By Adam Beyer
Two investigative reporters for The New York Times discussed the challenges of covering Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump administration Wednesday evening at Duke University.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman said it is important for them to be calm and balanced, even as many Times readers express concern about the administration. They seek to present a true account of the facts.
“If you are somebody who is really anti-Trump, you don’t want your news sources to be fired up about going after Trump,” Apuzzo said. “That’s what you’re angry about about Breitbart. You don’t want The New York Times to be Breitbart.”
Both journalists monitored their phones during the talk, to keep tabs on developments in the fast-moving story.
Speculation continues to mount about whether Trump will fire Mueller. Many commentators suggest the president lacks the authority to fire Mueller himself, but White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has suggested in recent days that he has such authority.
Earlier this week, Apuzzo broke the story about the FBI raid on President Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s office and hotel room. Apuzzo said he thought that because the search warrant was pursued by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, it would be harder for Trump to continue calling the Mueller investigation a “witch-hunt.” But that has not prevented Trump from characterizing it as such.
Initially, the reporting team was learning things at the same time as Mueller’s team or unearthing information he did not have. For example, Mueller did not have the full context on the Trump Tower meeting with several Russians until their story appeared in the Times.
Increasingly, however, the reporting has shifted and sometimes feels like “chasing grand juries.”
Still, they emphasized the importance of focusing on getting stories correct even in unprecedented times. Apuzzo said that he took his job just as seriously when he covered the Obama Justice Department.
“I think Democrats are freaking out and that people who don’t like the president are freaking out at every turn and saying the guardrails have come off,” Apuzzo said. “The guardrails are still there. I think that norms have changed and norms are just norms.”
Obama Most Vigilant About Leaks
Apuzzo and Goldman noted that for all its public hostility to media, the Trump Administration has not pursued leaks and consequences for sources as vigorously as the Obama administration did, although that may be changing.
The Obama administration cracked down on reporters and their sources by issuing subpoenas, seizing phone records, and labeling sources as co-conspirators.
More people were sent to jail and charged with crimes for interacting with reporters during Obama’s tenure than during all other administrations combined, Apuzzo said.
“Yes, being labeled fake news bothers me,” Apuzzo added.
“Getting a grand jury subpoena? Worse,” Goldman responded.
Goldman noted that while the current political events in Washington, D.C. are important, people must remain vigilant about national security news as well. There are many relevant developments remaining with the United States’ role in Afghanistan and Syria for instance.
Apuzzo said he will move to Europe in the fall and continue as an investigative reporter for The Times there.
Local News Just as Important
Both reporters expressed concern that the increased centralization of media attention in D.C.—without adequate support for local journalism—could have detrimental effects. Apuzzo explained that investigative reporters hone their craft at the local level. With plummeting staffing and resources at local newspapers, training the next generation of reporters will be much more difficult.
The answer, Apuzzo said, is to vote with your wallet and subscribe to local journalism while it still exists.
“You can borrow your parents’ HBO Go account, but get your own damn newspaper subscription,” he said.