Washington Post reporter Gearan talks Trump, trust and the future of journalism in United States


Plopping down next to rapper Kanye West, retired football player Jim Brown and President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Anne Gearan, ’85, was not at war; she was at work.

A White House correspondent for The Washington Post, Gearan was welcomed home to her alma mater after being gone for “too many years” to share stories about her work as a foreign affairs reporter — a job that at times, Gearan said, can feel like war.

Gearan shared her take on journalism, politics and propaganda — a word she does not use lightly — in a 7 p.m. lecture in the Tillotson Room of the Patricia Bush Tippie Alumni Center on Thursday, Nov. 8.

In his opening remarks, Allegheny College President James Mullen recognized Gearan’s work, the nobility of journalism and the importance of journalists’ role in society, democracy and history.

Mullen opened the evening with a quote by Henry Luce: “I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.”

“I think now more than ever we need to remember what that means. We need Anne Gearan and those like her. We need her integrity. We need her pursuit of truth. We need her conviction that facts matter, and quite frankly, we need her courage and the courage of her colleagues — as they bring us closer to the heart of the world.”

Taking a break from her busy schedule after the midterm elections, Gearan said she was glad to return to Allegheny College — the place where she learned how to ask the right questions, write with clarity, color and humor.

Most importantly, Gearan said, Allegheny taught her how to listen.

“We’re not at war; we’re at work,” Gearan said, quoting her “quotable” boss Marty Baron, editor of the Post. “I try to remember that every day.”

In a profession where days can feel like a “pitch battle,” Gearan admitted her job occasionally feels like she is at war.

Gearan’s approach to covering politics is simple: to explain competing policy and ideas to give readers something to understand their political choices by.

“That hasn’t changed under Donald Trump, although many other things have,” Gearan said.

One of the most prominent changes Gearan thinks has shaped her profession is the advent of the term she “absolutely loathes:” fake news.

“This is a term I think is not only dangerous and insidious … but it’s also internally inconsistent, and my inner copy editor is triggered every time I hear it,” Gearan said. “There is no such thing as fake news. There is certainly inaccurate reporting, and there is also opinion or analytical journalism with which one might disagree, but those are not fake. There is propaganda and falsehood which are fake, but those are not news.”

“Fake” and “news” cannot exist together, Gearan said, explaining that leaders, like Trump, use the term “fake news” to help explain stories they find biased. While they are entitled to their opinion, Gearan said, the term is most often used to describe articles that fact-check the president.

According to Gearan, Trump used the terms “fake news” and, in one instance, “phony news” 45 times in the two weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

The morning after the elections at 2:52 a.m., Trump tweeted, “To any of the pundits or talking heads that do not give us proper credit for this great Midterm Election, just remember two words – FAKE NEWS!”

Gearan recounted the events of a Nov. 5 Trump rally in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, when Fox News Host Sean Hannity joined Trump on stage and pointed to the reporters in the back of the room and called them “fake news.”

“Let me say that again,” Gearan said. “A television personality for a news network, which had accredited news reporters at that rally, appeared with the president at a partisan, political event and referred to the news reporters, there to cover the elected president, as fake.”

Gearan is not a television host or commentator and said she does not make as much money as Hannity — someone who is paid to be a partisan, political adjudicator.

“He is not a journalist, but he was in a room with journalists, and he works for a network that employs journalists — many of them very fine journalists,” Gearan said. “But he was impugning them, along with everyone else.”

If Gearan were to appear on stage with a president for any other purpose other than to interview the president, Gearan said she would be “promptly and justifiably fired.”

Jeanine Pirro, Fox News host, was also invited on stage and referred to as “Justice Pirro.”

“Watch out,” Gearan said. “We may have another Supreme Court opening one of these days.”

Using Fox News as a deliberate example, Gearan said “fake news” has been normalized and made generic, and is now used as an insult and “inside joke” in public discourse.

While Trump did not say the press is the enemy of the people during the rally, he has used it in countless interviews and more recently during the days leading up to the midterm elections — as Americans were deciding whether and for whom to vote.

“The reason the president uses the term and demonizes the press is simple: it works,” Gearan said. “President Trump campaigned as an outsider and an anti-elite, and he cast the media as a model web that was part of the elite establishment, and he effectively painted that establishment as alien and antagonistic to regular folks.”

Describing Trump’s strategy as a “calculated, us-against-them strategy,” Gearan said he is sticking to his tactics.

On Nov. 7, Trump called Jim Acosta a “terrible person,” after clashing with the reporter over a question during a press briefing. Acosta was falsely accused of placing “his hands on a young woman” who was responsible for handing him the microphone used to ask questions. The White House then announced Acosta’s press credentials were going to be revoked after the dispute.

Gearan talked about how reporters can seem “pious, high and mighty” when they take issue with the president’s jokes and insults — part of it is sport. However, Gearan went on to explain why she believes this practice is no laughing matter.

“What President Trump is doing is attempting to undermine Americans today in what they read, see and hear,” Gearan said. “The free press is not the only American institution he is assailing.”

The justice system, the rule of law and Americans’ faith in free elections were among others listed by Gearan.

Gearan asked attendees, specifically the students in the room, to think about how politics and journalism have changed since Trump became president.

“I will tell you he is fun to cover,” Gearan said. “Whatever you think of his politics, his policies and his coarseness — he is never boring. We talk about Trump-speed or Trump-time in the newsroom and how everything is sped up, hyped up and crazy and how too often, we don’t have time to even consider the import of one news event before another one lands in our laps.”

Gearan spoke about news consumers and how readers have to sort through information and decide what information to digest — if any.

Where and how readers get information is a matter of choice, driven both by political instincts and the algorithms based on what readers search, read or view on the internet, according to Gearan.

“If you read a lot of Washington Post stories — and, by the way, an unlimited online subscription is a bargain at 50 bucks — you will get more Washington Post stories,” Gearan said. “And you’ll get more stories about the subjects you selected or engaged in, the same way you get more ads for dog food if you buy dog food once online.”

This is a challenge, Gearan said, for those in the news business; however, this challenge predates Trump.

Gearan posed a question to the audience: “How do we establish the kind of trust we had with readers decades ago when there’s just so much stuff out there?”

She encouraged attendees to educate themselves on ways to become educated news consumers when sorting through opinion pieces, news articles, listicles and conspiracy theories.

Discussing how the dynamic between print and digital media has shaped the structure of news outlets, Gearan said it has become more difficult to distinguish between story types.

“We are very church/state in the newsroom,” Gearan said. “That there is, to borrow a phrase, ‘no collusion’ between the editorial side of the house and the news side, but you can’t see that. We expect you essentially to take our word for it.”

There is confusion over what is and is not Trump’s fault, Gearan said; however Trump uses this confusion to his advantage.

“He mashes together straight reporting with opinion and tells his supporters that the news is fake because, in his view, his accomplishments are not covered accurately,” Gearan said. “This plays out in a lot of ways, probably most readily accessible through the way he describes journalism and reporters at his rallies.”

Gearan described her experiences at Trump rallies where, within the first 10 minutes, Trump refers to the “fake news in the back of the room.” However, Gearan said during her time covering Trump and these events, references to fake news haven been placed closer to the beginning of his remarks.

“It’s gotten longer,” Gearan said. “He often returns to it, which he didn’t used to, and perhaps most disturbing to me is that, as soon as he starts to go there, there is a call and response that happens in the room.”

Many people at the rally begin a chant: “CNN sucks,” Gearan said, saying that occasionally rally attendees throw materials at the reporters who are most often in a “pen” either at the back or in the middle of the room — a place where the reporters want to be because that location makes for a “good TV shot.”

While the reporters are not asking for protection, Gearan said, it is a “very different experience to cover one of these rallies than to cover any other political event.”

Amidst the chants and jeers, Gearan said, the president laughs along with his supporters.

“The whole thing is a big joke,” Gearan said. “To him, he’s laughing along with them, and he thinks we’re far too fussy if we take exception to it, but facts matter in my business and in public discourse.”

For a man who has dubbed the press as “fake,” The Washington Post Fact Checker has worked to analyze how many “fake,” statement Trump has made. The Washington Post Fact Checker is made up of three people and is led by Glenn Kessler, a former state department reporter.

“Never has a man been more suited for his task,” Gearan said, describing her colleague.

Kessler and his staff tallied the number of Trump’s falsehoods.

In the first nine months in office, Trump made 1,318 false of misleading claims — an average of five a day. As of Oct. 30, 2018,  6,420 false or misleading claims were made by the president over the course of his term. In the seven days before the midterm elections, the number totaled at 1,419 false or misleading claims — an average of 30 per day.

“When he jeers and says ‘fake news,’ sometimes we kind of take it personally,” Gearan said. “It also means we have our work cut out for us.”

Trump likes to “spar” with reporters, and Gearan said sometimes the feeling is mutual.

According to Gearan, Trump’s political method of operation is control, meaning he can either be in attack mode or turn on the charm.

“He demands loyalty,” Gearan said. “He does not understand what people who work for the government but do not work for him are supposed to do. That’s clear at this point. He also doesn’t understand what the press is supposed to do, and they’re related.”

Using former Attorney General Jeff Sessions as an example, Gearan asked attendees to consider how the importance of loyalty factors into who Trump hires to his staff.

This determination also impacts how the press interacts with Trump’s staffers because they know he would not have hired them if they were not personally loyal, Gearan said.

“Trump needs the press which must vex him,” Gearan said. “His response is to usually use us as a foil or an enemy as part of his political narrative of grievance.”

Grievance — a word Gearan said she used deliberately — against power by people who feel powerless or ignored is the main reason Trump was elected, and “he never forgets it,” Gearan said.

“Trump is a very, very good politician even though part of his appeal is that he says he isn’t,” Gearan said.

The dynamic between Trump and the press is dangerous because, Gearan said, “a free press is not guaranteed” — even in a democracy.

“Our free press depends on a public that wants it, is willing to fight for it and is willing to pay for it, at least some of the time,” Gearan said.

If the public is suspicious of what journalists do, the public cannot be informed accurately and effectively, according to Gearan. A July Quinnipiac University poll found that the majority of Americans do not approve of the press’s coverage of Trump; however, 9 in 10 Republicans disapprove, Gearan said.

Though wars may seem to rage between the president and journalists, between leaders of different parties, and between people of different political affiliations, Gearan stressed the need for a free press. She encouraged citizens to consume news from credible, reliable sources.

“Politics is more tribal than at any other time in modern memory, … and the journalistic landscape has become more tribal and more polarized right along with it,” Gearan concluded. “Real news is not just what you get through the soda straw of your political beliefs. It’s the events and the story of our world, and we need it now, and we will need it to cover whoever is the next president of the United States.”