Real journalism is only valued by one half of Americans, according to New York Times reporter Edward Wong.
“It’s clear that liberals value fact-based journalism more than conservatives right now,” Wong said during a panel held Thursday night at Princeton University. The event was part of the Princeton Humanities Council’s series called “The Post-Fact Era?” This panel was titled “Covering the New Administration: Lessons from the International Correspondents.”
Wong, the former Beijing bureau chief for the New York Times, is teaching a course on international reporting at Princeton. He noted that he sees parallels between China’s authoritarian regime and the changes in the United States’ new administration.
According to Wong, the Chinese government systematically tries to stop stories from getting published, and presents the media as a threat. This might become the new normal for American journalists.
“We’re going to be made the scapegoats for the administration,” Wong said. “There’s no one else they can blame for failures of policy.”
The panel was moderated by Joe Stephens, an investigative reporter for the Washington Post who is also teaching a course at Princeton. “International correspondents are a special breed,” he said. “They’re experts at protecting their sources from harm while prying loose state secrets.”
“You have to seduce your sources to go on the record, and once they go on the record, you let them go on and on,” said Elaine Sciolino, former Paris bureau chief at the New York Times who is currently teaching a class at Princeton on local reporting.
Sciolino began her career covering “the soft stuff,” as she describes it, referring to Parisian “Fashion, food and fun.” But she quickly moved on to covering politics, reporting from Iran, Syria and Libya. She often interviewed statesmen, but was weary of their responses.
“World leaders who are either autocrats are narcissists use access to promote their agendas, often not to share honest information,” she said.
“One of President Trump’s favorite phrases is ‘believe me,'” she added. “How do you believe a guy who one day calls NATO obsolete and then turns around the next day and says we strongly support NATO?”
Sciolino preferred to interview dissidents in exile. “They often feel like they have little to lose,” she explained. “In Washington these days, the exiles have a name. They’re called civil servants.”
Nicholas Schmidle, a staff reporter for the New Yorker who is teaching investigative reporting at Princeton, has lived in Washington D.C. since 2008.
Schmidle used to leave Washington in order to report. “I would always leave to go find these stories of smut and corruption,” he said. His reporting took him to places like Bulgaria and Afghanistan. Now, he said, he can just hop on his bike.
Schmidle was sent to a hostile environment training course before moving to Pakistan for two years. “You’re learning how to survive thuggish environments,” he explained. “how you should continually look through the rearview mirror.”
This course seemed very appropriate to prepare him for his time in Pakistan, where he was threatened with abduction. But Schimdle took the course again last summer, when it was offered to journalists who were planning to attend the Republican National Convention.
Schmidle’s most recent profile is on a subject close to home, national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned over revelations of contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
The speakers all said they believe that for reporters currently covering the Trump administratin that it would be hard to get a source to go on the record. President Trump has described journalists as the opposition and ‘the enemy of the American people.’
“You talk in code on the phone and never put anything in email that you would not want to be made public,” Sciolino said. Schmidle added that he sometimes communicates with sources through snail-mail.
According to Wong, the challenge in finding sources began with the previous administration. “This isn’t starting with Trump,” he said. “Obama jailed more government leakers than several past presidents before him.”
All three of the reporters mentioned that they use encrypted messaging applications in order to remain in touch with sources. “Signal is all the rage now,” Schmidle said, referring to an encrypted instant messaging and voice calling application.
“If you really want something to leak,” Stephens said jokingly, “tell everyone in the room not to leak it.”
“Some of these stories are unbelievable,” said Molly Reiner, a senior at Princeton University who is a student in Wong’s course on international reporting. Immediately after attending the panel, Reiner decided to download Signal.
“It’s a really rich media environment,” said Reiner, who described herself as a news addict. She plans to move to Beijing next year to pursue a master’s degree, and said that she enjoyed getting unfiltered access to reporters who have experience in the field.