It's hard to trust the press when journalists keep saving scoops for future books
Maggie Haberman's book includes at least one bit of info we probably should have known before now.
Hello, dear readers,
This morning, I woke up to news that New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman’s long-awaited Trump book has a name and a cover. Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, is out October 4 from Penguin Press.
And like the promotion of other books from other White House reporters and Trump-trackers, Haberman’s announcement came with a juicy new tidbit to help promote it. In this case, the scoop was news that White House residence staff had occasionally discovered clumps of printed paper clogging the former president’s toilet, and believed that he had been flushing documents. Additionally, she reported that Trump has kept in touch with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un since leaving office.
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Cool, cool, cool. Okay. Now, not having read the book (as we’re still months out from its release), I can imagine that these excerpts were chosen because Trump’s handling of documents has been back in the news. It was just a few days ago that The Washington Post reported that Trump took his “love letters” from Kim with him to Mar-a-lago upon leaving office in a possible violation of the Presidential Records Act, a 1978 law mandating the preservation of presidential documents. Had some other topic been making headlines in recent days, it’s reasonable to assume that Haberman and her publicity team would choose a different topic to lead her announcement.
But why are we just learning about this now?
I don’t really care about the toilet story. Trump has been flouting the PRA for as long as he was in office1, so it’s not exactly a gigantic shock that he’s continued that practice. More worrying is yesterday’s New York Times report that Trump’s collection of stolen documents at Mar-a-lago may have contained classified information. Naturally, the Times buried that story on page 15 of today’s paper.
No, my frustration is with the trend of reporters keeping information from the public so they can sell books at a later date. Compounding that frustration is that interviews with the authors of these books tend to gloss over questions of when authors learned about the information contained in their books. For instance, here’s Haberman this morning on CNN, where she works as a political analyst:
Bloomberg senior White House reporter Jennifer Jacobs responded to a denial from Trump’s team by backing up Haberman, tweeting, “[Haberman]’s reporting is 100% accurate. Staff did find clumped/torn/shredded papers and fished them out from blocked bathroom toilet — and believed it had been the president’s doing, sources told me at the time.”
But if Jacobs knew this at the time, why didn’t she report it out, either? Why is any of this just coming to light right now?
Reporters have a history of sitting on scoops so they have something juicy to include in books, and it’s damaging their reputations.
In September 2020, Bob Woodward promoted the release of his book Rage with a recording of Trump on February 7, 2020, telling him that the novel coronavirus found in China was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus,” and that it was “deadly stuff.”
“It goes through air, Bob,” said Trump. “That’s always tougher than the touch. The touch, you don’t have to touch things, right? But the air — you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t tell the American public that the virus was airborne (aerosol transmission) until October 5, 2020. Up until that point, the agency had focused on fomite (surface transmission) and later primarily on droplet transmission. And while it’s not exactly a stretch to think that Trump was either lying about knowing how it was spread or was misinformed, Woodward sat on his interviews, saving them as nearly 200,000 Americans died between the February 7 interview and the release of his book. Woodward defended his decision to sit on Trump’s interviews until it came time to publish his book2, but it’s hard to reconcile his decision with the tremendous number of lives being lost at the time, especially as it later came to light that Trump was intentionally misleading the public.
The same criticism could also be leveled at New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt for saving information about the reason for Trump’s November 2019 trip to Walter Reed Medical Center for his September 2020 book.
For years, there’s been a big discussion about what can be done to fix the public’s trust in media as an institution. A lot of the time, these discussions deal with trying to bridge partisan divides by pandering to the right. But rather than trying to find some sort of ideological sweet spot where Republicans will suddenly declare that CNN is a super-great-and-awesome-totally-not-fake-news-network (which will never, ever happen, even if someone as far right as Steve Bannon was put in charge of it), maybe these outlets and the journalists they employ should focus more on making it less acceptable for journalists to sit on stories for months for the purpose of selling books at a future date.
Members of the political press in the U.S. too often see their job as less about holding the powerful to account and more about becoming the powerful. Events like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, throwing parties for the likes of Sarah Sanders, or the insufferably-named (and attended by the insufferable) Churchill Tommy Gun Society dinner parties lay bare what many DC journalists crave: power and celebrity. When you look at how the people tasked with being a check on the powerful actually act, it’s no coincidence that we live in an age where democracy hangs by a thread.
It’s hard to trust the press when you don’t know what they’re hiding, why they’re hiding it, or who they’re protecting by doing so.
Good luck with your book, Maggie Haberman. I won’t be reading it.
Update: This smug tweet from NYT reporter Nick Confessore is just dripping with contempt for readers frustrated by the state of media. Great job, Nick.
Update 2: NYT reporter Jonathan Martin has also made clear that he despises the Times’ readers. Cool. Also, unblock me, coward.
ICE T @FINALLEVELWhile my haters are talking shit…. https://t.co/s23cj0DCfG
Update 3: Haberman went on CNN today and claimed that she didn’t have this information until after Trump was out of office. If accurate, she or her colleagues at the Times could have cleared this up yesterday but chose not to. Instead, as the above updates demonstrate, her Times colleagues chose to mock critics of the paper and her access-driven reporting.
A 2018 story from Politico reported on “the guys who tape Trump's papers back together” after he refused to stop ripping them up.
From an Associated Press story at the time:
“If I had done the story at that time about what he knew in February, that’s not telling us anything we didn’t know,” Woodward said. At that point, he said, the issue was no longer one of public health but of politics. His priority became getting the story out before the election in November.
“That was the demarcation line for me,” he said. “Had I decided that my book was coming out on Christmas, the end of this year, that would have been unthinkable.”
Asked why he didn’t share Trump’s February remarks for a fellow Post reporter to pursue, Woodward said he had developed “some pretty important sources” on his own.
“Could I have brought others in? Could they have done things I couldn’t do?” he asked. “I was on the trail, and I was (still) on the trail when it (the virus) exploded.”