Jane Mayer’s Remarks at 2018 Moment Gala
I am so honored, and so touched to receive an award named for Robert Greenberger. When his wife Phyllis called and told me about it, I couldn’t help but be delighted because Bob himself was such a total delight when we worked together as colleagues at the Wall Street Journal for a dozen years. The bureau wasn’t exactly known for its joie de vive – it could feel a bit more like working for an accounting firm than a newspaper as we ground out spot news stories on interest rates and earnings reports – but amidst the green eye shades and drab gray suits Bob was a hugely welcome exception – a live wire – bursting with intellectual curiosity, intelligence and humor – who took the world seriously, and happily himself less so. He was a terrific reporter, capable of covering everything from Labor – which actually still existed enough in those good old days to be a beat – to foreign affairs and the Supreme Court. And AS his founding of the Daniel Pearl Investigative Reporting Initiative attests – he was also a deeply thoughtful and generous friend with a profound sense of decency — so thank you again – I’m just so honored to receive a prize in his name.
In addition to thanking the Greenberger family – and Moment Magazine – and all of you for coming tonight – I wanted to give a special shout-out to my family – my husband Bill Hamilton and daughter Kate who are here tonight – and also to the amazing other women being honored here too. It’s absurdly flattering to share a stage – even in absentia – with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I am sure most of you share the sentiment I had when reading the political cartoons in the Washington Post yesterday, and seeing one that was simply a drawing of a card that said “please, please, please, please, PLEASE!” – Get well Ruth Bader Ginsburg!”
Anyway, I’m wildly flattered to be in such stellar company.
Ordinarily I cover V.I.P. events like this, rather than participating in them. At the Wall Street Journal, where I covered Ronald Reagan as the paper’s first female White House correspondent, reporters were chastened to shine the spotlight on others rather than on ourselves. In fact, there was an unwritten rule at the paper when I joined it. The only time a reporter was allowed to use the first-person pronoun “I” was if the rest of the sentence ended with the words, “was shot in the groin.”
The Rule had a kind of Hemmingway-esque MALE war-correspondent aura – and unfortunately in those days there were very few of us of the other gender – but aside from the sexist undertones, I think the message itself was kind of admirable: we journalists were there to cover the story, not be the story. We were there to transmit the facts as faithfully and fairly as we could to the American public, and hold those in power accountable as our readers’ proxies, so that citizens had the information they needed in order for our democracy to work. Naturally few of those in power whose clay feet we exposed adored us, but our good faith, and the value of our role was rarely questioned.
President Trump, of course, has tried hard to change that. He has done everything he can to make journalists the story. He has denounced any press report that doesn’t confirm his greatness as “fake news,” and called any member of the media who writes such stories “The Enemy of the People.” These tactics are not original. Stalin called those he banished to the Gulags “Enemies of the People,” and Hitler’s followers denounced the media as the LugenPresse- or lying press. This past week, Trump seemed to go out of his way to stigmatize individual reporters – stripping CNN’s Jim Acosta of his White House press pass after falsely accusing him of physically assaulting a White House intern as she tried to grab the microphone from him during a Press Conference, and nastily demeaning three other reporters – all of who not so coincidentally happened to be women of color – simply for doing their jobs.
These attacks of course are an attack on all Americans because they are an attack on the Constitution, which enshrines the role of a free and independent press. But they pose a particular dilemma for journalists. What should the proper response be to a President who brands almost all types of accurate reporting, untrue? How should professional reporters, trained to keep a distanced, analytic eye on what they cover, react?
The natural tendency is to be outraged, but clearly, President Trump would like nothing more than for us to become the side show that deflects attention from his larger failings. But it’s his job, not ours, that we need to keep chronicling regardless of the insults and threats. So hard though it is not to take the bait, I think we have to keep our cool, have each others’ backs, and remember it’s not about us, it’s about the country – and the best way we journalists can serve it is by doubling down on getting the story – until and unless we are shot in the groin.
That said, anyone who knows history knows that these kinds of attacks on the press — and on the other independent checks we have on authoritarian power in this country, such as the rule of law, and the electoral process, are dangerous, and not to be minimized. Moment Magazine was founded by Elie Weisel in response to exactly these kinds of threats. At a time like this, when hate is being incited and exploited for political gain from the Mexican border to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, publications such as Moment, and the New Yorker, that appeal to reason and truth, couldn’t be more important. Don’t take it from me. Listen to what one of the survivors of Kristallnacht said this week when she was interviewed on its the 80th anniversary. She warned that many of today’s political dynamics, including the rise of anti-semitism and other forms of nationalist, ethnic bigotry, were frighteningly familiar — but one key difference in her view, is that America has a robust free press.
Without it, those in power are free to subvert and supplant the truth with their own self-serving “alternative facts” as presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway has put it. As we’ve seen their targets range far beyond mere journalists, to the sources of fact that the mainstream media relies on. All manner of independent, fact-based research has come under attack, ranging from the economic analyses by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office to research done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Among the most worrisome of these attacks have been those on the scientific community in general, and on the science of climate change in particular, which President Trump memorably denounced during the 2016 campaign as a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese.
As a result, large swaths of the population are being purposefully, and constantly misled. Our political system is reeling from the blow. Charlie Sykes, the former right-wing radio talk show host, has described the fallout well. “All administrations lie,” he has said, “but what we are seeing here is an attack on credibility itself.”
In the face of this challenge, as my friend, and former co-author, Jill Abramson, the former editor of the New York Times recently put it, “The truth needs to get louder.”
I think the good news is that, almost every day, that is happening. Despite the challenging climate created by President Trump’s disdain, journalists have rarely worked harder or done better or more vital work. (I’m not sure Trump realizes it, but in part because of his attacks, the press is also actually doing much better financially – with circulation climbing at publications like the New York Times – and is also experiencing growing public approval according to recent polls.)
And in the end of the day, I am betting that democracy, and the facts that sustain it – not the alternative ones – but the real ones, will win. It may take a fight, and it may not happen over night. But what rings in my ears every so often are the words of a long-time Koch Industries employee named Phil Dubose who I interviewed for my book Dark Money. At the risk of personal ruin, even though he was just a middle-class guy from Louisiana living in a small house with a couple of hound dogs, he testified as a witness in a trial against the company’s atrocious record of pollution and fraud. To the surprise of many, despite marshalling all the resources of their $150 billion dollar fortunes – which make them among the richest and most powerful men in the world — the Koch Brothers were found guilty and forced to pay a record-breaking fine.
“We won,” Phil Dubose told me, “because they didn’t have a weapon as big as the one we used.”
“What was that?” I asked him.
He answered in two simple words: “The truth.”
These are trying times, but the truth is very much alive, and the press is one of the only institutions right now that is actually functioning in this country as it should. So I’m really glad to join you in celebration of this publication, and of Bob Greenberger, and of all of you who are readers, supporters, and champions of the free press here tonight.