Journalist Ross Barkan on what’s wrong (and right) with the media

Ross Barkan.
Photo: Fernando Pereira Gomes

So you worked for the Observer for a few years, didn’t you?
Three. Yeah, three years.

When Trump announced he was running, the newspaper’s policy was not to cover him up unless there was a compelling reason, right?
Correct, yes. When he announced it this summer, we didn’t have a national reporter assigned to the race. There were three members of the political team, and we were all focused on New York, so we were immersing ourselves in national politics, but there was no real, firm commitment to write about it every day. So when Trump announced, yes the policy was that we didn’t write about him unless we had to. And it has been made very public. It was not a policy that I thought was ideal. Back then I was really focusing on the mayor’s blanket and the New York City blanket, so for me I shrugged and did my job, and Trump and the Observer didn’t really become a problem until I hit the national beat in early 2016, and even then I didn’t naively imagine that Trump and the Observer would become the problem he did, and I for one think, being certainly young – I’m 26 and consider myself social – I certainly hadn’t foreseen the vast conflict of interest and the various ways in which my own editor would be involved with the campaign, and then obviously my former editor, Jared Kushner, how intimately he would be involved in the Trump machine as a good.

Did we regularly talk about the fact that the newspaper was linked to his campaign?
We have always known that Jared Kushner, the publisher, was Trump’s son-in-law. I knew it from the day I started. Jared was really a very passive owner. I met Jared once when I was there. He came to a little party meeting in the office, and that was it. I literally had a conversation with Jared Kushner in my life. And Ken Kurson, the editor, was certainly a practical editor, but he was someone who would at least give lip service to the independence of the newspaper. And I still think my blanket and my work over there at Observer was not influenced by Trump at all, in that there was no order from above to necessarily write about Trump in a certain way. new York‘s Gabe Sherman told the story we all suspected, that Ken had helped with Trump AIPAC speech, and for me that was a huge turning point and a moment where I really thought, like, It’s deeply unethical, and I shouldn’t be here anymore. I mean, look, if that had been Bernie Sanders’ speech or Hillary Clinton’s speech, that would have been deeply problematic as well. If he was helping a campaign – and you know Ken was a former Republican agent, a former Giuliani speechwriter, then it crossed our minds that Jared Kushner wrote Trump’s speech. Well, did Ken help? We had no proof, then he told Gabe Sherman that it happened, and Ken says he just didn’t write it down, he just looked at it, so I’m going to take his word for it. I don’t really know how much he helped. I don’t have a lot of inside information on this. But this AIPAC moment coupled with approval about a week later was the last straw for me. And, I mean, the approval was so catastrophically bad in so many ways. Not that a newspaper didn’t have the right to approve or that a newspaper didn’t have the right to approve Trump, but it really didn’t make sense to New York. Observer to approve, given how close their ties to Trump were, and that was just something that was immediately noted by anyone with half a brain. And it really was the moment – and it had accumulated for a long time. That’s when I said, “Look, I have to go. And it was really more of an instinctive movement than an intellectual movement. I did not plot this. I did not, like, the RP advised to time my outing at such a time. It worked out well for me, but when the approval fell I was sick of it all. I was with my friend that night, actually at a Mets game, and I told him I couldn’t do that anymore, and emailed Ken and my coworkers saying that I was putting my two weeks not sending it from the game. I waited until I got home. I emailed it probably around midnight. I can’t remember the exact time I sent it. You know, a very polite email, a polite response, and that was it. So I hadn’t planned that day. I found out our approval that night as I was driving for the game. I received it in a text from my coworker, and I hadn’t been briefed on it, it wasn’t at all something I expected, and that was when I had had enough, and decided it was time to do something else with my life, with journalism, but not in New York Observer.

Has Ken ever had a conversation with you about this, from editor to reporter? Has he ever said anything about his own involvement or about the newspaper’s policies and his connection to Trump? Has there ever been an editorial discussion on this to navigate this?
There was an absolutely editorial discussion. I don’t want to get too deep into the behind-the-scenes conversation, but it was an ongoing discussion with me, Ken, with Jill Jorgensen, who was my immediate editor there. We were constantly discussing how to deal with Trump. I mean, the consensus of journalists has always been that we have to treat him like any other candidate. We have always indicated, which I found good, that he is the father-in-law of our publisher. So there were discussions. It was a constant struggle. And it wasn’t easy for Ken either. Ken was in a tough spot as an editor, being someone who is very close to Jared as a family friend, someone who is also a journalist and cares about the Observerthe integrity of, so it was a balancing act for him and for us. We obviously wanted to cover Donald Trump like everyone else, and for the most part, that happened; it was just the idea that Ken was involved in the Trump campaign in any way was too much for me stomach.

Seems like you never felt pressured to change the way you wrote your stories. Do you think this involvement had an effect on the way you covered the campaign?
To a certain extent, yes. The strange thing at Observer do they give their writers and reporters a lot of independence. I could really decide and design ways to approach the campaign. At the same time, there were pitches that were turned down, and I don’t want to go into what the pitches were, but there were definitely stories that were turned down regarding Trump that I suspected I had. been linked to our ownership links. I’m not sure, it was never explicit. At the same time, you are in an environment where you know who owns the journal, and you know the circumstances, and maybe there is some self-censorship going on even unconsciously. I don’t think I was doing this. I maintain all the reports I made to Observer. I’m proud of a lot of things I wrote about Trump there. I think in some ways I said premonitory things, and there were definitely pieces where I was tough on Trump, but it wasn’t the ideal situation, and there were arguments that aren’t. gone nowhere. And there was this feeling that maybe there were some places you couldn’t go. And I never knew exactly what those places were, what I could and couldn’t do. Nothing was ever specified. Perhaps that was also a problem. But the line of communication with politics was always evolving, always somewhat shifting, and it was not clear that there was always a direction, and that was a problem. too much.

Has the experience changed your perception of the press, especially political reporting in general?
The experience of campaign coverage did. I traveled to Iowa, I traveled to New Hampshire and South Carolina, I was in Miami and Mar-a-Lago for Trump’s victory in Florida, and my perception of campaign reporting had evolved regardless of the issues I had with Ken and with Trump. What I found out is that you have a thousand journalists writing a thousand versions of the same story, and a lot of it just doesn’t make sense. And sometimes I was setting there with all these other people at an election night, or some other event on the track, and I thought, What is it all for? Why are the diminishing resources of the media, the press, which plays a vital role in our democracy, so drawn into this spectacle 24 hours a day? And I know why: because it means money, it means ad revenue, it means clicks. We know that. We certainly know that with television networks, and newspapers are not immune. In most democratic societies, campaigns last a few months, in some cases a few weeks. They do not consume all year and years of speech. So for me, just every day having to find angles to endlessly speculate, prognosticate, on what was going to happen, those little minor tweaks in the narrative that in the long run wouldn’t mean anything, and the whole narrative, the whole idea. of the campaign narrative is a bit invented anyway. It was really disappointing in many ways. I mean, I’m not saying I’ve ever been someone who had a wide-open view of what political reporting is, but I would ask myself, Who do we serve? Who do we inform? Why write about someone’s campaign strategy, for example, or the machinations of a campaign agent, why is that necessarily important? Do we know what voters really need? I mean, the way we come up with story ideas is really separate from the mainstream. This is a recurring problem that I have had. You’ve certainly seen with the Trump phenomenon in general, and I, as a middle class person on the east coast, grew up in New York, of course I despised Donald Trump, because I didn’t live in the middle. country, I didn’t live in a depressed city, I didn’t talk to these people. So there’s that bubble aspect to campaign reporting, and I don’t really think we learned a lot as political reporters from this election. I would like to think we did, but for the most part journalists as a whole think they did an amazing job. But while there are a lot of good reports, there are also a lot of empty calories reports. Just a daily refill. Faced with this, it was certainly not a wonderful to live.

Transcripts: a masterclass on what’s wrong (and right) with the media by those in the know

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