Why the Trump Era is the Best and Worst Time to be a Policy Journalist
September 12, 2017
On September 12th, the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative was pleased to welcome Yochi Dreazen (C’99), Deputy Managing Editor and Foreign Editor of Vox. He began his journalism career at the Wall Street Journal, where he worked for 11 years and served as the paper’s main Iraq correspondent. In addition to his foreign reporting duties, Dreazen wrote about the US military at home, and in 2010, the Military Reporters & Editors Association recognized his work with its top award for domestic coverage. Dreazen published an award winning book titled The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War, and after leaving WSJ but prior to joining Vox, also worked for Foreign Policy magazine, The Atlantic, and the National Journal.
Dreazen began by thanking everyone for attending and by greeting the familiar faces of the Vox interns from this past summer. He noted that his boss and editor in chief, Ezra Klein, was interviewing Hillary Clinton and so he was glad to miss a busy day at the office, but expressed admiration about Klein’s ability to ask interesting questions from many different angles. “This is what we try to do at Vox. When we succeed, it is because we have found that approach and when we fail it is because we haven’t.”
“I wanted to get past the narrative we have all heard about Trump’s war on the media and war on the press,” Dreazen stated, beginning the heart of his talk, claiming that this statement is reductive and half-accurate for our modern consumers. “Circulation is up if you are a print paper, traffic is up if you’re digital – there’s this boom on the business side, but this, also, is only half true.”
Dreazen recounted the media propagated narrative of Trump turning around to TV reporters and calling reporters and editors “enemies of the American people”, and the many anti-semetic and threatening tweets, calls and emails he had received while covering the president’s policy decisions this year. “In one day, I received over 100 tweets, phone calls and emails, the phone calls being the scariest…When we think of the war on the media, that is the narrative we think of - abuse directed by the President on downwards. But there is a separate, and more insidious way in which this manifests, and that is just the basic task of information gathering.” Dreazen explained how basic facts used to be readily available with a call to the Pentagon about how many troops the US has on the ground in Syria, or how much money the administration has spent on defense, but in the Trump administration all of this information has stopped being shared. “You have this dynamic where you can’t check information, you can’t fact check, and you can’t get the basic bricks you need to build a story.” Dreazen took this logic a step further, imagining a scenario in which a story was incorrect and was then pointed to by the Trump administration as evidence of the “mistake-ridden fake news media”.
Dreazen discussed coverage leading up to the Iraq war, and lamented that a press that wasn’t aggressive and accurate may not have led to the proper questioning or challenging of the decision that led to the “biggest journalistic mistake of the last 50 years…the biggest geopolitical disaster for the U.S. in the last 50 years.”
“What’s happening now is the opposite,” he began, asserting that this is some of the most accurate and hard hitting journalism he had seen since he began his career. Dreazen noted that this is a high point for journalism, in a challenging situation where what journalists do has little impact. He pointed to the Washington Post as a prime example of this challenge, when time after time the paper brought scandals of the Trump administration to light from the candidate’s lying about his charity donations to the bombshell Access Hollywood tape. “If a politician in the past had any of these scandals, they would be done,” he said, “These are substantive scoops that nobody is challenging the veracity of that don’t shift the discourse…it is remarkable.”
Dreazen recalled election night at Vox, where the paper had Hillary stories pre-written, videos pre-edited and were “100% sure that Hillary was going to win.” Around 9pm, the paper realized they needed to change their stories, working late in the night to replace coverage on Clinton with coverage on Trump. Dreazen reasserted that this is “a remarkable time for journalism on the whole. Everyone was wrong, and the next morning we woke up to this changed world and have been trying to deal with that ever since.” At Vox, journalists rotate in 15 minute cycles to watch Trump’s Twitter account, attempting to adapt to a president to sets policy over social media.
Vox has made a transition over the past few years, he said, moving from a blog to more policy reporting while recognizing that “the idea of straight objectivity is a myth, everyone brings own biases and we should embrace that.” Dreazen has observed a dramatic shift where papers are calling lies what they are: lies. This shift is a challenge for journalists, who try to balance fairness with objectivity. He affirmed that in this time, as a journalist trying to be objective is a disservice to your readers. “If you are trying to say that there is another side to supporting racism, bigotry, anti-semetism, if you are trying to say there is a legitimate other side you are failing as a journalist and as a human being, frankly.” He continued, recognizing that the presumption that Trump is lying 100% of the time is also a disservice to your readers. It is easy to overlook that one time that he may be telling the truth.
Dreazen continued with Vox’s mission to accomplish more policy related coverage – less about Trump tweeting an insult at Paul Ryan and more about Trump’s misinformed views on healthcare policy and its implications for the GOP bills in the house and senate. “We are trying to be fair. We won’t get it right every time, but we try to be transparent with our readers.” Honesty seems to have come under fire in the Trump administration too, as stories that attempt fairness come under fire from those accusing the “fake news media” of dishonesty. “The more you try to be honest, the more you get accused of being dishonest,” Dreazen lamented.
“You are under perpetual personal assault, people lie to your face,” he added, recounting a story of an interview at the Pentagon gone awry. Dreazen was interviewing an official about an operation in the part of Iraq where he used to live, and was shocked to find that the official was making incorrect statements and descriptions of the geography of the area. “I had lived in that place. He knew I lived in that place. But there he went again – talking point after talking point on things that were false, and verifiably so, and he didn’t care.” Dreazen remembered a similar situation occurring when speaking with another Pentagon official regarding Guantanamo Bay, who told him “you have your interpretation and I have mine.”
“Journalists are up against this flat out denial that things are not verifiably one way or the other. I genuinely don’t know how to get past that,” he said.
But not all is lost – journalism is doing very well even in the era of Trump. When Vox launched, the company employed 20 people at the end of 2015 but has grown to 150+ people with 15 jobs listed. And this situation is not unique – there is a thriving press financially whose impact is less than it has been before, so where does that leave us? Dreazen left this question open to the audience, unsure of the answer himself.
Dreazen concluded his talk with a reflection on his time as a journalist reporting on conflict. “When I left Penn, I wanted my whole life to be covering war. I thought there was an honesty to it.” He compared this experience to his current role, where he is asking others to tell him their view of what is happening. Coverage now has a mediator in between the reporter and the story, compared to the experience in war where “you don’t need to reconstruct, you saw it for yourself, not relying on someone else to tell it to you.” Dreazen recognized that his experience taught him how to listen, how to report, and changed the journalist and man he has become today through experiencing fighting, violence and loss of friends in person. “If you come back from being in a place in Iraq and you are not different there is something profoundly wrong with you,” he said, commenting on the reluctance of many journalists covering war to admit they need help to cope with what they have seen.
At Vox, Dreazen has built a diverse team and is committed to bringing more diversity in gender, skills, sexuality and more into coverage of national security. Dreazen’s prepared remarks ended with a Q&A session.
The Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative thanks Yochi Dreazen for his time and service as a journalist, a role more important now than ever.
About the Speaker:
The Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative is pleased to welcome Yochi Dreazen (C’99), Deputy Managing Editor and Foreign Editor of Vox. He began his journalism career at the Wall Street Journal, where he worked for 11 years and served as the paper’s main Iraq correspondent. In addition to his foreign reporting duties, Dreazen wrote about the US military at home, and in 2010, the Military Reporters & Editors Association recognized his work with its top award for domestic coverage. Based on his experiences observing and reporting on America’s military operations, he published a book in 2014 titled The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War, which looks at what Dreazen calls “’the Army’s third war’ – its fight against the plague of military suicides in the wake of our prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Invisible Front was named one of the “100 Notable Books of 2014” by The New York Times Book Review and one of the “Best Books of 2014” by Amazon. After leaving WSJ but prior to joining Vox, Dreazen also worked for Foreign Policy magazine, The Atlantic, and the National Journal.