Two New York Times journalists — Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist Maureen Dowd and Chief Washington Correspondent Carl Hulse — are in Missoula to kick off the Baucus Institute lecture series at the University of Montana. Hulse and Dowd sat down in our studios to talk journalism and politics with Sally Mauk.
Sally Mauk: The Kavanaugh confirmation is deja vu for those of us who lived through the Anita Hill- Clarence Thomas hearings. In some ways it seems like it was quite a bit worse, actually, because the accusation was worse. But it feels to many women that little has changed in nearly 30 years. What's your take on that and the comparison?
Maureen Dowd: I'm constantly astounded that in my reporting lifetime – you know, I've lived through two Vietnams, with Vietnam and Iraq, and I probably will live through three impeachments if the Democrats win the House - now I've gone through two Anita Hill hearings. Because it sort of was shockingly similar in some ways because it was a woman who came forward with a complaint of sexual transgression against a man who was on his way to the Supreme Court, appointed by a Republican President. Both women wanted to remain anonymous and then, you know, a liberal activist on the committee leaked their names and they got dragged into the public square. Where they were kind of eviscerated. Anita Hill, you know, much more directly by the Senators. They didn't have the nerve to do that post #MeToo with Dr. Ford, but they were able to do it on the outside.
Actually, the funny thing is – not funny, tragic – that the President was the one who eviscerated Dr. Ford. In many ways it was disturbingly similar, although as you say, the charge was more savage. But the big difference was that the animating force of Thomas and Hill that made it so electrified was race. Clarence Thomas was able to completely make all the white, male Senators mute by claiming 'high-tech lynching.' And playing into tropes of these civil rights era, even though he had criticized the civil rights movement, but he wrapped himself in that to save himself. And it was weird, because Anita Hill was very dispassionate and elegant and poised, but that worked against her with the Senators. Because they thought Clarence Thomas showing more emotion meant that he was telling the truth, and she showed no emotion and that made them skeptical. And then with Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh – that's why Kavanaugh took Clarence Thomas's playbook of white-hot rage – although, he was much more weepy. But, they actually had some of the same lines, you know, they both said, 'this is a circus.'
SM: And they both claim that the committee, through this leak, had destroyed their lives. It was just eerie to watch it play out twice. Once with race at the center and then once in this white, privileged country-club community in a suburb of Washington.
Mr. Hulse, this was such a bitter confirmation hearing that there's a lot of discussion now of what the residue of it will be for the Senate.
Carl Hulse: Right. I wrote a piece about that. You just cannot have this kind of bitter, antagonistic hearing where the Republicans were sitting there accusing Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member, of leaking this and sandbagging them. There was just a lot of vitriol there. I don't think it's going to be easy to come back from. Trump is already talking about – President Trump is talking about – he's going to have more appointments in the future. And I'm asking myself, are we going to be able to survive, you know, multiple more confirmation fights like this? I think this has definite lasting impacts. And this didn't happen in the past. You have people saying 'well, we're going to impeach Brett Kavanaugh in the House if we can.' Or, even more so, we need to expand the court. I mean, these are the kind of things that linger and really cause problems for Congress doing its business. This is going to stick around.
SM: I wanted to ask you both, what the impact on the midterms you think this will be, because both sides have said, our bases rallied now – Republicans and Democrats. What do you think? Whose base is most rallied?
CH: Well, I think the great thing about all these comments and claims is, we're going to find the answer to this. There's going to be a midterm election and we're going to see who wins. So we'll see how that works. The Republicans think this has solidified and unified and revved up their base. My question about that is, you know, the midterms are still, almost a month off, and can you keep that level of momentum going or will it fade away? I think the Democrats think they have a much more long-lasting impact with women on this. Women are quite angry over the way this went. Even women who are supportive of Republicans and maybe think that Kavanaugh was subjected to some things he shouldn't have been. I think there's even some people there who think, well that was still – they've ignored the woman again. I think this election is coming down to gender gap. And if women are going to vote in the way they say they're going to vote, I think it's going to help the Democrats. We'll have to see, but, you know, call me in a month and we can talk about it again.
SM: Okay, I will.
I want to switch from pure politics now to journalism – the state of journalism. And Ms. Dowd you've been quoted as saying – and I think this is a really apt quote – that Trump is the selfie President and the press is the selfie stick. That's not a flattering assessment of either.
MD: You know, Trump, it's interesting. It was interesting to watch with Kavanaugh – you know, I was wondering what Trump privately was thinking about all the drinking stories. Because his brother died of alcoholism at 42 and he told his kids not to drink or smoke. He didn't gamble, even though he had all those casinos. But he is addicted to one thing and that's attention. And now he's in a position to get all the attention in the world. And he creates so many stories and so much wealth for journalism – cable TV and print – that we are addicted to him. So we're in a mutual-addiction, toxic, intertwined relationship with the President. I covered the Bush I White House for the New York Times and I think it took me six months to get a story in the paper. And only then when Bush showered with his dog Mellie, I finally broke into the paper. These – our White House reporters are – you know, every hour there's a bigger story. And it's cascading one after the other all day long, every day. And you know, we do these charts and the review section to see if there's Trump fatigue, but the lines haven't really started to go down yet.
CH: At the beginning we were blamed for, you shouldn't pay attention to every tweet and you're blowing every tweet up into a story, and my thought was, well, this is now the President of the United States and we need to pay attention. We're seeing a little bit of pull back on the coverage of the rallies. This has just started, and that some people were theorizing that President Trump was naming all the Fox analysts during the speech, like to get their attention back. So there seems to be a slight pullback right now, but, you know, obviously it's the story for a lot of people of their lives. And we're going to cover it to the extent we can. We'll see what the, you know, arc of it is, and if there will be some more pulling back. Because you think about Obama, President George W. Bush – they did a lot of rallies that we would never cover wall to wall. And then there's the argument that you have to cover this because of the tone that the President is expressing in there, and people need to see it for good or bad.
MD: Yeah, Vox made the argument that we shouldn't be covering the rallies. I think that's silly. Trump is a different kind of president. He makes news and policy in tweets, in rallies, and you have to cover it. You can't censor him. I think that's silly. And I have complete faith that if we do pull back, because he's an attention addict, he will ratchet it up to get our attention.
CH: Yeah, that's what I think. And I think we're actually seeing that in the last couple of rallies, where, like he's put a little more heat into it.
SM: I've been to a Trump rally, and the way he attacks the press is not just as political enemies. He looked at me and he said, 'These are bad people.' It seems to me that that has an effect that is so dangerous to our Democracy, not just to the press, how demonizing he is of the press and what the effect of that is.
MD: Well, you know, we're having bulletproof doors put in our office, even as we speak.
MD: Yes, it is dangerous. You know, our publisher A.G. Sulzberger, Trump called him to come to the White House and he didn't know why. And I said, I'm sure he just wants to flatter you, and you know, his father loved the New York Times. And he loves it – no matter what he says – he's obsessed with the New York Times. And that was what the situation was, he just wanted to get in good with A.G. And A.G. took the opportunity to lecture him about that, and say, please stop using the phrase, 'the enemy of the people,' because it's putting people in danger. Not only that, but you know, different if they're authoritarian regimes or passing laws about fake news. But I think that Trump has been very good to journalism in terms of revenues because the press has a villain and he's made the press a villain. But it's also, as you say, dangerous, you know, and it's – he's putting us in danger. Trump never left military school. He's always at war. He's in a war with journalists, a gender war, a trade war. You know, he just likes being at war.
CH: Yeah, it's very dangerous. And I think it's going to have long-lasting effects. It's going to take us a while to overcome this. And Maureen referred to it, that authoritarian leaders around the world have gone with this fake news. And now we see the Saudis, you know, suspected of murdering a journalist. And they're a big ally. And I think people around the world – they feel emboldened by what they see Trump doing. The United States used to be a place that would never stand for something like this. These things have consequences. And its consequences for our business. We have to do what we can to show that you know, we're not the enemy of the people. And there are some people who are always going to believe that now.
MD: I asked him about this during the campaign – after there was violence and journalists were getting yelled at and Katie Tur had to have an armed bodyguard – and I said, you're putting journalists in danger. And why are you doing this? You weren't like this in New York. You know, you didn't have this dark side. And he said, oh, I think that just adds a layer of excitement to the rallies.
SM: Richard Stengel was quoted recently – a journalist – saying that we don't have a fake news problem. We have a media-literacy problem. You think that's true?
CH: That people don't know how to interpret and read the media?
SM: Right. And know the difference between opinion and reporting and so on.
CH: I do think that that's true. I mean, it's all messed up in their minds. Like, who is an opinion writer?Who's an analyst? and you know, and we've contributed to that in some ways by blurring the lines ourselves sometimes. You know, and social media is added to it. I think that we are taking a lot of steps to try and correct that at The Times. And being a lot more transparent about our reporting.
MD: But also I think we should remember that fake news is not new. Vietnam was about fake news. Getting into the war in Iraq was about fake news. The coinage of the term, which Trump didn't coin, but adapted, he popularized it but, in his case, when he uses the term fake news, he means news that is not flattering to him.
SM: Do you think that the press has ever been more important or crucial than now? And is it exciting in some ways? I mean, it seems to me that this is in some ways a golden age for journalists.
CH: You know, it's funny that you ask this. Because I've thought about this a lot. And I love the Constitution. I love the First Amendment. And it's something I've always been proud of in the business. But I always also thought we sort of overdid it with our importance in society, and that there were other institutions. You know, if we fail there's always Congress and the courts, you know, there's other institutions. But right now those institutions are failing a little bit, I think, and we are more important. Honestly, this is one of the times I've been proudest to be in journalism.
MD: It is weird to be treated with such respect. Not by Trump voters. But I also think that Trump – you know, I often say if you just left a nanny cam on Trump he would self-destruct at the same rate. You know, he is he constantly imploding. To me someone like Dick Cheney was much scarier because he was operating within the norms with that deep reassuring, you know, New England head master's voice. And all the reporters in Washington thought he was a very, you know, impressive guy. And when you get someone like that they can do damage that you don't learn about for years. With Trump, you can mobilize in real time if you don't like what he's doing. In essence, he's like a backward civics lesson.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and the Times' Chief Washington Correspondent Carl Hulse spoke Wednesday, Oct. 10 on he University of Montana campus on journalism in the age of Trump, kicking off The Baucus Institute lecture series.