to react to each tweet as if it were a five-alarm fire, and we do tend to overreact to them. But, I don’t think we can go over to the other side of that and say well, we’re only going to cover Trump when he’s giving an official address or making a presidential statement of some kind. The tweets get out into the world and they could affect the stock market, they could cause a war, they could do a lot of things. We can’t ignore them.”

Trust in media

“The public opinion polls will tell you that there’s very terrible mistrust and distrust of the news media, and what I found was something a little different, a little more nuanced, which was that, if you say ‘hey, do you trust the media?’ they will say ‘no, the media is bad.’ But they actually feel kind of OK about their own news sources. So whether that happens to be the local newspaper, or whether it’s NPR, or The New York Times or Fox News, they feel like they have access to information that they feel is credible. There’s sort of this sense of, there’s the media, bad, and there’s my media, not too bad.”

#MeToo and women in newsrooms

“It’s a very tricky subject for everyone in our society, but the news media is struggling with it in part because so many of the highest profile cases that we’ve read about are taking place inside either our own newsrooms, or newsrooms of places that we know very well, whether that’s NPR, The New Yorker, The New York Times—and there is a case at The Washington Post. As journalists, we’re trying to scrutinize this whole subject—Hollywood, politics, Congress—and we’re also dealing with situations inside our own newsrooms, and it’s extremely uncomfortable. You want to be fair to everyone involved, you certainly don’t want to proceed without something resembling due process…and there has not been a rush to judgment that I have seen.”

“When I was named executive editor of The Buffalo News, I was the 13th woman at that time, among the top 100 circulation papers in  the country, in 1999 or 2000… I don’t know what it is right now, I suspect it’s a little better. But I would say, and this has to do with the #MeToo Movement as well, that having women in powerful positions is helpful with all of this, because so often sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace is a power dynamic as much as it is a sexual dynamic.”

Twitter and journalism

“One interesting thing about journalists on Twitter is they seem to feel much more able, whether they should or not, to be snarky, to be critical, to say things that seem partisan in that setting, than they would in their news stories or their regular work. I think that’s unfortunate. Everybody is trying to have a brand that works for them on social media, and you can’t be bland in doing that. You have to be pointed or clever or something like that, and I think that adds to the sense that people have that we have this attitude of being smarter than our audiences, and snarky, and not very nice people, and not very trustworthy, so I think it diminishes trust. I know that it can be a very rough place to be a woman. People oddly go immediately to very insulting sexist language when they don’t agree—I have found this to be the case…But at least for now it’s here to stay, it’s a bulletin board for news, it’s a way that people distribute their work, and it’s become an important part of the journalistic sphere.”

The responsibility of social media platforms

I think the platforms have been very reluctant to see themselves as what they are, which is media companies. Facebook is the best example of this. Facebook does not want to see itself as a media company, even though it is one, because for example, people are filming shootings with Facebook Live, they’re creating news on it. And Facebook constantly makes editorial decisions…yet Facebook will never say, ‘we actually do make editorial decisions and we have to own that.’ And that’s true of others as well.”

Local news

“To me, the biggest problem in journalism right now is the demise of local newspapers…the business model of local newspapers throughout the country has pretty much disintegrated, and while the papers are still there, they’re much weaker, they’re much smaller, their staffs are smaller, and it’s only going in one direction, and I don’t think that we have dealt with that very well. Yes, we have a few situations in which a very rich person has come along and bought the newspaper, but in most communities, papers increasingly are owned by chains, sometimes private equity firms. They’re not interested in the journalism or the community. They are reaping their profits while they may. If we have any hope of having some kind of agreement on the facts, I think local journalism, because it tends to be trusted—you might run into that reporter in the grocery store, you know these people, there’s an inherent trust—when that goes away, we lose an awful lot, and I find that to be the most distressing situation out there.”

On fragmented audiences and partisanship

“Places like The Washington Post actually do cover things in a way that is intended to, and largely does, speak to the entire country, but it’s seen as partisan…I don’t know that we can set out to say ‘we’re going to try to appeal to everyone’ and when we get complaints from the right we’re going to address those. I think that’s the wrong way to go about it. You have to try to do the best work and to come at it in an impartial way, on the news pages—not on the editorial pages, not as a columnist— and do the work as best you can, and hope that good journalism is recognized and perseveres in some way.”

Article by Nilagia McCoy; photo by Allie Henske.