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Indira Lakshmanan: On Journalism as a Public Service and Holding the Government Accountable

She Roars

Image courtesy of the She Roars Podcast.

Image courtesy of the She Roars Podcast. 

Journalist Indira Lakshmanan was a special guest on campus. She visited Princeton to give the third annual Distinguished Teaching Lecture in Service and Civic Engagement. Indira has reported from 80 countries over the years. She has covered coups, campaigns and revolutions working for the Boston Globe, Bloomberg News, the International New York Times, and many others. She held a chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute until just a few months ago when she became executive editor of the Pulitzer Center. In this episode, Indira talks about journalism as a public service and the importance of holding the government accountable. 

Transcript

[ Music ]

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Margaret Koval: Hello and welcome to She Roars, a podcast about change and the women who make it happen, on and off the Princeton campus. My name is Margaret Koval, I’m a graduate alumnus from 1983. And I’m speaking today with journalist Indira Lakshmanan. Indira is a special guest on campus, here to give the annual distinguished teaching lecture in service and civic engagement. Her theme is journalism as public service, a topic she knows a great deal about. Indira has reported from 80 different countries over the years. She has covered coups, campaigns, and revolutions working for the Boston Globe, Bloomberg News, the International New York Times, and many others. She held a chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute until just a few months ago when she became executive editor of the Pulitzer Center. So, Indira, thank you for being here.

Indira Lakshmanan: Thank you so much for having me.

Margaret Koval: Well, I’m fascinated by your career. And I’m fascinated by the theme of your talk. I think journalism is in the news so much, we often think of it as a business or as a given. But we don’t always think of it as a public service. So I’m curious if you can tell me how you think of it.

Indira Lakshmanan: So absolutely. I think I went into journalism like many of my colleagues for a variety of reasons. You know, on the one hand it was sort of a hall pass to be able to ask questions of powerful people, hold them to account. It was an opportunity to seek out and understand the powerless. It was an excuse to kind of quench my endless curiosity about too many disparate topics to settle on —

Margaret Koval: Why a lot of people go into journalism.

Indira Lakshmanan: Exactly, to settle on one thing. A passport to travel, of course. But, you know, above all it was a platform to tell stories and expose wrongdoing and try, using the skills that I had, to make the world a better place. So, you know, you, yourself as a former journalist know the old cliche that journalism gives voice to the voiceless. It comforts the afflicted, it afflicts the comforted. And like many cliches it’s true.

Margaret Koval: Yes, very true. Playing out right now, quite a bit.

Indira Lakshmanan: Yes, and I do think journalism is a public service. And we journalists tend to think of ourselves as watchdogs for the public, sort of eyes and ears for everyone else who is doing their other important roles in society and jobs. And so, we hold it as important to us to hold government accountable. Interestingly enough, there was a study that came out of Notre Dame several months ago that found in communities where they had lost their local paper, the cost of local government actually went up.

Margaret Koval: Oh, interesting.

Indira Lakshmanan: So there really is a straight-line correlation between journalists being able to hold government accountable and government doing a better job. And we see this, not only in developed democracies like our own, but we see it in authoritarian states. You know, the less free the press is, the less accountable a government is held. So I started my career working overseas and following transitions from authoritarian rule to democracy. For the last 10 years I’ve been working in Washington covering politics as a national political correspondent for Bloomberg covering the 2008 campaign and then for eight years covering the State Department, traveling with Hillary Clinton and then with John Kerry. But I have to say, whether you’re covering Washington or whether covering, you know, 80 different countries around the world as a foreign correspondent, the themes are the same about journalists being out there to be the eyes and ears for the public holding the powerful accountable.

Margaret Koval: Well, we have a — I have a sense and it’s documented in recent polls that trust in the media though is really, really going down. The Gallup company, for example, did a poll last year. They tracked trust in media and I think the news media is down at the very, very bottom, dropping, but just above Congress, which can’t be good.

Indira Lakshmanan: Quite a bit above Congress. Let me correct you on that. Okay, so I actually —

Margaret Koval: Ranking just above Congress.

Indira Lakshmanan: Yes. Well, I actually have done a bit of — quite a bit of research on this. I spent a year and half as the Newmark Chair in Journalism Ethics at Poynter. And I did several public trusts surveys on media trust. In fact, one of our three researchers was a Princeton professor, Andrew Guess, in the politics department, who did excellent work. And the research that we did was trying to actually track this. And as you say, Gallup has kind of set the standard. Gallup was the first pollster to ask the question about how much trust people had in the news media. They first asked the question in 1973. And others have in the last 20 years joined in and asked the question as well. But it’s really interesting if you look at the track of this. If you look at a graph, what you see is that the all-time high since the question was asked, remember they only started asking the question in ’73, but it hit an all-time high where we’re talking about 75 percent or so of Americans saying that they had a great deal or quite a bit of trust in the media in 1976. Why 1976? I think that was because it was post-Watergate, it was post-Vietnam War, and there was a halo effect on the press, where really every ordinary American had a sense of the value of the press in sort of bringing forward really important stories, exposing wrongdoing, getting a president ousted, getting a war to come to an end. These were really high-profile, important issues. Another factor here, though, is that there was a sort unusual period in American history between the 1950s through the 1980s where most people got their news through one of the three nightly network newscasts, ABC, CBS, NBC.

Margaret Koval: Those were the days, right?

Indira Lakshmanan: Those were the days. And I know you did work in network television. So you experienced that sort of golden era of network television news. But let’s be honest, if we look at the history of news in America, prior to the 1950s, any community in America would have a panoply of newspapers. There would have been the pro-union paper. There would have been the Democrat paper, the Republican paper, you know, the Communist paper. There would have been different papers that represent different points of view.

Margaret Koval: And these weren’t always channels of democracy and truth-telling.

Indira Lakshmanan: Not necessarily. They were partisan. They were, you know, there was that sort of hyper-partisanship that we talk about now. The polarization. That existed then. So there’s been a long history of people saying I don’t trust the media, but I trust my media. I trust the paper that I read. Alright. So the ’50s through the ’80s was this anomalous in a way ahistorical period. Because everyone in America was essentially living in a uniform reality, where they were hearing Walter Cronkite, or Eric Sevareid, or you know one of these three august, they happen to be, older, white men.

Margaret Koval: Completely coincidentally, I’m sure.

Indira Lakshmanan: Yes. Delivering the news to them every night and there was a uniform reality. What changed? In the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, he deregulated the FCC. The Federal Communications Commission. And part of that was about the elimination of the fairness doctrine, which said that you had to give all sides in a network newscast. Now when suddenly you didn’t have to do that anymore, what does that give rise to? It gives rise — it allows hyper-partisan broadcast media to come into being. So that allowed for the, you know, surge of Fox News, for example. Right-wing talk radio like Rush Limbaugh. And the concept was that what’s the problem with having highly partisan broadcasts? Because there can be highly partisan broadcasts on the other side. But what actually happened was, it was right of center to far-right-wing entities that took advantage of this and really, sort of, milked it. So Fox News became a complete powerhouse. Roger Ailes was the genius who, essentially, came up with this business plan of, draw in older, largely white viewers by saying, don’t believe them, don’t believe the mainstream media. We’re the only ones who are fair and balanced. Ha. And it became a great business model. And, again, there are parts of the country where all you can get is this right-wing talk radio.

So it really took hold and this term of mainstream media as being a derogatory took hold in certain corners. So when people talk about Trump and, you know, how he has denigrated the media so much. Of course, he’s denigrated the media. He’s called us scum, garbage, fake news, the very dishonest people, the worst of all is enemies of the people. And what is the objective here? So a couple of things on this. Donald Trump did not invent fake. He did not invent hatred for the media. He did not invent distrust in the media. What he has done brilliantly is, he’s capitalized on it and he’s amplified it. And his purpose in this is, of course, if you discredit the media and you say, oh, you can’t trust the media as an independent, legitimate source of information, then it’s a way of making himself the only legitimate source of information. And he’s done this extremely effectively with his base. So if you try to say that all the media is fake, then even when The New York Times comes out with an incredibly detailed, many-thousands-of-words-long story that details how he got his money, how it was inherited, not earned, what happened with his taxes over the years. The story ends up, his base says, oh, I don’t believe that. That’s fake news. Even if there are documents attached and video and audio and all sorts of primary source of material.

Margaret Koval: But’s let talk a little bit about the role that the media, itself, has played — in a sense mainstream media, itself, has played. I mean, I’m going to refer back to 2016 a million, million years ago. Back before Donald Trump was president, he was still candidate Trump.

Indira Lakshmanan: Right.

Margaret Koval: And Les Moonves, chairman and CEO at the time, said in a semi-public, semi-private setting, the candidacy of Donald Trump may be terrible for American but it’s great for CBS.

Indira Lakshmanan: That’s right.

Margaret Koval: And he was talking, of course, about ratings.

Indira Lakshmanan: Absolutely.

Margaret Koval: And that seems to have born out to be true in spades in the last couple of years because this has become a TV show that nobody in America can look away from. Not just a TV show, obviously, but an online show and so on and so forth. Do we need to talk more about that, about how the media, itself, is benefitting from all of this mudslinging?

Indira Lakshmanan: Oh, well, it’s absolutely legitimate and Les Moonves said it, but I think people at CNN said it as well. That Donald Trump is good for ratings. And he knows that. Again, the man is brilliant. He is a master marketer without peer. And in the same way that he knew how to exploit his celebrity with “Apprentice.” Right? I mean, he knew how to translate that on to a political stage. And you’re right, the media also realized. I don’t think the media was doing it because ratings were good, but I think once they realized that ratings were good, they understand that people wanted to watch him. Now you could say, some people say, the media bears responsibility for this because in the 2016 campaign they were carrying his press conferences live and giving him free air time —

Margaret Koval: Billions of dollars in —

Indira Lakshmanan: Free media that he barely had to spend because he was getting so much free air time. And it happens even now that we carry his press conferences and rallies live. It’s happening, by the way, less and less. It’s also been true, though, that his attacks on the media have boomeranged to some extent in the sense that New York Times and Washington Post, two newspapers that he hates and that he’s called failing and every bad word you can think of, that they have record subscriptions now, too. So I do want to say something about how this has boomeranged a little bit. It is true that Donald Trump’s election in the fall of 2016 coincided with the lowest levels of trust recorded by Gallup. But — but, and this is what, not only Gallup’s survey but also the Poynter Media Trust survey and others were able to document, it has bounced back in 2017 and 2018. I’m not saying back to 1970s levels. Not at all. But it has gone up. So there is clearly some element of the American public who has been upset and offended by the president say, you know, weaponizing this term fake news, which by the way, we can talk about if you want, but it meant something entirely different in 2016.

Margaret Koval: Which is still a major threat to the United States democracy —

Indira Lakshmanan: It — yes, conspiracy theories, whether it’s Russian bots and trolls. But also people in the sort of blogosphere, in Reddit, in Gab, which is this white supremacist version of Twitter. You know, people putting out false information. That’s what fake news really meant. Because, let’s face it, by definition if something is fake it’s not news. The president heard that term, and he was offended that people were saying that he might have won because of false news. And so he took the word, flipped the coin and made it mean something else. But I do think it’s important that there has been some boomerang effect that trust in media is rising. The unfortunate undercurrent of that is that it’s highly, highly partisan. Democrats have very high trust in the media. Republicans have very low trust in the media. And so those lines have diverged.

Margaret Koval: Let me jump in and say — and ask, actually. If we have this idealized good media. A media that’s focused on public trust, that’s focused on democracy, that’s focused on public service. Given this almost unprecedented, although I take your point about earlier periods of history, but almost unprecedented certainly in modern memory, hostility between Washington and the news media. How does a reputable — how should a reputable journalist, as an individual, or a news organization respond? I mean for example there’s been talk recently about boycotting coverage of President Trump. Is that an appropriate response?

Indira Lakshmanan: Look, this is a great question because it also takes into the realm of, what is our role as journalists? And I really endorse what my old boss, Marty Baron who used to be the head of The Boston Globe, and is now the executive editor of The Washington Post. What he says, which is, we’re not at war. We’re at work. I mean, this is true. We do not want to be branded as part of the opposition or part of the resistance, or something like this. Because that’s not our role. Our role is to be truth tellers. So when people ask me, is journalism activism, I say, yes. Journalism is a form of activism. Activism for the truth. I mean that’s really — we’re out there as truth seekers, and we have to be out there open-minded to wherever our reporting may lead us. And it may lead us in ways, in places that we were not expecting to go. I mean, just as a slight diversion from this, I’m on — I had the real honor to serve the last year and half on the PBS Editorial Standards committee. And we took a really long time over the last year and half with a very diverse group of news professionals from a range of media outlets to think about what are the best news standards we could put in place. And one of the things we did was we eliminated the word objectivity from guidelines. Because I for one argued that there really is no such thing as objectivity. That is kind of like a view from nowhere. Which, by the way, was also a white, male view.

Margaret Koval: Yes.

Indira Lakshmanan: When people talk about objectivity, all of us come to the table with different backgrounds, different experiences. We can’t be truly objective. What we can and we must be is we have to be editorially independent. We have to be accurate in our reporting. We have to be fair. This is not the same as balanced, by the way. Because balanced can be taken as false balanced, false equivalent, or both sides journalism. But we have to be fair. We have to be open-minded to whatever facts may present themselves as we’re doing our reporting. We have to be inclusive, having both diverse people working in our newsrooms and diverse voices reflected in our stories. And by the way, by diversity I don’t just mean racial and ethnic and gender diversity. I also mean rural America being represented. I also mean people from very traditional religious backgrounds being represented. I also mean veterans. I mean gun owners. You know, our newsrooms in the two coasts, in elite sort of national publications, do tend to be populated by college graduates. There is some sort of inherent, liberal group think that goes on. And newsrooms need to do a better job of hiring diverse people across the spectrum.

Margaret Koval: And what are the mechanisms that are going to make that happen? Seems like an awfully heavy lift to institutionalize that across the board.

Indira Lakshmanan: I think it’s something that’s already happening. The New York Times has already talked about how they have hired some military vets as reporters. Both the Post and the Times, I’ve seen, have hired some openly religious people who write about religion and life and it informs the reporting they do. And I think that’s all to the good in the same way that we want to, you know, hire first-generation people, LGBT people, all different kinds. But, you know, I do think there is a tricky time right now when people think about, is journalism activism. I still think we need to stick to some of the old traditional rules of, for example, I’m registered as an independent. That’s — I feel very important. Because I don’t want to be associated with one party or the other, even though, by the way, now I’m an opinion columnist with the Globe. So I guess I could do what I want. But I still feel the old system that you want to be nonpartisan. I don’t donate to political parties or to candidates. You know, we don’t put lawn signs up. I mean, these are rules that most newsrooms have in place. That said, in the last couple of years, there have been assaults on journalism, you know, as journalism that I think have been perfectly fine for The Washington Post to stand up and make a new motto, “democracy dies in darkness.” I think it’s perfectly fine for journalists to come out swinging on press freedom. For example, the CNN lawsuit against the White House saying, you know, you have to give back Jim Acosta’s press credential, which Fox News joined with an amicus brief and a lot of people were surprised. But I would say, you know, I’m pleasantly surprised and happy that Fox did that and they did it rightly. Because they know that the same sword that is used against CNN could be used against them in a different administration or a different moment in time.

Margaret Koval: Let me talk about the model or ask you about the model, the journalism model for a minute. Because you talk about a time before the fairness doctrine was set aside, which makes me ask, should we reinstate the fairness doctrine? There’s one set of solutions to our current morass, perhaps, is to bring in more policy or regulation. But there’s other, too. There’s the technological innovation has completely transformed journalism. That has nothing to do with policy, per se. It has to do with the internet. It has to do with social media. It has to do with all sorts of different things. Do we need to innovate an entirely different model for journalism, for delivering information and news to the public, to sustain democracy?

Indira Lakshmanan: Yes. We need to innovate it and if you have the idea, please, immediately fix journalism for us.

[ Laughter ]

I can take over the podcast if you know a way to fix journalism, we all need to know it. No, look, I mean it’s a fact, unfortunately, that the internet has been killing journalism as we knew it. At the time, the year that I first joined The Boston Globe in 1993, I joined the same week that The New York Times bought The Boston Globe for $1.1 billion. Think about that. When it was sold, just a few years ago, to the Henry’s who own the Red Sox and other things, it was sold for something like $70 million. I mean, the fact of the matter is, at the time in the early ’90s, big metro newspapers were still cash cows. They still had like 38 percent profit margins because of advertising. That is dead. And the internet has killed that. So the internet has not only killed, you know, sort of the big ads, the department store ads that kept newspapers alive. It’s killed classifieds. And it’s also kind of opened the flood gates to anyone can be a publisher. You know, anyone can sit in their basement and blog about Afghanistan even if they’ve never been there and pretend to be an expert and pass — try to pass themselves off as a journalist. And it’s hard because as news consumers, I talk about practicing news hygiene in the same way that you brush your teeth and you put good food into your body because you want to be healthful. If you put junk news into your brain, there’s going to be junk. You know, so you have to watch your news hygiene. And it’s hard because some people, not just young people, it’s actually in a lot of cases, I think, older people who are just not familiar, they look at Facebook. Facebook has in the past made every story look the same whether it’s from The New York Times or whether it’s from joeblow.com. And people don’t know, necessarily, what’s true and what’s not true.

Margaret Koval: What about — let me jump in on there for a second. What about other models such as philanthropy-driven journalism? I’d love to hear a little bit more about your new organization, the Pulitzer Center and what innovations are being done there. Because I think it is a step towards a — at least an alternative model to the we live now.

Indira Lakshmanan: You’re absolutely right. Philanthropy journalism has sort of really had a blossoming over the last decade. We are the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. We were founded in 2006. I just joined in the end of August 2018 as the executive editor. It’s a wonderful organization, that if I may say so, is in some ways keeping international reporting alive in the American media. Because let’s face it, there are a couple of news outlets – The New York Times, The Washington Post, the major networks – who still have the money to do international reporting. But most news outlets in America do not. I was fortunate enough to spend, you know, 12 years on the foreign staff of The Boston Globe. They no longer have a foreign staff. And most newspapers in America don’t anymore. So if they want to do foreign reporting, how do they do it? The money, the dollars, aren’t there. They’re struggling just to keep local reporters employed and local news organizations are drying up.

So this where we come in. We go to foundations, we raise money from people who care deeply about Americans being globally informed, about critical issues around the world, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s water shortages, whether it’s conflict and development of democracy. We raise money from foundations or individuals and then we, a sort of panel of former of foreign correspondents and editors, look at people’s proposals. They come to us from freelancers, they come to us from news organizations. For example, we are a huge supporter of the PBS Newshour. Very much of the international reporting, almost all the international reporting that you see on PBS Newshour, is supported by the Pulitzer Center. We’ve supported huge entire issues in The New York Times Magazine. So we’re making and, by the way, we do this with small papers, too, with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. We do it with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, with the Texas Tribune, another nonprofit news organization. So, you know, there are others like Pro Publica, like the Texas Tribune, like the Center for Public Integrity. There are other nonprofit news outlets, The Marshall Project, that are out there focused, either on single issues or are lots of issues. And I think it has to be one of the ways that we’re trying to save journalism is through philanthropy.

Margaret Koval: I think it’s very interesting, I also am aware, I’m sure everybody is aware that there are risks involved in that as well. Because who pays the piper, calls the tune, and all that. And of course, we’re seeing plenty of criticism of the like of George Soros, who does also support journalism. How do you think you can protect from that sort of thing?

Indira Lakshmanan: Look, I mean, we certainly — and I think that most of the nonprofit news organizations have in place really tight firewalls. So the deal is, if you want to give us money because you believe in important and worthy global journalism about important issues like human rights and global health, then go ahead and give us the money. But you don’t get to decide which stories we pick. And you don’t get to pick the stories. And you don’t get to pick the journalists. And you don’t get to edit the stories and see them beforehand. So I think we’re not unique in that respect. I think that, you know, I’m sure that Pro Publica does that as well. Poynter, where I used to work, also does that. You know, so there is a firewall between funders and the content that comes out.

Margaret Koval: Indira, I would love to go on all day but I think we’re out of time. So I want to say thank you very much Indira Lakshmanan for coming.

Indira Lakshmanan: Thank you so much for having me.

Margaret Koval: It was a pleasure. We’ll carry on some of these conversations in future podcasts, I’m sure.

Indira Lakshmanan: I’d love it.

Margaret Koval: I want to thank our audio engineer, Dan Kearns, our producer, Danielle Alio, and our audience. I hope you’ll come back to hear more insights and reflections from the women coming through and coming from Princeton University.

[ Music ]

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