The Boston Globe’s editor at large, Walter Robinson, might be best known for his role leading the investigation that uncovered the Catholic Church sexual-abuse scandal.
But Robinson is no stranger to politics — he covered the White House during the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations and was the lead Globe reporter for the 1988 and 1992 elections.
He’s now a visiting professor at Arizona State University, where he teaches an investigative journalism class. During a visit to the University of Arizona School of Journalism and Tucson last week, Robinson sat down with Star reporter Joe Ferguson to discuss covering politics and journalism in today’s political climate. These are excerpts of their conversation:
Star: You’ve intersected with government for more than 30 years. What advice can you offer to citizens who want to be involved?
WR: First of all, I believe, even now, that — it is hard to image this — that even now is that the most important news is local news. Because it is what happens at the state and local level that most affects our lives. You know, whether it be where we live, how good our schools are, how safe our communities are, where we should be spending our tax money, all of these issues are local. They are not, as often, ideological. They can be issues that are discussed without rancor. And if there is a good local newspaper that pays attention to these issues, then people are informed when making these decisions. And as we all know, democracy doesn’t work very well when the public is not well-informed.
Obviously, right now, pretty much everybody’s attention is focused inordinately, much more than normally, on what is happening in Washington for a couple of reasons — because we have a president who is not cut from any particular mold that has been used in the past.
Because Republicans control both the executive and legislative branches, lots of changes are going to be happening on issues that affect people in Arizona — on the environment, on health care, on education. So what you find — and I think this is a really good thing — is that local papers are and have been for months now devoting a substantial amount of resources to writing about the impact of federal programs and possible changes in federal policies on local communities, on the state of Arizona, on Tucson. On what is going to happen regarding immigration and on what is going to happen regarding the border, all of those things.
I don’t remember, and I started covering politics in the early 1970s, I don’t ever remember a federal election in which there has been so much local interest in the substance of what might happen as a consequence of what the federal government does and that coverage is a good thing.
Star: Do you believe there has been a change in news literacy over your lifetime?
Star: And what does that look like? Are people just less literate or less concerned, or is this an issue of fake news?
WR: No, I think this precedes fake news.
We have, in the last two decades, the rise of conservative news, which is not a bad thing. It is not a bad thing to have a Fox News. But because of that and the growth of some of the Alt Right and because of, I think, the failures of the so-called mainstream media to sort of listen carefully to people they ordinarily wouldn’t spend time with, we have this divide in this country.
You know, it is used to be that when politicians sat down, like Tip O’Neill and President Reagan, they disagreed on the solution to problems but the agreed about underlying facts. Nowadays, one of the main reasons Congress and the last president couldn’t get anything done is because they couldn’t even agree on the underlying facts. So you have two sets of facts coming to the table. And that mirrors on what is happening in the American public. The people believe what they want to believe and the more you tell them — and there have been studies about this — if you tell people on one side or the other, here is evidence of what you believe is wrong, people don’t change, they double down. They become even more convinced.
So how do you have a rational, national conversation with the public on any issue? When you’ve got 40 percent of the people who believe 40 percent of the rest are crazy and visa versa, and you’ve got 20 percent in the middle — and I am one of those 20 percent — who are looking at both sides and saying ‘How do we get them to talk to each other?’
Star: You mentioned gossip, and gossip is often what people are talking about, what people have said. Is that been a critical failure of the mainstream media to be focused on what Trump says rather than what Congress is doing?
WR: I think good news organizations — and it has been an adaptation and a difficult one for news organizations to cover the president who is entirely different than anyone that has ever held the post. To figure out how to cover him at a time when he has decided to make them, reporters, the target. And to try and decide are his tweets at 4 a.m. important? Do we give as much coverage to what Congress is doing? And I think larger major news organizations are constantly working on that balance.
A couple months ago, the Globe got some criticism for covering Trump’s tweets at all. I was mystified. Because when you think about it, if the president of the United States walks out to the White House briefing room and he says something radical or radically different about the government should do, you presume that before he came out there that he sat with his advisers and they all agreed on that.
So if he gets up at 4 in the morning and tweets without consulting anyone, I would argue that is a news story because he is the president of the United States. What he says and the inflection in his voice and the words he uses can have extraordinary ripples around the world.
Star: What about the press being the “opposition party,” as Trump senior adviser Steve Bannon calls journalists?
WR: First of all, anyone who has held the office of president of the United States should have a deep and profound respect and understanding of the Constitution. And there is no one I’ve ever covered who ran for president who didn’t understand this. It is the job of the press to protect the public from the excesses of the government. It is not the job of the government to protect the public from the supposed excesses of the press. And it is that latter view that the Trump administration has taken — that the press is the problem and we need to go find the leaks.
Remember that President Obama and his Justice Department used the Espionage Act and tried to go after whistleblowers and subpoenaed reporters. And Jim Risen of the New York Times almost when to prison and did not because Obama knew his base would not go for that. In this case, we have a President Trump, and if he goes after reporters, I am sure the president’s base would think it would be a good thing for reporters to go to jail. And I worry about that. I worry about a president who seems not to understand the importance of a free and independent pain-in-the-ass press.
I covered two presidents and they didn’t like their coverage, but they understood the role of the press. There hasn’t been a president in our lifetime, probably since Eisenhower, that particularly cared very much for the press coverage they got. But none of them declared us (the press) the enemy.
Star: What are two things you wish the public knew or understood about the work journalists do, and how we do it?
WR: I wish most that people understood, that young people — men and women — get into journalism because they see it as a calling. They see it as an important job in a free society. They see it as a way to get in front of the public stories that they need to know. It is a way to hold powerful people accountable. They don’t get into it for the money. They certainly don’t get into for the money, and they believe what they do is important.
I really wish that our readers had a better sense of how we do what we do and then I think they’d have greater respect for journalism.
I think the new president is God’s gift to journalism. All of a sudden, the watchdogs are barking.