Restoring Trust in the Media in an Age of Disinformation with Peter Baker
Peter Baker, Chief White House Correspondent for the New York Times, admittedly wasn’t the best student at Oberlin. He was so wrapped up in his dreams of becoming a journalist, he spent more time down at the campus newspaper than in his classes. But the work paid off.
During his career, Peter visited Robben Island in South Africa with Nelson Mendela and once nearly knocked over the Queen of England during a press scrum at an international summit meeting.
Following the attacks of 9/11, he was the first American journalist to report from Afghanistan where he embedded with troops as coalition forces fought the Taliban. During the US invasion of Iraq, he rode with the Marines as they drove toward Baghdad.
Peter has covered the past five presidents, from Bill Clinton to Joe Biden. During a break from the White House, he spent four years in Moscow for the Washington Post, chronicling the rise of Vladimir Putin with wife Susan Glasser. The pair penned Kremlin Rising about Putin’s Russia and, most recently, co-authored the New York Times bestseller The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021.
On this episode of Running to the Noise, Peter talks with host and Oberlin College and Conservatory President Carmen Twillie Ambar about the erosion of trust in the media, the assault on truth in America, and what he’s learned covering some of the most powerful people in the world.
Carmen: I'm Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Oberlin College and Conservatory. And welcome to Running to the Noise, where I speak with all sorts of folks who are taking on some of our toughest problems and working to spark positive change around the world and on our campus. Because here at Oberlin, we don't shy away from the challenging situations that threaten to divide us. We run towards them.
Peter Baker, from his Commencement address to the Oberlin graduating class of 2021: America today is facing its own crisis of truth. Never have we seen truth under assault the way we do now. Conspiracy theories once relegated at the fringes of society are given credence on television, on the internet, and even at the highest levels of government. And when journalists try to report the truth, they’re attacked as the enemies of the people and their fact-based stories are dismissed as fake news.
When Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for the New York Times, received my invitation to deliver the commencement address to the class of 2021, he called my office to see if there had been some sort of mistake. As Peter told graduates in his speech that year, he wasn't the best student Oberlin ever produced. He was so absorbed with becoming a journalist, so eager to get out in the world and start to explore, that he spent too much time down at the Oberlin Review, our student newspaper.
As Peter tells it, he failed economics and horseback riding. He left Oberlin in 1986 for a sabbatical of sorts, figuring that he'd be back to get his diploma in a year or so. But summer gigs chasing stories at home in Washington, D.C. turned into full-time jobs, covering some of the most significant people and events in history. Peter has covered the past five presidents, starting in 1996 with Bill Clinton and continuing through George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald J. Trump, and now Joe Biden.
During a break from the White House, he spent four years in Moscow for the Washington Post, chronicling the rise of Vladimir Putin with his wife, Susan Glasser. That's where Peter says he learned that Russia is a place where truth is an endangered species.
Today, truth in America is under similar threat, with polarization high and trust in the media near an all-time low. A new Gallup poll found only 7% of adults have a great deal of trust in news media, while 38% said they have none at all.
With November 2024 less than a year away, I invited Peter Baker back to Oberlin, but virtually this time, to talk about what's in store for us and our democracy when we can no longer agree on a set of fundamental facts, whether it be on climate, or COVID, or on the election.
So welcome, Peter. Welcome back to Oberlin, virtually.
Peter: Thank you for having me. I'm so glad to be with you.
Carmen: I think you said to me that your parents were really delighted when you returned to Oberlin to get your honorary degree. And so, I just want to say again how great you were. And if folks haven't seen your talk, they just have to listen to it because you did a great job for our graduates.
Peter: Well, you're awfully nice to say that. It was, I think, for my parents, finally, the money paid off. It finally worked out okay. It was such a treat to be there that day, because I don't know if you remember, but it was the day of or the day after the government finally said we could take masks off, that COVID was, you know, on the wane in effect, we could begin to restore some semblance of real life. And what a joyous moment. It was a beautiful spring day. And that idea that we were emerging from the pandemic, I think, was a moment of hope. And, and I loved it.
Carmen: That's right! That's right. It was incredible. Well, let's talk a little bit about your time in Oberlin. I promise everyone who's here to hear Peter Baker talk about Donald Trump or democracy or truth in media. We're going to get there. So, just bear with us for a second.
But, you know, it's really so incredible. I oftentimes talk about how much people sometimes don't realize the impact that Oberlin has because Oberlin has actually produced a significant number of journalists. We don't have a journalism major, but if you've read a newspaper, magazine, watched TV, listened to a radio, you have probably heard an Obie talking.
And I think even from your class, ’88, we've got Pulitzer Prize winner, Emily Nussbaum, who is at the New Yorker. Is there anything that you can say about what you think happens at Oberlin that we've produced all of these incredible journalists?
Peter: Well, look, I, I was a veteran of the Oberlin Review.
Carmen: That’s right.
Peter: We're going to celebrate our 150th anniversary, which is a pretty amazing thing. I think that there's something about a school paper that isn't attached to a journalism program that requires you to figure it out, right? That nobody was going to teach you. You're teaching yourselves and teaching each other. When I was there, the biggest technological innovation we had at the Review was we got electric typewriters. That was a big deal.
Carmen: You're dating yourself big time, mister.
Peter: I know, it's terrible. It's hard to imagine. But we did everything in this little garage, which I think has now been torn down behind what used to be Fazio's. And we did everything. We pasted it up. If you were missing a letter on the typeset page, you had to cut one out from some spare, copy and paste it in. And we had to do everything—write, report, edit, cut headlines, photos, everything. And it was such an experience. And I just think it was the creative intellectual ferment that Oberlin provides that works in tandem with journalism, because journalism is all about lifelong learning. I'm so lucky. And anybody who is a journalist, I think, is so lucky to be paid to not work, but in fact to learn, to basically spend our lives meeting people, going places, understanding things you otherwise would never learn. And you get that start at the Oberlin Review.
Carmen: One of the things that I never thought I would have to do is, is I go and talk to the Review every year, and I give them this little message about the fact that people pay attention to student journalism in ways that I think may be different because of social media.
And the powerful thing about that is that you can have a real impact as a student journalist. But the challenging thing about it is that they get a lot of vitriol and the types of kind of attacks that probably happen to you but certainly happen to all types of institutions. So, any message that you would have about how things have changed? Or, maybe, let's talk about how things have changed in journalism such that now people have this real willingness to attack journalists and to attack people's viewpoints in these very, sometimes, scary ways.
Peter: In scary ways. No, that's true. I mean, look, journalism, first of all, I love the title of your podcast because that's what journalism is about, right? Running to the noise, running to the noise. Who runs toward the sound of gunfire, but journalists? And I mean that in a physical sense, in a literal sense, as well as a metaphorical sense.
And I remember that that's Michelle Obama's line from her commencement. I actually covered that commencement. I wrote a story about her at that time and how she was using these commencements that particular spring to talk about various things in her own life and her own experiences. But in terms of journalism, you're right. It used to be, I'll give you an example. I was a foreign correspondent for four years, and that included being a war correspondent. It used to be in the old days that journalists would wear these, flak vests with large type on it would say “press,” right? Because that meant, okay, okay, they're not a combatant, you don't shoot at them. Now, we don't put that on there because we're afraid they will shoot at us, because they will actually intentionally target reporters. So, it's not just here in America, it's all over the world.
And part of it is the demonization by a guy like Donald Trump. It's one thing, look, people in power don't always get along with reporters or the press. That's true. You're in power. I'm sure there are times the Review has written things you don't like. That's part of the game. I've covered five presidents. None of them liked us, but they understood us for the most part. And I think for the most part, we respected each other and we had different roles.
Trump's language, you know, it wasn't just him, but the enemies of the people language, this fake news language, it was intended to undermine credibility of the press. And he didn't do that by himself. We've done that to ourselves in a lot of ways. We, the press, have, you know, been our own worst enemies at times. And we haven't always explained ourselves very well, and I think people don't really get what journalism is as much as they used to, where they want journalism to be something that it's not. We're in an existential moment, I think, for the profession.
Carmen: You mentioned that you've covered five presidents. Anything you want to say about the most challenging president to cover? Do you have a different approach? Is it about how the administration treats you or your engagement with them? What can we know about the difference between covering different presidents?
Peter: Well, what's interesting is, after Obama, I had become convinced that presidents were more alike than we thought, right? Democrat, Republican, obviously, they have different policies and they're different personalities, but that the dynamics of being president were pretty similar, regardless of who the president was, because the issues were often the same and the choices available to them were in this relatively narrow band. And if you're a Republican, you're a little more over here, Democrat more over there. Obviously, we could fight these things out, but the dynamics of it were relatively familiar.
And what I learned with Trump is, no, it doesn't always work that way. That, you can, in fact, you know, blast every norm out of the sky and that, in fact, all the rules that I thought applied to the presidency turned out to be advisory, not, you know, requirements, right? And they did it because that's the way presidents respected certain boundaries.
And they always pushed the boundaries. I mean, you know, Bush pushed them in this way and Obama pushed them that way. But they respected broad strokes, our system, and how it worked. And Trump just didn't and doesn't. And he challenged everything I thought we understood about the presidency and about politics.
And that made it as a challenge for a journalist because it's not our job to take sides. It's not, and I think a lot of people want us to. It's not our job to be the opposition, and he wants us to, and we have to be careful not to fall into that trap. He wanted to make us the opposition because it's convenient for him politically, and so it was our job to avoid that.
Marty Baron, who is the, the executive editor of the Washington Post at the time, came up with a great line. He said, “we're not at war, we're at work,” right? He wanted to be at war with the press, that's not our job. Our job is to tell the truth, to investigate, to be blunt at times about challenges and the facts. And if he's going to tell things that are untrue, it's our job to say, “He's not telling the truth.” But it's not our job to be the opposition. And that's a careful balance, and it's a hard one to find.
Carmen: Well, I have to say, Peter, now I'm going to reveal myself, because I see you a lot on television, I see all sorts of Obies on there. And there have been some times I've thought, “Peter! Doggone it! And I think it's this point that you're making about wanting you to take sides, but I think for me it's really, and this has been a critique of what I recall the reputable media outlets, are we treating Trump like a normal candidate in a way that is not reasonable in this era?
I think that's what people are questioning when they wonder whether the media is actually calling him out for his untruths. You know, I can remember early on in Trump's presidency, there would be these moments where people would say, you know, “well, there was a tinge of racial animus there,” or “there was some undercurrents of”, and, and I still wonder whether we're willing to say he's not telling the truth, that was racist in plain ways that the American public can assess him.
Peter: Yeah. No, I think it's a fair question. It's a good question. We've got that a lot. And I think we struggle with that, too, because we want to make sure that we don't lose our credibility by sounding shrill, but at the same time, you have to be very straightforward and say, this is what it is. Okay. You have to call a spade a spade. So, I entirely agree that we have struggled with that, I would say. And I would say we've evolved, but we try to evolve within the lines that we should stick within, in my view.
And I think that there's a reason for that, because if you just sound like you're the opposition, then a lot of people will tune you out. People who pay attention, you call it the reputable media. I love that phrase. We have to keep our reputation for being independent. That doesn't mean objective in the way that people have come to use that word, okay.
Peter: People say, objective, I've given up on the word, “objective,” okay? There's no such thing as objectivity. We're all human. We all bring our biases to the table. So, the better word, I think, these days is “independent.” And independent doesn't mean you're giving equal size to both sides regardless of how their weight is in truth. It means you look at it straightforwardly with an open mind. And independent of being on any side, and if the facts are what they are, then you tell the facts as straightforwardly and as bluntly as possible. You talk about the lie word. We struggled with the word.
Peter: How often to use the word, the L word we would call it, the lie word. And they were pretty aggressive about calling him out when he wasn't telling the truth. I mean, the Washington Post actually cataloged…
Carmen: Right. I remember that—all of his lies and kind of numerically.
Peter: Yeah, exactly, 30,000 things that were false or misleading or what have you. But we did shy away from using the L word all the time because it loses certain power, first of all. And second of all, again, it sounds a little shrill if you use it all the time. And also, you're purporting to know what's inside somebody's head, right? If I say something to you that's not true, I can say, report factually that that is false, right? Nobody can argue with me as a reporter that that's wrong. If I say you're a liar, then I have to know you know it's wrong, that it's untrue. Now, in some cases, we decided he did, right?
Peter: Eventually, we came to the point where we called the birther lie, the birther lie, and we said that is a lie. We use it in the headline on the front page, and that was a big breakthrough because, you know, that's not something we were comfortable doing with the President of the United States. And more and more over time, I think, we have examples where he has been told something is not true again and again, and therefore has every reason to know it's not true, then we can call that a lie, because therefore we know he's saying something he knows is not true. We refer to the election lies. We refer to the birther lie.
So, we are willing to call a spade a spade, but we are also not going to ever be the same thing as an opposition. So, don't treat him normal. But the truth is, I think, normal journalism is not a friend to a president who has autocratic instincts, because actual factual reporting has more power to it, in my mind, than scolding commentary. I think it's actually stronger to have facts and fact-based analysis. And that we have, in fact, told the public, I think, if not everything, a whole lot of what they need to know about Donald Trump. And I think there's frustration on some people who don't like Donald Trump that the message doesn't get through to everybody, or the people don't accept it, or people don't trust us, or don't find it as alarming as some people might or should. And that's frustration, but it's not because we're not telling them.
Carmen: So, talk about this erosion of trust in the media. I'm sure you've seen these Gallup polls that talk about people having not a great deal or a fair amount of trust. I think it's something like 70% of Democrats say they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the media. The Republicans are upending that: 14% of Republicans and 27% of independents say the same. So, we have this void of belief in the media. So, even if the media can get it right on Trump, there's this trust deficit. Give me what you think the reason is. Is it a Trump phenomenon purely? What has led us to this world where we don't trust our reputable media sources?
Peter: Yeah. I mean it precedes Trump, so we can't say it's all him. And I think it's also in keeping with a larger trend in our society. I mean, trust in many of our institutions is diminished, right?
Carmen: Yeah. We experienced that in higher ed. We've watched the decline in people's trust of our institutions.
Peter: Exactly. And other institutions as well, whether it be the police, whether it be government, whether it be the courts, whether it be corporate America. And I think the military and the church are generally the two main institutions that seem to still more or less have relative credibility in these polls.
So, we're part of that. And I think it's a reflection of our larger polarization in today's world where we are pulling apart. When you and I grew up, when I grew up, you're young, when I grew up, there were, there were three main news networks, and there were a handful of newspapers and news magazines. And we all started from that basic same fact set, and then we argued it out, right? What should we do about this, right? Should we have this kind of healthcare system or that kind of healthcare system? Should taxes be here or here?
But we started from the same fact set. And today, I mean, the good thing about the internet and the technological revolution is that the marketplace of ideas is bigger, broader, and more available than ever. And that's a wonderful, amazing thing. But it also means we've fragmented our information sphere, so that if you believe in X or Y, you can just find that place in the, in the marketplace of ideas and stay there and only listen to the people who tell you what you want to believe. And therefore, the people who tell you what you don't want to believe must be wrong and must be, in some cases, evil. And that's the way people are looking at it. So, I think, I think, that's part of what's going on, is it's a larger trend in society. I also think it's also important to remember that the media is probably a bad term because it encompasses so much.
Peter: What is the media, right? It's the New York Times and Fox News and Huffington Post. And there are all kinds of things that count as media. And even within the media, even within my own newspaper, for instance, there are different kinds of journalists, right? There are beat reporters like me who are expected to stay neutral or objective, whatever word you want to use. And then, there are columnists who are entitled to, and in fact we want them to give us strong opinions and good, you know, reasoned arguments. And then, there are critics who have a fair degree of latitude but are not quite the same thing as opinion columnists and so forth. I think a lot of people don't understand the differences anymore, and I don't think we've done a very good job of explaining the differences, and we all get conflated into the same big pile. So, when we say things, do you trust the media, you may be thinking of this one person rather than, you know, this other set of people and we all get tarred with the same brush.
Carmen: I think that's right. And I think it's unclear who is reputable, right? And what does that mean? What type of standards do you have if you should be considered objective, reputable media? So, let's talk a little bit about Trump. So, for the audience, if you haven't got a chance to read The Divider, it's 652 pages. So, you're going to have to set yourself down and get ready for it. You know, it's a deep dive into Donald Trump's time in the White House. And it's a great book.
One of the sobering points that I think you make is that you talk about Trump as being more ignorant about the White House and the federal government, perhaps, than any other president in history, but that he began to figure out what power he had along the way, testing his limits and pushing the boundaries. And I think what is so concerning to people about that who have concerns about Trump is what would a second Trump presidency look like when he won't have to learn as much, will know what levers to pull, and seems to be prepared to put people around him who are willing to go about his desires in ways that maybe the first group that was in wasn't willing to do.
So, a big question. I don't know if you can answer it in the time we have, but what do you think the consequences are of a second Trump presidency?
Peter: Well, I think that one thing we try to do with this book is to examine the four years he was in office. And if you want to know what a second term is going to be like, look at what's in our book that he tried to do and didn't get to do, right? For all the reasons you said, because he didn't understand how government worked, because he had people around him who he didn't really know, who were more conventional Republicans or military officers or government veterans, who basically stopped him from doing some of the more outlandish and more, in some cases, maybe illegal or even unconstitutional things, right?
Peter: Right. They're not going to be there in a second term. They're absolutely not going to be there. One thing he's learned is not to bring in John Kelly and H.R. McMaster and Tim Mattis and all these figures who spent their lives in the military or the government and who believe in the system, whether you agree with their opinions or not. They're not going to be there. They're going to be pure Trumpers. And they have made clear that their number one priority for putting together a new government is loyalty to Trump and nothing else, more than anything else, anyway.
So, all the things he tried to do in the first term he couldn't do, that's what you should expect in the second term. We had a senior national security official who spent a lot of time in the Oval Office tell us this rather remarkable metaphor. The person said that Trump is like the velociraptor in Jurassic Park. And you remember the scene, the velociraptor is chasing the children into the kitchen, and the kids shut that door. They think, okay, thank goodness. And then, the velociraptor has learned…
Carmen: Yeah, learn how to open the door. Oh, my God. And it's so frightening.
Peter: Exactly, right? So, this security official is saying that he has learned how to open the door. And in a second term, he won't be thwarted or stymied in the way he was in the first term on a lot of things he wanted to do, like, you know, getting rid of birthright citizenship, which he doesn't have the constitutional power to do, but he might try to do it again to like getting out of NATO, right now in the middle of a war of Ukraine, like all kinds of things that he wanted to do, like use the military in the streets.
Carmen: Yes. I mean, the recent reporting around what they're putting together around the use of the military with civilians, with the domestic population, is nerve-wracking.
Peter: And you know why he’s going to do it? Because he tried to do it in the first term. And he had a general there in Mark Milley who said, “No, that's not what the military is for.” Who's going to be general there next time? It won't be Mark Milley. And we have, we don't know what's going to happen, but I think you can assume that whatever happened in the first… what he tried to do in the first term, but didn't get done, he'll try in the second term without the same inhibitions.
Carmen: Okay. I have so many questions to ask you. I know we don't have a lot of time. I'm going to go first to, because you've covered Putin. You've covered these folks all over the world. We've watched far right candidates in Argentina come to power, in the Netherlands, the Trump presidency. Give us your reasoning for why we're flirting around the world with fascism and dictatorship. What has come to be that we are flirting with these types of individuals who believe in fascism, who believe in being a dictator? What has happened?
Peter: Well, it's a good question. I mean, each case is somewhat different. Of course, each country has its own history, traditions and dynamics. But yeah, there is, I think we're going through this historical cycle. And the cycle in the last number of years has shifted toward right-wing populism. You see that in Germany, the rise of Germany, not Olaf Scholz, but the opposition party, Marine Le Pen in France, and so forth. Orbán, obviously, in Hungary.
Having said that, the Polish elections, people may not have noticed because of what's happened in the Middle East, but the Polish elections just rejected, turned out of office, their more autocratic party that seemed to be flirting in the direction you're talking about. And that seemed to be a sign that, perhaps, the pendulum might swing.
But I think, it's a consequence of a lot of things. I'm not that smart on this subject. You have scholars there who know better than I will. But I think globalism has frustrated a lot of people. I think, again, the polarization of our information space has encouraged extremism, at times. I think a lot of people who used to be on the fringes have, through technology, been able to find each other and have a bigger bullhorn than they ever did before.
And I think it's sort of a, a reaction to this, you know, several decades of liberal, and I don't mean that even in a left wing, right wing way, but liberal, you know, democracy, liberal, you know, thinking in the West. I think we're in a moment of kind of retreat from that. I don't think it's a permanent thing. I think it's a cycle.
Carmen: I hope so.
Peter: Yeah, it's a very interesting moment in that sense. Very, very dangerous, in some ways.
Carmen: Yeah, it's disconcerting. And I think, you know, for those of us who are in institutions like Oberlin, and I know people think we're so left leaning, but really we're about sort of openness and freedom of ideas, and it's disconcerting when you watch this happening in countries around the world. And I think we all have come to believe that our democracy is so much more fragile than we imagined.
Peter: It is.
Carmen: So, Peter, one of the questions that is, I think, on everyone's mind is, how can we have a functioning democracy if we can't agree on the facts, if we can't agree on the truth of things, as we enter this world where we are seemingly flirting with fascism?
Peter: Yeah, I mean I think that's the fundamental challenge of our times, right? Is to find a way to get back on the same page, at least again, in terms of basic facts. And the answer isn't easy or obvious to me. I'm always stunned at how people live in their own fact world and aren't open even to thinking that there might be something else.
And it's very hard to have a debate if you're talking about a completely different reality. You know, look, we as a society, we as America have been defined by our differences and by our debates since the beginning. I mean, there's nothing polarization in that sense isn't really new. It's built into the system. We built a constitutional structure that was intentionally designed to have differences of opinion and how to hash them out. And the question is whether the ways, the structures that we have that have mostly worked for 200-some years over time, with injustice being corrected, unfortunately, in very slow but eventual ways, whether those structures still work anymore.
And that's the big question. And I don't know what the answer is. And I don't see an obvious solution out there. These big tech companies have such power. They're a marketplace for the First Amendment, or should they be moderated? Should we have people deciding what we should talk about and what we can't talk about?
We don't want lies and falsehoods out there, but on the other hand, who decides what's a lie and a falsehood? It's a very treacherous territory. And what you and I might think is a reasonable position to take somebody else is going to say, “I think I'm going to take that off my platform because I think it's not true.” And yet, the disinformation is so powerful, so prevalent, and so hard to unroot once it's there, that it's kind of poisoned the conversation. So, you know, my answer is, of course, read the New York Times. We'll give you the best possible information we can, and then you can argue about it from there. But other people might not agree that that's the only solution.
Carmen: Well, I will say for me, I agree with you, it's so challenging and it's hard to know how we get back from here. I mean, there was a time even when Republicans and Democrats had different viewpoints, were polarized, there still was some basic agreement around the broad strokes of facts.
I don't think the founding fathers ever imagined the acquiescence of a political party to a Trump-like figure. They imagined this balance that we had, these checks and balances, that Congress would assert itself if someone like Trump arose. So, I think part of our challenge is that we have the erosion of a political party in a way that makes it more difficult for us to come together. I think if we can find our way back from this current strand of the Republican Party, I think we might have a shot, not a perfect shot, but one that I think is better than where we stand right now.
Peter: I mean, what do you do when 75% of the people who support one party believe the last election was stolen, even though factually, it's just absolutely not true? And you could say, well, the media, this, the media has been very straight forward the reputable media to use your nice phrase. It's been very straightforward about this. The last election was not stolen. There's zero evidence of that. And we say that time and time again, nobody tries to fudge it or say, you know, one side says this or the other side says that. And it has not made a difference in terms of 75% of one of the parties. Why? Because they're listening to their leader who tells them not to believe the press, not to believe the media, and they believe him over us. And that's a challenge in a system. It really is corrosive to the idea of a democracy if such a substantial part of the population really doesn't believe in it, doesn’t believe it's happening.
And I think that Biden came in with the desire and the stated intention to try to restore some sense of normalcy. But it’s beyond his own ability to do that. I don't know if anybody could do that, any single person, any single president could do that in a short amount of time. It may just have to be that we have to get through this period and move on to the next generation and see if the next generation, you know, moves beyond Trumpism and the sort of the fundamental dishonesty that's baked in there.
Carmen: I think that's right. I'm hoping and believing that Trump is an anomaly that once he is removed from the process of coming back to power, that the Republican party or whatever emerges after Trump will be a party that is more connected to the facts and therefore they will have a constituency that will be more connected to the facts.
I think until that happens, it's going to be tough sledding. And I'm concerned like lots of folks, but I'm less concerned because there are journalists out there like you who are helping us have more clarity about what the truth is.
So, let's go back a little bit to the coverage of Trump and the coverage of Biden. And, you know, just down to something as simple as the kind of image of Biden as this teetering old guy who, you know, can barely take a step and Trump. They're only about three years apart from each other.
And yet, we seem to spend all this time talking about Biden's age and barely any time talking about Trump's age. Is there a disparity in the coverage that is creating this sort of sense of old Biden's not accomplishing much? Is that the media’s challenge? Is it just consumers who are not consuming this appropriately?
Peter: Yeah, I mean, for one thing I would say in terms of the coverage of Trump, who's three years younger, as you say, a couple things. One is there's so much else to write about him, right? Obviously, when you have 91 felony counts, you know, his age may not be the number one issue. So, that's part of it.
And the second thing I think he actually does, I think he, covers in a way for his, any age-related issues through volume. I mean, in the most literal sense—he booms when he talks, right? He's at these rallies and he is just, you know, bombastic and very loud. I think that gives the impression of energy, which is probably, you know, covering for any cognitive issues. We've written a lot about his cognitive issues.
Carmen: Yes. Because if you walk through some of the things he says, it's not as if you're dealing with someone who is a stable genius.
Peter: Yeah, if you try to diagram a sentence, it's hard to, you know, noun, verb, object, period. It's hard to find it in there, right? It's a lot of discursive, very sometimes incoherent stream of consciousness. And so, yes, there's no question he has had his own age-related issues, but I think, again, he covers for it better with volume, and he has so many other things going on that are probably of bigger import that we write about.
As for Biden, you know, the truth is, it's not so much that we're writing about it as much that people see it. I know that the Biden White House thinks it's our fault, the media's fault. But the truth is we didn't write that much about it. And it just kept coming up in polls, people were seeing it.
Now, some of that is Republican exaggeration through videos online, all that. That's true. That's fair. There's some of that. But I think a lot of Americans are just watching what they see on television. He presents older. He has a shuffle because he injured his ankle during the transition. And he has a, his volume literally is low. His voice is hard to hear. I was standing next to him on Air Force One on that trip to Israel and it was hard to hear him standing right next to him. I think that, you know, he just projects, unfortunately, for him, in a physical way, age that may or may not necessarily reflect his mental sharpness. As people around him will tell you in the situation room, he is making sharp decisions and asking sharp questions. And I can't think of a decision he's made that's different than he would have made if he were 10 years younger.
Peter: But he's just not as commanding in the room in a public presentation kind of way. So, the issue, I think, haunts him a little bit more than it does Trump at this moment. We'll see. I mean, again, Trump could also demonstrate, I mean, at this age, either one of them could demonstrate a change in a rather short amount of time. We've seen that happen with other leaders of that age. So, we'll see what happens. But it is age, there is a consideration for, for Biden. And that's going to be a problem he has to address.
Carmen: Well, I think that, you know, he will have to try to figure out how to translate what he believes he's accomplished in a way that people can see it. And he certainly had a difficult time doing that. So, two questions for you. The first one is a little bit more pointed, but you're a journalist, so you can take it.
Peter: Bring it on!
Carmen: So, and, and I think that I would not be able to walk across campus if I didn't ask you this question. So, I've been told that you do not vote. Is that true?
Peter: That's correct.
Carmen: So, Peter, given the stakes in this election, do you feel the same way about your decision to not vote?
Peter: I will explain. Yes, let me… I do. First of all, as a practical matter, it makes no difference whatsoever because I live in the District of Columbia where Trump got four percent of the vote, okay. And so, any general election in the District of Columbia is pretty well-decided long before my vote one way or the other. And the other decision in the District of Columbia is usually handled in the primary, right? Because it is such a democratic city and no reporter, at least, I don't think any reporter, at least political reporter should be registering in a party because it advertises you being on one side.
Peter: But principle reason and it's not something I ever tell other journalists they have to do. I think every journalist does it differently. And I have nothing but respect for people who disagree with me on this subject. But I just decided in my own mind, it was just better, even in the privacy of my own head that I never, if I can avoid it, try to make a decision that one person is better than another person in terms of being president that I cover literally every day. Because then it gives me a rooting interest in proving that I was right, that this person is a better president, or would be a terrible president if I voted for or against them.
I believe strongly that being a beat reporter, not a columnist, but a beat reporter, is about being an observer, not being a participant, somebody who can be trusted to bring you the truthful account of what's happened with as little reason to question my objectivity or fairness or neutrality or independence, again, whatever word you want to use, as possible. But I just want, in my own mind, to be as open as I possibly can to no matter, to whoever it is I'm covering, without having ever had to come to the decision, “This person is better than that person. And I really hope that they succeed or hope that person doesn't succeed.” So, it's the goal. I mean, I, I understand what everybody's saying when they say that they think that's dumb.
Carmen: I didn't say that, Peter. I just asked the question.
Peter: You didn't, I know you didn't. But I know that people wanting to walk across campus might say that. And it's fair. And so, I understand it. I do get it. I do get it. And when I retire from reporting, I'm looking forward to voting and finally having, having an opinion on things.
Carmen: Well, I appreciate the idea that it keeps you from having this rooting interest, it gives you clarity in the way that you report because you're not trying to prove your point. And frankly, in this world of wanting to talk across difference and listen with the purpose of understanding, not with the purpose of trying to change someone's mind, I can imagine that it gives you some clarity in your ability to report on these matters when you're not saying, “Doggone it. That's not right.”
So, last question for you. So I don't know if you know this. We have these integrative concentrations at Oberlin, which are minors with a high quality internship. And so, we've started a few of these. And what's powerful about them is that students can do these minors, no matter what major they're in, no matter whether they're conservatory or in the college. So, we have an integrated concentration in business. We have one in data science and food studies. And we have a new one in journalism, which I think is interesting, as students kind of overlay this concentration on all sorts of other areas that they may be interested in.
And so, I wondered what you would say to this next generation of journalists who are getting their news, as you said, from all sorts of sources. And social media, oftentimes, has these non-objective sources that look like reputable media, but they really aren't. What advice would you have for young journalists today, as they go into the media landscape where it's clickbait, TikTok, or whatever it is that people are looking at?
Peter: Yeah, it's such a different world than when I left Oberlin. I mean, when I left Oberlin, it was, you know, very old school, very traditional newspapers, radio and television. That was it. And today, we're everything. You know, I would write stories once a day around 6:00 in the afternoon or evening, and then I would go home and all that. And today, I write a story for the daily paper, sure, maybe, but I'm still, I'm on Twitter. I do MSNBC. We do podcasts. We do all kinds of different audio things that we're doing, live briefings. And then, there's a live chat. These are two different things. I can't really tell you what the difference is, but we do them. I mean, there's so many different platforms that we're operating on. And, you know, like as an old-timer, I miss the days when it was pretty straightforward, but the truth is I don't have a problem with that. It's great to have different kinds of platforms. My view is, as long as the underlying values of the journalism are the same, you know, a commitment to truth and fairness and facts and open-mindedness and all that, as long as those values are the same, then how we tell our stories is less important to me. If it helps finding a new audience, that's a great thing.
So, I guess I would tell young journalists to be creative, to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Because we're going to need their generation to help us evolve our business for the new era. We cannot keep doing things the same way because it doesn't work anymore. And we need to be open to young people's experiments. Again, in my view, within the old values.
And we have the struggles sometimes between generations here at the New York Times and in other journalism. You know, a lot of younger journalists are not only creative in the way they tell stories. They're pushing arguments about how we tell stories in substantive ways along some of the lines we just talked about. And that's a healthy conversation to have.
But I guess I just tell journalists, young journalists, get out there, do as much as you can. Write as many stories as you can. Do as many different podcasts as you can. Have a record to show somebody when you want to go get a job. Clips used to be the coin of the realm. I think it still is, more or less. Clips are now defined more broadly. But show that you have done and will do and know how to do what your next editor wants you to do and you'll find a path.
Carmen: Well, I can't tell you how proud we are of you, Peter. So, I, I say I yell at you sometimes when you're on television, and that's probably true, but mostly I'm yelling and cheering.
Peter: My wife does, too. It’s okay.
Carmen: Well, you know, my… I don't know if I've told you this, but my mom has moved in with me. And so, she's always watching MSNBC, and so, periodically, I hear, “Hey, Carmen, Peter’s on.” So, my mom's watching you and appreciating what you do. And just keep fighting the good fight out there. I appreciate what you said about the values, because, you know, I hope and I believe at Oberlin we're producing the types of students who are not only going to be great journalists, but have the values that you talked about—truth, fact, creativity, hardworking, with a little bit of scrappiness in there, too.
And I think if they will do that, then they will grow up to be the Peter Bakers of the world. So, thanks so much for spending your time with us. We are so happy to call you a graduate of Oberlin.
Peter: Thank you so much. What a great treat to be with you today. Congratulations on this new podcast. What a great new institution you're building.
Carmen: Thanks for listening to Running to the Noise, a podcast produced by Oberlin College and Conservatory and University FM, with music composed by Oberlin professor of Jazz Guitar, Bobby Ferrazza, and performed by the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble, a student group created to the support of the legendary jazz musician.
If you enjoyed the show, be sure to hit that Subscribe button, leave us a review, and share this episode online so Obies and other folks around the world can find this. I'm Carmen Twillie Ambar, and I'll be back soon with more innovative thinking for members of the Oberlin community on and off our campus.
Running to the Noise is a production of Oberlin College and Conservatory and is produced by University FM.