National Press Club

Symposium probes balancing facts with context, press and president relationship

March 13, 2017 | By Louise Walsh | ldwalsh@earthlink.net

Fact-checkers, former White House officials and working journalists weighed the balance between facts and context in reporting and compared present and past relationships between the press and presidents at the 2017 Missouri-Hurley Symposium at the National Press Club March 9.

Michelle Lee, one of two Washington Post fact-checkers who seeks readers’ votes on Pinocchios for false claims, noted that facts can tell an incomplete story, referring to the “half-truth realm” while Louis Jacobson from PolitiFact and the Tampa Bay Tribune noted that readers have a legitimate concern that they experience something “differently even if the numbers don’t show it.”

An “in-between space” exists in the argument over literalism vs. context in news reporting, according to Alexios Mantzarlis who leads International Fact-Checking Network. “Right now, we don’t have the perfect answer.”

Tom Rosenstein, American Press Institute’s executive director, said that calling the press the enemy means that the “guts of our reporting is now more important” and stressed the importance of labeling what’s news and what’s opinion. The only group trusting the press less than Republicans do are millennials, he pointed out. “Now we are less gatekeepers over what the public knows and more annotators on what they’ve already heard.”

Fewer surprises, ambushes and revelations occurred in Mike McCurry’s and Ed Rogers’ time as White House officials for Democratic and Republican presidents, respectively. “The process was much slower,” Rogers said: “There weren’t that many surprises. Today is wildly different.” McCurry noted that there was only one cable channel in the 1990s, “It’s an infinitely more difficult assignment to be in charge of public dissemination if you’re in the White House now.”

Rogers cited the difference between campaigning and governing to explain the tensions now: “A campaign is like a sword fight…governing is like conducting an orchestra….”

Rogers said he felt for the White House staff when they were pressed about Trump’s charge that his predecessor wire-tapped him. “I feel for them. The boss has said something that is outside the norms of agreed upon levels of deceit,” he said to audience laughter.

McCurry faulted himself in part for allowing cameras. Both believed every president hated the press but none until now called them “the enemy of the people.”

John Roberts, Fox’s Chief White House Correspondent sparked a lively exchange on the final panel when he told fellow Washington journalists: “Get used to it. A different sheriff’s in town…can’t expect things to happen the way they did. We’ve got to stop whining…It’s like working in a war zone. Every day we fight for access.”

April Ryan, veteran White House Correspondent for American Radio Urban Networks countered, “It’s not whining to ask for an answer, noting later, “We are the first line of the questioning of the American president.”

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post, opposes the view that the press is at war with this administration: She prefers Executive Editor Marty Baron’s formulation, “We’re not at war with the administration. We’re at work.”

Barbara Cochran, Washington Program director for the University of Missouri School of Journalism and Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Journalism, moderated two panels and steered the symposium. When Cochran asked about The New York Times headline saying Trump “lied” claiming that three million people voted illegally, Elizabeth Bumiller, NYT Washington Bureau Chief, said her Executive editor Dean Baquet made that call only after the president made the unproven claim repeatedly “over long periods of time.”