Published November 15, 2019
What’s it like to be a journalist covering the White House at one of the weirdest — remember, a reality TV star is the president — and most politically divisive moments in the nation’s history, and at a time when the press is under constant attack?
New York Times White House correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Maggie Haberman gave some fascinating insight into these topics and more during her talk Thursday night in the Center for the Arts Mainstage Theatre as part of UB’s Distinguished Speakers Series.
As one of the most influential voices in national affairs journalism today, Haberman also had plenty of perspective to offer about the Trump White House.
Her visit to UB — which included an informal Q&A with about 30 faculty, staff and students moderated by John DellaContrada, vice president for university communications, earlier in the day — came at an appropriate time. The House impeachment hearings are underway, and the nation is gearing up for a heated presidential election.
Venu Govindaraju, vice president for research and economic development, spoke to that in his welcome.
“With 2020 just around the corner, many conversations around campus revolve around the political climate and the upcoming presidential election,” he said. “Tonight’s distinguished speaker offers a remarkably informed perspective on these subjects.”
Haberman is quite familiar with Trump’s trajectory from real estate mogul to reality television star to U.S. president. She has been a journalist in New York City since the mid-1990s, having started her career as a copykid at the New York Post in August 1996. “It essentially means that you’re a clerk, but with the diminishing ‘kid’ attached so you don’t get cocky,” she said.
Haberman studied fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College, where she toyed with the idea of magazine writing as a way to get paid. But finding a job after college was difficult. Eventually, a family friend told her about an opening for a copykid at the Post.
“I fell into news reporting by accident,” she said.
The position allowed Haberman to go out on assignment once a week. She grew up in New York City, but her reporter-in-training experience at a New York tabloid showed her a side of the city she’d never before seen. Most of her initial assignments involved covering terrible crimes and accidents.
“On the advice of a skilled general assignment reporter, I would scan the eyes of bystanders crowded around a crime scene, looking for the telltale signs of a witness to the event,” she said. “You learned how, at a tabloid, to be steeped in grief.”
Because the pay was so low, Haberman took up bartending part time. “It was some of the best training one could ever have for being a journalist — and no, not for the reason you’re thinking,” she said.
“Your livelihood literally depends on conversations with the people you are serving. It taught me about dealing with people. I read somewhere recently that the skill of a bartender is being able to make conversation and when that runs out, ask a lot of questions of whoever’s in front of you. So I learned to ask questions even when it seemed like I had run out of ideas.”
Soon, Haberman was covering City Hall for the Post. She went on to the rival Daily News, then returned to the Post to cover the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Her career included stints as a senior reporter at Politico and a political analyst for CNN before being hired by The New York Times in 2015.
In 2018, Haberman and fellow Times journalists received the Pulitzer Prize in national reporting for their coverage of the Trump administration and alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Haberman spoke about Trump’s persona — both in person and on Twitter — and how he’s changed certain norms among U.S. presidents.
“A Democratic strategist I know said to me the day after Trump was elected that the nation was about to discover how much of its system is based on norms not laws, and he was right,” she said.
Those norms included presidents sharing their tax returns and divesting from personal businesses, and press secretaries holding regular White House briefings in an actual briefing room — all of which the Trump administration has shied away from.
Haberman spends about a week each month in the nation’s capital, but does most of her reporting and writing from New York.
Wherever she is, the president and his supporters are present through their attacks on the press, she said.
“As this White House tries to make journalists into the opposition party, it is really important for us — I stress this over and over again — not to allow that mindset to take hold, because we are not,” she said.
While most elected officials dislike their media coverage, Trump has ratcheted hatred of the press to an unprecedented level, Haberman said.
“Trump frequently denounces us as enemies of the people, setting him apart from a longstanding tradition of presidents who recognize the constitutionally protected role of the free press in the United States and why its existence is important,” she said. “And what Trump is doing comes with a degree of danger, in part because his fans don’t often realize how much he truly feeds off of and enjoys the mainstream media attention.”
Trump has “thrown accelerant” on partisan polarization, but he did not create it, Haberman said. That began in the 1990s when Bill Clinton was president and Newt Gingrich speaker of the house.
Haberman debunked the belief that Trump’s Twitter feed offers a window into what’s on his mind. Sometimes it’s true. “But other times, it’s all very canned,” she said. “The tweets in particular are often workshopped and then posted by a staff member.”
With the 2020 election about to roar, Haberman said she can’t forecast the outcome, but she does know this: “All we can be sure of is that 2020 is going to make the nastiness of 2016 look like a high-minded debate of ideas.”
After her talk, Haberman participated in a Q&A moderated by Ann Bisantz, dean of undergraduate education, during which she was asked what she enjoys most about being a White House correspondent.
Haberman laughed, then said, “I don’t know how to answer that question,” drawing laughter from the audience.
She did, however, explain why she loves being a journalist.
“I know it sounds corny and I know it sounds trite, but we are writing the first and sometimes second, third or fourth drafts of history. And this is a remarkable moment in the country since we are seeing things we haven’t seen before.”