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Barbershop: Inside Newsroom Decision-Making On Trump Coverage

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

Rural issues might be getting overlooked during this year's election by things like those Trump tapes and sexual assault accusations or WikiLeaks and Clinton emails. That's because big, and some would say controversial, news stories are dominating the headlines lately. So we thought it would be a good time to gather a few of our regular media panelists to talk about the decisions newsrooms are making in this unprecedented time.

Joining me are three newsroom leaders who spend their days and nights thinking about these things. Stephen Ginsberg of The Washington Post, Philip Klein of The Washington Examiner here with me in studio, and joining us from Jerusalem is Susan Glasser of Politico. Welcome to you all.

SUSAN GLASSER: Thank you.

SINGH: So, Steven, let me start with you. You are the politics editor of The Washington Post, so your team is the one that released the 2005 "Access Hollywood" video that's now led to a slew of accusations about Donald Trump. Take us through the process that led to The Post's decision to post that video in the first place.

STEVEN GINSBERG: We got the video right before lunchtime last Friday, eight days ago now. And the first thing we tried to do is verify it. Especially with video in these days, you have to make sure it's a real video and hasn't been doctored, anything like that. So we reached out to the network. It was from "Access Hollywood." We reached out to the Trump campaign. They both verified it fairly quickly, including Donald Trump himself. So within about five hours of getting that, we were able to publish it.

SINGH: And some people - I think, five hours doesn't seem, like, quickly. But in...

GINSBERG: Right.

SINGH: ...Newsroom world it is, right?

GINSBERG: Right, and especially with something as sensitive as this. I mean, this is - however you categorize it - very lewd language, very kind of shocking video for a presidential campaign. You don't want to rush out with that before you know exactly what you have.

SINGH: OK. And you had previously made a comparison to the vetting that goes on with someone who's come forward accusing Donald Trump of sexual assault. Take us through that and - comparison.

GINSBERG: Sure. The process for both is the same. You're trying to verify the story and make sure that you know everything you need to know before you publish it. In the case of the video, it was very easy to go through that process because it was on video and everyone agreed it was real.

With a person who comes forward to say that - in the case - this is a story we published yesterday in The Washington Post. And the person came forward to say that basically what Donald Trump had described in that video had happened to her. That process takes a longer time to verify that account, to talk to the woman who came forward. In her case, we were able to put her on video as well, which I think is a compelling part of the story so people can see and hear for themselves what she's describing. And in that case, it took several days. It wasn't something that you just do in five hours.

SINGH: Susan, let me throw this to you. The process in deciding what you're going to cover, Trump versus WikiLeaks and Clinton. In the first days, I think it was pretty difficult to ignore the 2005 recording, so that might be a little bit easier to decide. But in the days after, not so easy. Tell me about that process, Susan.

GLASSER: Well, look, first of all, for us, I don't think it's either-or, and I don't think it should be. These are not the same story. They're both newsworthy. They're newsworthy, to a certain extent, in different ways. And so we've, you know, chosen to cover both as aggressively as possible. But based on the news, we don't know - I mean, one of the parts of the WikiLeaks story, of course, is the question of why are these coming out now, what is the relationship between the Trump campaign or its surrogates and the release of these documents and then combing through.

Basically, they've settled upon a strategy with these hacked emails of John Podesta, the campaign chairman of Hillary Clinton's campaign. It appears that WikiLeaks has decided to dribble them out basically every day between now and the election, which is a major resource issue certainly for newsrooms. But to me, I'm struck by the fact that people want to make it an equivalent. I don't think it is an equivalent level of story between the fundamental questions about Donald Trump's behavior and what we might find - much of it of enormous interest to junkies inside the beltway, like those who read Politico, but not necessarily reflecting directly in any way on Hillary Clinton.

SINGH: We'll touch on resources in just a moment because I think that's an important factor in deciding how you're going to cover something. But, Philip, first, what about your newsroom? How have you been thinking about how you're going to cover Trump and Clinton and the other very important stories that seem to be overshadowed by these two major issues?

PHILIP KLEIN: Yeah, I agree with Susan in that it's not an either-or. The only thing I'd add to that is that, obviously, on certain days or at certain times, one story or the other might take more precedence or receive more attention.

SINGH: Philip, I'm wondering if the Examiner had this same kind of debate that other newsrooms were having about the 2005 recording with Trump, the content of it and whether what he said was in fact admitting to sexual assault. Has your newsroom had that kind of debate on whether to use sort of buffer language versus going to he admits to sexual assault?

KLEIN: I mean, I don't think it was necessarily a wide debate. I mean, I think that there's a general agreement that it often depends on, obviously, whether you're writing commentary or something that's news. If you're writing something commentary, you might be much more confident in saying he was boasting about sexually assaulting women, whereas if it's a news story, you want to as closely as possible adhere to what he said on tape. He described groping women on the tape. So if you sort of adhere to here's what was said, then it sort of leaves open the debate over whether or not this constitutes sort of boasting sexual assault or not.

SINGH: Steven, how about The Post's take on that?

GINSBERG: Yeah, I agree with what Philip was just saying. I think in this case, we have the benefit of Donald Trump's words. And those words do a lot for readers here. We don't have to spend too much time characterizing them. We did have a discussion initially about was this lewd language - extremely lewd language - just as some sort of signals to readers that it's something different from normal. And we did - we did cast as extremely lewd because there's been so much in this campaign that fits the definition of lewd or crude or something. We just wanted to make sure people understood that this one was an order of magnitude higher.

SINGH: Susan, did Politico have any kind of debate on this?

GLASSER: You know, it's interesting, as soon as we saw the tape and you hear the power of Trump saying this in his own words, I think it was clear that this was a story that was a different level of story in many ways. As Steve said, this has been an extraordinarily lewd campaign already by any standards. But to me, it was very clear from immediately hearing the tape that this was something different, first of all - and second of all that we were going to publish these words, which normally we would not do so and not use those words.

But it was just so striking that someone who is running to be the president of the United States would be saying these things about women in those terms. It seemed very important that we should say what those are. And, obviously, it's certainly been to the detriment of our national discourse that we're now having this conversation. And I - and I'm sure many other people have had lots of awkward conversations with children as a result of those decisions. But I think it was the right decision.

SINGH: Philip.

KLEIN: Yeah. I think that also it's an easier decision if you're on the web than if you're running TV because on the web, you can just sort of refer to the videotape and then link to your initial story that describes the videotape in detail, whereas if you're a 24-hour news network and you have to fill things and you need video to go along with what you're talking about, it's probably a more difficult decision to sort of not keep on showing you.

SINGH: So this has been a very, very, very difficult news cycle, I think, for, well, just about all newsrooms in terms of time, in terms of energy, in terms of the brain power that has to go into reading everything, sifting through the information, corroborating allegations and not just difficult for journalists, but I think for their listeners, viewers, readers. So I think it's fair to say that there is a general sense of fatigue that is now approaching for all involved.

I don't know if you think that's a fair assessment, but I'll take that leap. I'm just wondering if this were not happening, if there were no Trump-Clinton news cycle to deal with, what else would you be covering if you could cover anything else at all? I'm going to start with you, Steve, 'cause you've been smiling a broad grin and been dying to tell us.

GINSBERG: Well, I definitely agree with the characterization of fatigue. I think we would all agree that all presidential campaigns are fatiguing. This one has been nonstop, almost 24-hours a day for months now. And it is - it's getting to that point where I think we're all kind of falling asleep at our desks. I think in a normal campaign, we'd all be rushing to some swing district in some swing county in Ohio right now to try and figure out which way it's all going to go, and we'd be writing, you know, policy stories about infrastructure plans and things like that. You know, that seems like a quainter time. I wouldn't mind going back to that a little bit.

SINGH: Now - but, Phil, you - infrastructure you as something you'd want to do?

KLEIN: Probably more health care policy because I think that that's really a story that hasn't gotten enough attention. We're in a situation where the experiments that President Obama launched in our health care system is facing serious problems that are going to likely be the first real crisis the next president is going to have to face domestically likely without the political capital to pass any legislation to do something about it. And so that's going to set up a pretty huge fight at the outset.

SINGH: Susan, how about you?

GLASSER: Well, and we're putting our inner wonk hats on right now...

SINGH: Absolutely.

GLASSER: I'll throw out there (laughter) - I'll throw out there the really interesting and potentially very significant shift in the electorate in elements of the electorate in both parties away from the liberal internationalist foreign policy really of the last few decades as expressed by Hillary Clinton, but a view of the world and America's leading role in it that really has been questioned in both elements of the Democratic electorate and the Republican electorate. This is a moment where voters are increasingly saying let's look inward. And there are very real questions that the campaign has turned up in the debates that we saw - the more substantive debates that we saw in both parties during the primary season. And I think that has very interesting implications for President Clinton, who may well find her views about the world and what she should be doing as president if she's elected at odds increasingly with members of her own party and with the American public.

SINGH: Thanks to Susan Glasser of Politico, Steven Ginsberg of The Washington Post and Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner for joining us here. Thanks to you all.

GINSBERG: Thank you.

KLEIN: Thank you.

GLASSER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.