A Job ‘Unlike Any Other’: Maggie Haberman on Covering President Trump

A Job ‘Unlike Any Other’: Maggie Haberman on Covering President Trump

Our White House correspondent Maggie Haberman is one of The Times’s most prominent and prolific reporters. Her days are often marathons of meetings and encrypted messages that frequently end in long nights working on front-page scoops about the Trump administration.

We recently invited readers to ask Maggie questions about her career and reporting methods. We heard from about 400 readers. Maggie answered a selection of the questions, which have been edited for clarity.

On reporting

Q. While many sources are kept anonymous from readers, obviously their identities are known to you. What steps do you take to ensure that your sources are accurate, that they are not inventing a story for their own agenda?
— James Posipanko, West Windsor, N.J.

A. It’s a really important question. We verify information to make sure that something is accurate. This has come up a lot since the first Trump campaign in 2016; oftentimes it was very difficult to get to a basis of agreed-upon facts, and it has required making sure that multiple sources confirm what is being presented in our report.

This may be a silly question but how do you “gather” information from your sources? Midnight phone calls from “secure” telephone booths? Meetings in dark restaurants wearing raincoats? Meetings in parking garages (you get that one)?
— David Nuwave, Ithaca, N.Y.

It’s not silly, it’s a good question! Reporting involves some version of all of the above (although the parking lot is still very much a Woodward and Bernstein province). There are encrypted messages, phone calls and meetings in spots where we won’t run into people who can identify one or both of us. Protecting the confidentiality of sources is vital.

Describe the editorial process after a story is pitched or submitted. Specifically, what efforts are made to ensure that the journalists and editors involved are not operating in an echo chamber? Confirmation bias is real and we’re all susceptible to it.
— Oliver S., North Carolina

We spend a lot of time trying to think about storylines from different perspectives, from the vantage point of the person we are writing about, as well as that of their critics or opponents.

For myself, I try to read as much media across the board as possible, to see what topics different conservative or liberal outlets are discussing. It helps to provide a fuller view. I try to see how the same story is being covered in different places.

The only cure for implicit bias is being as open-minded as possible.

On covering Trump

Are you received in a welcoming manner or is there hostility?
— Connie Wilson, St. Helena, Calif.

When it comes to the president, he is personally very averse to interpersonal conflict, so he rarely is hostile toward us in small settings. And many members of the White House and administration staff are professional and try to maintain that.

Given President Trump’s penchant for exaggeration, distortion and falsehood, do you find yourself approaching your coverage of him differently from what you’ve done in the past when covering other political figures? Has your approach to covering him evolved during his time in office; if so, how?
— Rebecca LaVally, Carmichael, Calif.

Every politician I’ve ever covered has said things that aren’t true or exaggerated, but the scale here is quite different. So even when it comes to basic things, we have to find additional corroboration.

One thing I realized during the 2016 campaign was that the president benefited from the way traditional news stories were constructed; we have tried to make clear when he is saying something false, or when his aides are, in the first paragraphs of stories instead of just repeating the false statement.

I get the impression the president actually likes The Times and has for years because of its reach and the publicity it provides for him, whether good or bad. What’s your take? Am I right, or way off, or what?
— Ed Garcia, California

I don’t know if I’d use the word “likes” when describing President Trump’s feelings for The Times. I do think the paper occupies a singular place in his psyche, representing, to him, the elites who he thought didn’t take him seriously when he was a developer from Queens trying to move into the Manhattan market.

I think the most revealing bit of journalism about the president and The Times was an episode of The Daily podcast from earlier this year. It was audio of a lengthy exchange between our publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, and the president, which took place in the Oval Office. I would strongly encourage people to listen to it.

On Trump vs. Obama

What are three significant differences you’ve noted between the current administration and President Obama’s? Are there any similarities?
— Joan Vohl Hamilton, South Hadley, Mass.

I didn’t cover the Obama administration day to day the way I do the Trump administration, so it’s a little hard to list three specific differences. I would say, generally, that the Obama administration complained about media coverage a lot more than people realize. All presidents and their aides do, but the volume was quite high. I think on the issue of leak hunts, the two administrations have some similarities. And, to some extent, the two presidents have similarities in how they have approached foreign policy.

But there are major differences.

The Obama White House generally had a lot more respect for traditions, as well as for concerns about how perceptions matter in governing.

Obama was also much more conscious of trying to preserve the institution of the presidency and the norms and laws around it. Trump has flouted or broken almost every norm that exists, and, according to watchdogs, several aides have violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while they are on the job.

And the Trump White House has done what it can to ignore Congress as an independent branch of government.

On social media

What is the value of Twitter to a journalist? Is it worth all the vitriol coming at you?
Phyllis Greenbaum, Columbia, Md.

This is a great question, for which I don’t have a great answer. I was one of the biggest Twitter scolds in the 2012 campaign, which is the first one where it was in wide use.

I think it makes everything look flat and small and the same. It’s hard to differentiate a significant story from a quote, and the context is all gone.

We now have a president who uses it a primary means of communication, so journalists who cover him don’t really have the luxury of staying off it, and I have tried.

But we could all be better on Twitter, especially me. I have gotten into needless fights that have made me come off poorly, or made people question my intent, and I deeply regret those moments.

On her background

How do you call yourself an independent journalist when your mother is connected with the Kushner family and you’re writing an “insider” account of the White House to publish for profit?
— Dick Ainsworth

There’s been a persistent and false conspiracy floated on the internet about my mother and the Kushners.

For 40 years, my mother has worked for a very large public relations firm in New York, which has represented a pretty broad range of clients over the years. The firm represented the Kushners at one point, including, to my knowledge, during their purchase of a paper called The New York Observer. The firm stopped representing the family in 2011, according to what I have read. I know nothing of the details about their representation of the Kushners beyond those facts.

My mother is not connected to the family in any way, other than working for the firm that represented them almost a decade ago.

I am no longer writing the book that I was under contract to write.

On life with a grueling job

Describe a typical day.
— Annie Bennett, Seattle, Wash.

All of the days are a blur at this point, but they’re generally a combination of a series of phone calls in the morning, a source lunch and then working into the evening. The news cycle just moves so fast now that there isn’t much downtime. Some days I don’t write any stories; other days I am involved in three.

I generally travel to Washington, D.C., a few times a month.

Please briefly explain how you manage to do such an emotionally and professionally demanding job while you are the mother of three children. This not a criticism on my part. I am awed by your responsibilities and (as a one-time working mother of two) I’d like to hear your various strategies!
— Mitsi Wagner, Cleveland, Ohio

The last four years have been very hard on my children, and I am trying to carve out as much time for each of them as I can. It means putting down my phone as much as possible and being present for them.

I don’t have any great explanation for it. I often tell people that I feel like I did when I had a newborn for the first time, and life felt like one long day.

On career advice

What tips and thoughts do you have for young aspiring journalists?
— Kyle J. Mullins, St. Petersburg, Fla.

On tips, get coffee with anyone who wants to meet with you. Try to be the last person still working when others have gone home. Work hard never to get beat on a story. And remember that this is an incredibly important job, and one that is unlike any other.

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