Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Journalists Are Reporting In An Environment Of Mistrust


A cardinal rule of journalism is don't become part of the story. Well, that's been tricky for The Washington Post. The paper has faced a pretty intense backlash since it published allegations against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama. Those included that he groped and kissed a 14-year-old girl when he was in his 30s. Here's Moore talking about it today.


ROY MOORE: As you know, The Washington Post has brought some scurrilous, false charges - not charges, allegations - which I have emphatically denied time and time again. They're not only untrue, but they have no evidence to support them.


And earlier this week, an Alabama pastor said he had gotten a voicemail from a man claiming to be a Washington Post reporter. News station WKRG aired the recording.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm calling to find out if anyone at this address is a female between the ages of 54 to 57 years old willing to make damaging remarks about candidate Roy Moore for a reward of between $5,000 to $7,000.

MCEVERS: The Washington Post responded to the recording and said, we are shocked and appalled anyone would stoop to this level to discredit real journalism. We are wondering what all this says about journalism in 2017, so we reached out to Len Downie. He's former longtime executive editor of The Washington Post. Welcome.

LEN DOWNIE: Thank you.

MCEVERS: What was your reaction when you first heard that voicemail?

DOWNIE: Well, it's not unprecedented for people to impersonate journalists for nefarious purposes, but I've never heard it done before (laughter). So my reaction was, it was stupid sounding. But at the same time, I'm angry because among other things, American news media never pay for news. So not only is that insulting to The Post, but it's also insulting to American journalism generally.

MCEVERS: In you're 44 years at The Washington Post, did you ever feel the level of vitriol that seems to be directed at the paper right now?

DOWNIE: Yes. I was one of the editors on the Watergate story...


DOWNIE: ...As a young man. And the country was very divided over that. Vitriol came obviously from the White House. I don't think they used the term fake news back then, but they said that our stories were wrong, unsubstantiated, not true. Probably half the country pretty much supported Nixon right to the very end. So this is not a completely unusual circumstance. It's just magnified by the incredible amount of media that there is now.

MCEVERS: We spoke to another Alabama pastor earlier this week, Pastor Mike Allison, who is a supporter of Roy Moore and who called The Washington Post a very liberal paper. And then he said this. Let's listen.


MIKE ALLISON: Personally I don't believe a lot of what they print in The Washington Post from what I have seen in the past myself.

MCEVERS: And this is something we're hearing from people across the country. Is there anything to be done about this?

DOWNIE: Yes. Editors like my successor Marty Baron at The Washington Post emphasize - we just have to do our work. We should not be defensive about it. We shouldn't be arguing with people about it.

MCEVERS: I think Marty Baron's famous quote - now-famous quote is, we're not at war; we're at work.

DOWNIE: That's correct. A couple other things - back in the day when I was a young reporter and young editor, we didn't explain ourselves to people. We just assumed that people knew what our values were. But now it's important to be transparent. And I noticed that The Post stories describe in great detail how the reporters went about doing their work.

MCEVERS: That it was the reporters who heard about the story, that the women didn't approach them.

DOWNIE: That's correct. And I think that's more necessary now than never so that people can try to use that information against people that are accusing the media of doing wrong things.

MCEVERS: I think it's probably impossible to have a conversation about distrust in the media without mentioning the president, President Trump. His attacks on the media have been a major part of his presidency. For journalists, how does this complicate the job, the job that we have to hold elected officials accountable when you are cast as the opposition party?

DOWNIE: Two things to say about that - first, it doesn't appear to have been harming that kind of journalism at all or diminishing it. In fact, accountability journalism seems more vigorous than ever. And so the president's not having the effect he desires there. The second thing he is, however - it does make the jobs of reporters perhaps less happy than it used to be because in fact the president has stirred up crowds against reporters.

Reporters are finding that people are physically attacking them but more often verbally attacking them in ways that reporters haven't been used to usually. Again, this harks back to earlier days when the country was so divided over the Vietnam War. There was a lot of that same kind of antagonism towards the press by both sides of that issue.

MCEVERS: Again, none of us got into this business to be comfortable, I guess, (laughter) right?

DOWNIE: That's correct.

MCEVERS: Len Downie, former executive editor of The Washington Post, now professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, thank you very much.

DOWNIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.