Pressing Issues

Who Loses When Reporters Don’t Report?

Some of America’s top-tier journalists have withheld information ahead of their book releases—prioritizing sales over public good. And when they do, nobody wins.

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Imagine this: I’m a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, assigned to cover the White House, perhaps the most prestigious assignment in American journalism. And boy oh boy, do I have a scoop.

I mean, I have critical information about something big that is happening. Something important. Something that could influence your view of current events and change your understanding of the world.

Am I going to tell you? Right now? At the very moment when you could use this information to help you make decisions, address wrongs, or prevent disasters?

Of course not.

I’m going to sell a book, wait six months, and then tease the information after the fact with lots of “BREAKING” and “SCOOP” and “Read it here first!” like a coked-up Newsies! extra so that you understand how earth-shattering these revelations are. I’ll go on TV. In interviews about my interviews, I’ll say, “Things were so much worse than people thought and this stuff has never been talked about anywhere ever … until now.”

Any questions?

At a time when trust in journalism is declining across the political spectrum at a stupefying rate, it absolutely defies explanation why reporters at the highest levels would proudly present major revelations as blockbuster book excerpts instead of breaking the news in real time at their news organizations.

It’s happened time and time again. Michael Wolff’s Trumpian trilogy, concluding this month with Landslide, detailed, in the past tense, horrific abuses that took place during the president’s disastrous term. Two years into the Trump administration, Wolff, a magazine columnist and editor, deigned to tell the public about the chaotic criminality of former President Donald Trump’s underlings as they tampered with federal witnesses in the Mueller investigation and gleefully violated the legal rights of immigrants and refugees.

The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Bender, who presumably had access to the printing press anytime he wanted, put out a book this month, too, explaining in detail the way Trump undermined the 2020 election and tried to overrule voters across the country. At the time Trump was attempting his coup, he was full-throatedly denying any meddling, and Bender’s insider view might have been, to say the least, helpful.

Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damien Paletta’s June installment in the post-Trump saga, Nightmare Scenario, goes over Trump’s disastrous response to the pandemic, “with the outcomes more devastating and consequential than anyone dared to imagine,” according to publisher HarperCollins.

Maybe we would have dared to imagine it had reporters not been spending so much time dutifully taking Trump’s every utterance at face value, while saving the juiciest material for their post-administration book deals.

In September 2020, Watergate legend Bob Woodward revealed that back in February 2020, Trump told him that COVID was airborne and that it was more dangerous than the public knew. Trump intended to play down the virus, he told Woodward a month later, in March 2020, to avoid public panic.

Woodward sat those interviews for seven months, as 6 million people sickened, 200,000 died, and Trump’s administration continued to insist that COVID wasn’t a big deal and would soon go away on its own. Had Woodward immediately reported what Trump was saying behind closed doors, it would have cast a much different light on the way the administration was treating the virus. Instead, Woodward waited, when his book, Rage, was published and the excerpts were timed for maximum visibility during the presidential campaign.

The latest example came this week in the form of breathless news that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, feared Trump was planning a coup akin to Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power in Nazi Germany and discussed ways to use military force to stop it. Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s book, I Alone Can Fix It: Donald Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, was teased to CNN before its July 20 release, driving pre-sales on Amazon and discussion on cable news.

The same newsrooms that condemn young reporters for noting on Twitter that racism exists appear to deal no discipline to senior journalists whose responsibilities to their publishing contracts seem to supersede their obligations to their colleagues or the public they purport to serve.

The Post defended Woodward and appears poised to do the same for Leonnig and Rucker. Sales figures for post-administrative exposés show no sign of declining, further incentivizing headliners to save those “explosive” and “incendiary” stories for the kinds of managed publicity rollouts that drive book tour attendance, instead of the boring old pages of the papers they work for.

Meanwhile, the news industry is falling all over itself to find ways to combat rampant disinformation. Dire warnings about Facebook and Twitter, endless debates about how much reporters should reveal about themselves and their motivations, the ongoing purge of energy and enthusiasm for the news through layoffs—all of these are presumed crises. But the behavior of journalists at the top of the newsroom food chain goes unaddressed, even as it undermines the trust in news journalists claim is paramount.

They see newsrooms that made instant front-page crises of Hillary Clinton’s nonexistent email scandal or President Joe Biden’s harmless name mix-ups bury reports about lethal illnesses and violent insurrections until it was most convenient for them.

Let’s not be naive: Of course publishers are motivated to sell books through promises of “explosive new details!” and “never before revealed information!,” and reporters are motivated to promise new information with each installment of an ongoing story. Everybody has to eat. Plus, it’s fun being on TV and doing book tours, talking about how you got something nobody else had. There are plenty of arguments for doing things the way we do them at journalism’s highest levels.

Problem is, none of those arguments have anything to do with readers, the public interest, or the purpose of keeping democracy from dying in darkness that we hear so much about when it’s time to fight budget cuts.

When the subject of a tell-all assessment of a past president is harmless gossip—the Reagans’ marriage, Obama’s smoking—holding something back doesn’t hurt anyone. Offering a deeper understanding of something that’s common knowledge is fundamental to a journalist’s work. But to reveal after the fact that you knew about plans to downplay a deadly virus, or put troops in the line of fire during an armed insurrection? Not ashamedly but proudly declaring that you kept this to yourself till now? Bragging about your bitchin’ scoop on Meet the Press in front of the people you could have kept from harm’s way? That’s not behavior journalism should tolerate, much less reward and promote.

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