Pulitzer Prize winners discuss reporting in the age of Trump at Brooklyn Historical Society
It’s not often that one gets to pick the brain of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, let alone an editor who has overseen two projects that won the prestigious award.
On Tuesday, Brooklynites had the distinct privilege of doing just that when the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) hosted David Fahrenthold, a reporter for The Washington Post, and Eric Umansky, a deputy managing editor at ProPublica.
Fahrenthold won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for unearthing the “Access Hollywood” tape that depicts Donald Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitalia and for exposing discrepancies in Trump’s charitable giving.
Umansky oversaw a project on “nuisance abatement” laws that won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
The two journalists were invited to speak at BHS for an event dubbed “Transparency, Journalism, and the White House.” Lizzy Ratner, senior editor of The Nation and daughter of Barclays Center developer Bruce Ratner, moderated the sold-out event.
Fahrenthold and Umansky not only fielded questions from Ratner, but they also responded to inquiries from the audience. Questions included “Is journalism making a difference?”, “What is it like covering Donald Trump?” and “How has journalism evolved since Trump took office?”
Fahrenthold articulated the difficulties in covering the president given that Trump’s campaign and now his administration rarely ever respond to a request for comment. His team will, according to Fahrenthold, ignore emails and phone calls rather than saying “no comment.”
“The challenge becomes trying to find out things about the campaign, about Trump’s charitable giving and now about the Trump organization from other people, from other sources,” said Fahrenthold. “Trump has always seen his relationship with the media as [him being] the only arbiter of facts about himself.
“Why he did that, or why that happened, or how much money I have: ‘I’m the only person that can tell you.’ So, if I don’t want to tell you, then you can’t write a story. For me, it’s been a lot of work to find a lot of other sources of information about Trump.”
Umansky expressed how, as a nonprofit, ProPublica has the privilege of not covering the news everyday. This allows his news organization the ability to pinpoint certain aspects of the “noise” surrounding Trump and dig deeper.
When asked if journalism is making a difference, Umansky unquestionably said yes.
“I think there’s a lot of evidence that journalism is still having a very clear effect,” said Umansky. “The truth is, a lot of the facts that journalism organizations have put out have not reflected well on the administration.
“The fact that the president has the lowest approval rating in modern history, the fact that we are telling the truth about what is happening is probably a proponent of that. The notion that facts don’t matter or uncovering facts don’t resonate anymore is simply not true.”
Umansky also said that journalism is working effectively, given that Tom Price is no longer Secretary of Health and Human Services and that Trump’s administration has not achieved a major legislative victory.
“We don’t do this to change elections,” added Fahrenthold. “Between ‘Access Hollywood’ and charity reporting, we gave people a real sense of who Donald Trump was. Now, our job isn’t to take Trump out of power, it’s to show people what’s really going on.
“Whether you love him or hate him, you need to know what’s actually happening, and he himself is such a poor source of information of what’s actually happening in his administration. I don’t think about my job in terms of political outcomes, but about how close I can get to the truth about this man and his government.”
Fahrenthold and Umansky also discussed how the 2016 election was a humbling experience for journalists, since many of them predicted Hillary Clinton to win.
Fahrenthold was on election coverage and was responsible for writing Trump’s victory story, which he never thought would be published.
“Based on the polling data, it felt fantastical and pointless, like designing a Super Bowl ring for the Cleveland Browns,” wrote Fahrenthold in an article for the Post.
“I thought a guy who can’t seem to read from a teleprompter, a guy who has bragged about sexually assaulting women, a guy who’s race dated, a guy who has had to pay tens of millions of dollars in settlements around Trump University off and on, I thought it’s just not possible to be honest,” Umansky said,
The two journalists also discussed Trump’s use of Twitter. Both believe that Americans are adjusting to his tweets and that the media will eventually not give as much coverage to his posts.
Umansky referenced Trump’s tweet about Boeing. When the president lambasted the aerospace company in a tweet, the business’ stock fell significantly. Now, according to Umansky, when the president writes about a company, its stock barely fluctuates.
“To me, the interesting thing about Trump is we sort of came in thinking he was going to be this very strong figure,” Fahrenthold concluded.
“He said, ‘Only I can fix it. I’m going to change all of these things.’ But actually, what he’s done is, he’s pretended to be the mouth of government, but he doesn’t want to be the brain.”
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