This piece was originally published in Foreign Policy.
This week, the networks handed free airtime over to U.S. President Donald Trump knowing full well he would lie during his Oval Office speech. No less a giant than Ted Koppel declared, “When the president of the United States asks for airtime, you’ve got to do it.”
American journalists and media institutions seem critically unprepared to cope with the bad faith and corruption coming out of their own government. Repeatedly played by Trump, network executives appear capable of rationalizing any decision. If he came out to announce a coup, they would probably go ahead and broadcast it on the basis of its newsworthiness. It’s a sharp contrast with the skill of American correspondents dealing with hostile administrations abroad.
I had spent so much time in China and other closed societies, often navigating sensitive topics with defensive government officials with skeletons to hide, that I no longer had the habit of asking straight, point-blank questions. Instead, I would conduct these circuitous, long-winded conversations, the kind you embark on in order to build trust and warm up a wary interview subject in places where journalists, especially foreign ones, are framed as the enemy of the people.
Except I was talking to a press officer at a state agency in California. When I finally dropped the question I cared most about, which I hoped he wouldn’t flip out over, he happily launched into all the problems at the agency. All on the record.
I was stunned—first at him, and then at myself, when I realized I’d been abroad so long that I had forgotten how a free society functioned. In wondrous America, you could ask whatever questions you wanted, and people are likely to answer them!
Then Donald Trump announced he would run for president. His campaign marked a tonal shift nationally. On the media, he not only labeled any story he disliked “fake news,” but he also questioned the patriotism of reporters. First at rallies and later from the White House, he singled out journalists—a troubling authoritarian strategy I recognized from my years in China.
It is more dangerous to report in the United States now. The public also trusts us less. There has been a rise in misinformation, disinformation, and government hostility to fact-finding.
But a big part of American media has also failed—as almost all of us in the industry and the public acknowledge. Many journalists cannot bring themselves to recognize that their country has changed.
This isn’t entirely new thinking. Within days of Trump’s win in November 2016, Masha Gessen, who had reported from Russia, published her widely read piece on surviving autocracy, writing that “the national press is likely to be among the first institutional victims” and warning reporters they would likely face the possibility of losing access if they pushed officials too hard.
Journalists should embrace Gessen’s imagined future as imminent reality, however unlikely that actually is. I can’t think of a more useful time to do so. You have arrived in the DRA, and the rules are changing.
D.C. reporters now work in a foreign bureau. It might seem like home, but the rules keep changing, and every week there’s a new crisis. The government doesn’t want you there, but it has to tolerate you for appearances’ sake. Officials who would talk to you one month close their mouths the next. And while it might all seem farcical, lives are at stake.
This is the DRA, that exhausting country beat you want your editor to eventually rotate you out of, but it’s also the story of a lifetime, and the stakes are high.
I saw some of this DRA thinking with MSNBC’s decision late last year. The channel had decided not to air a White House press conference. That move attracted a ton of attention, but it shouldn’t have. U.S. cable broadcasters’ habit of pro forma distributing White House briefings should stop. Propaganda from the administration should be given no more credibility or time than American media gives to Nicolás Maduro’s daily rants or Xi Jinping’s patriarchal videos. This doesn’t mean instinctively dismissing them but instead evaluating the government as they would any other country’s rather than instinctively following its every demand.
Reporters should regularly skip out on news conferences altogether. What if they didn’t even wait for the next Jim Acosta credentialing brouhaha but simply boycotted because the White House distributes disinformation?
I know what the Beijing foreign press corps did: We just ignored the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ blather and generally avoided attending the twice-weekly events, choosing to spend our time more productively. I would glance at the transcript once it came out and might even use an excerpt, but I never regretted not attending any of them in person. As media critic Jay Rosen says, send the interns.
And eventually, most reporters in a foreign post move on. Some, of course, become lifers and stay, becoming valuable for their accumulated institutional memory, list of sources, and insider access. They are irreplaceable. But their kind of contribution is only one kind of reporting.
In China, it became kind of a thing for outgoing correspondents to produce their juiciest stories in the final months of their stay, on their way out and when officials had the least leverage to punish them (such as by threatening to revoke their press credentials). Not giving a single solitary fuck can produce some great reporting. When it became clear my own stay in China had an expiration date—officials had indicated they would expel me—I went to town my final month, investigating extralegal detention centers by barging right into facilities and interviewing a rights attorney against the direct wishes of state security.
On a practical level, I understand this is far less possible in the United States, but I wonder how reporting might change if newsrooms encouraged journalists to spend only a few years in D.C. Plenty of journalists already move around, but not nearly enough—and many Washington correspondents have a habit of becoming so obsessed with access that they neglect to critically examine or question their sources.
The more reporters feel they can have those final exit months to burn bridges, the better.
When leaders overseas make ridiculous pronouncements, foreign correspondents often dismiss the statement and move on. They can be pretty irreverent about it, perhaps because the leader is not their leader, and the government not their government. And for D.C. correspondents, that’s where remembering they live in the DRA now might help.
There have already been excellent strands of this, particularly with Joshua Keating’s occasional pieces on U.S. current events under the “If It Happened There” umbrella, written in the manner of American journalists covering stories abroad. But it’s time to move beyond quirky columns and make this kind of thinking mainstream, a powerful way for all media to reorient how we think about reporting on the government.
I propose this on the principle that as reporters, we act as our harshest critics. Some of the best investigative reporting in decades has taken place in the last couple of years. But the media must do better, and as a longtime foreign correspondent, I say we give the DRA as much hell as we’ve given all the other countries we’ve ever covered—and for the same reason: because we care about the people who live there, not the officials that rule them.