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The Trump-Putin Summit And The Press

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we want to talk about the media and whether the news media's responsibility has changed in the wake of this week's remarkable events, and if so, how? For this, we called Margaret Sullivan. She's the media columnist for The Washington Post. She was the public editor at The New York Times before that, and she wrote about that this week.

Margaret Sullivan, thanks so much for talking with us.

MARGARET SULLIVAN: Thanks, Michel, glad to be here with you.

MARTIN: So, first, for those who didn't get a chance to read your piece, could you give us a sense of your argument? What makes you say that President Trump's meeting with Putin creates a different sense of responsibility, a different need for a sense of responsibility on the part of the media?

SULLIVAN: This was such a singular moment, and it seems to me to be a turning point moment. Of course, we've had a few of those before. But this was one where it seemed as though the kind of news coverage that we often see that says, well, we're going to kind of look at both sides of this and normalize the presidency and elevate it because it is the presidency. It seems to me we have to have a slightly different kind of approach because of the singularity of the event.

MARTIN: Tell me what that approach should be.

SULLIVAN: It should mean that we really go to great lengths to make sure that the truth of the situation is getting out and setting aside some of our kind of practices and norms, which say, well, we talked to both sides and we kind of believe both of them about the same amount and we're presenting them both to you - and you the listener, the reader, the viewer gets to decide.

That seems to me, in this situation and in Trump's presidency generally - we have to really go out of our way to let people know what's really going on because the words often don't do it. And I think we saw that, particularly in President Trump's so-called walkback of what he said during the press conference when he changed and said well, he really meant to say instead of wouldn't, he meant to say would - and that was reported in many instances - very straight. The president has, you know, has clarified what he said before. And I think we all know that that probably wasn't the clarification, it was a political move to limit the damage that had been done.

MARTIN: You say that the press's default position is to normalize, to represent various points of view with equal weight, to be swayed by the pomp of the presidential office. Those are - those are your words. And you go on to say that that just doesn't cut it right now. Why do you say that? Because some people would argue that is the press's job just to sort of report what people say and to report what other people say, and it's a jump ball. People just have to make up their minds for themselves. They can't sort of put their finger on the scale.

SULLIVAN: Right. Well, I don't think this is putting our finger on the scale. In fact, I think it's the opposite. It's making sure that citizens, viewers, listeners, those who are trying to become informed, you know, can understand from our coverage what is true and that we're not misleading. So that when we have a headline that says, you know, President Trump clarified his statements and says that he, you know, now believes that Russia was behind the attacks, you know, if we report it straight like that, I think we are missing something and allowing our readers and listeners and viewers to miss something. We have to be more urgent in delivering the likely truth.

MARTIN: There are those who will inevitably consider this conversation partisan or at least ideological. There are those who take the position that Donald Trump is not a candidate that people in the mainstream media generally preferred and therefore that his missteps are going to be amplified by people who don't like him. What do you say to that?

SULLIVAN: I go back to what my boss, Marty Baron - the executive editor of The Washington Post - says - we're not at war, we're at work. So we're not trying to take down a president. We - that is not the agenda of the journalists I know who are in the mainstream press. They're trying to do the job of informing the public at a very challenging time. And part of what makes it so challenging is that the president tells a lot of falsehoods, and sometimes they can be classified as lies because they clearly have intentionality behind them.

But certainly, lots of falsehoods, misstatements, misleading kinds of things, it becomes very difficult for the media to do their job adequately when that's happening. And we have to do things differently, which was kind of my point. And I would also say that, you know, at least from my point of view, I write an opinion column. It's my brief to express opinion about the news media and the job it's doing, and that's where I'm coming from.

MARTIN: That's Margaret Sullivan. She's media columnist for The Washington Post. Margaret Sullivan, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SULLIVAN: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.