Before joining The New Yorker in 1995, Jane Mayer spent 12 years as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where she was the paper’s first female White House correspondent. At The New Yorker, she covers politics and the war on terror. After receiving the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence during the Nieman Foundation’s 75th anniversary celebration in September 2013, Mayer talked about challenging official narratives, the distinction between reporting and espionage, and the high price of journalistic independence.
Video of Jane Mayer accepting the Stone Medal
Bill Kovach: As some of you know, I am a half-time member of one of the classes here, the class of ’89.[applause]
The president of Harvard, at the time, thought a half a year only half-baked me, so they kept me around for the next 10 years. After that, they figured, maybe if I hadn’t gotten it by then, I wasn’t ever going to get it.
I had a chance to be with an awful lot of you. Many of the classes before, and a few after, are full of old friends of mine. There’s no better place to be this weekend, this very minute, and I want to thank you for carving out time before a very special audience of journalists for an award for a very special journalism, the I.F. Stone Award.
On behalf of the advisory committee that makes the award, I want to notice that our spark plug, Myra MacPherson is here with us, today.[applause]
On behalf of that committee, I just want to say a few words about the recipient, but only a few because I want her to have time to talk with you so you can see the journalist that we’re honoring today.
Jeremy Stone, Izzy Stone’s son, founded this award and he designed the medal. This medal that Jane will get and around the rim of the medal, he has inscribed the hope that the work of the recipient of this award would represent a fulcrum for journalism of independence, independence journal and the kind of journalism Izzy Stone practiced.
From the beginning of her career, Jane Mayer started in a small weekly newspaper in Vermont and carrying through her career at the Washington Star, Wall Street Journal, and now, New Yorker magazine, she has built a foundation on deep digging and an independence of mind in order to reveal the truth about the subjects that she chooses to write about.
It’s the kind of journalism that searched out information overlooked by others like that which exposed President Obama for his prosecutorial excesses in the charges that he had brought against an NSA analyst, Thomas Drake, information that led to the dismissal of all the major charges against Drake.
It’s the kind of work that documented President George Bush’s arrogation of unprecedented power to himself, not only ignoring American law but international law as well, in order to adopt torture as an American instrument of war against the terrorist—a documentation that other journalists later recognized as a comprehensive bill of indictment against the president.
The kind of work that she took on along with Jill Abramson to demonstrate through hundreds of interviews and scores of documents just how much verified information there was available to the Congress on the character of Clarence Thomas before Congress voted him onto the US Supreme Court, a subject that most other journalists shied away from, not because it was not vitally important to the American people and the future of the country, but because it might seem to be politically incorrect to report it.
At a time when any government official, any commercial enterprise, and any vested special interest can with a single tap of a finger introduce its own version of events on any subject of importance embedded in its own special interest and its own point of view, it becomes vital that we hold up that point of view that’s represented here today. It becomes important that we make sure work like Jane Mayer’s is recognized and noticed for what it is, reporting through which science and independence of mind about the selection of subject matter, that tireless depth that reporting and documentation takes in order to make it clear in the presentation of the work itself that it is a mind in search of the facts to reveal the truth.
Jane Mayer’s work is the work that can serve as a fulcrum to a new generation of journalistic independence. Jane, if you can come up, I would like very much to pass this award on to you.[applause]
Jane Mayer: Thank you very much. Thank you so much. I am really, really honored to be here today. I’m also, I have to admit, a little bit surprised because there’s a bit of a back story to this event, which is that many, many months ago I was deeply down a rabbit hole kind of in a fog working on a book and I noticed an e-mail that I had overlooked and it was from Bill Kovach.
Bill now is, as we all know, a legend in journalism and one of those names that conjures up the kind of editor that every reporter dreams of. Thoughtful, decent, smart, courageous, and fair. To be honest, when writing a book, really any kind of procrastination is welcome. I happily clicked on it.
The message said that the people who run the I.F. Stone award were looking for names of reporters to nominate for it. I gave it some thought and poked around a little bit and I sent in the name of a colleague who I thought was deserving, and didn’t think more of it.
Then, a number of months after that, when I looked at my e-mail again, lo and behold there was another e-mail from Bill Kovach. I clicked on it again and it said, “Surprise!” They were going to be giving the medal to me. All I can say is that I think after all of the work that I’ve done on the Bush administration, I did learn a thing or two from Dick Cheney. [laughter]
OK. But since I do have a few minutes here today and since we’re here to celebrate the inimitable Izzy Stone and his trailblazingly independent coverage of government power and corruption, as well as the 75th anniversary of the Nieman program, I wanted to reflect on a couple concerns on the current state of the profession, which I think Stone also might have been concerned about. Then, in the spirit of Izzy, I am going to turn over the floor to all of you before I become a pontificating blowhard of the variety that he couldn’t stand. So, this won’t take too long.
I wanted first to sketch the outlines of the landscape when it comes to covering government and others in power. Myra MacPherson’s wonderful biography of Stone is entitled “All Governments Lie” which is a condensation of Stone’s statement that all governments are run by liars.
I’ve got huge respect for many of the government officials I’ve covered, but at the same time, I have to agree that the relationship between those of us in the press and the people we cover, if you do your job right, is full of tension and often downright hostility.
Stone was famous for being an outsider who disparaged some of the insiders like Walter Lippmann. While I think there’s room for both kinds of coverage, I tend to agree with Stone on his skepticism about getting too cozy. I learned this lesson early on. Not long after coming to Washington in 1984 to cover the Reagan White House for The Wall Street Journal. I learned that Reagan’s embattled national security adviser was about to resign.
Using the privileged access I had as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, I quickly went to see him and asked him about this point blank, and with warm brown eyes that kind of looked like a trustworthy Labrador retriever, he looked across the desk at me and told me that he had absolutely no plans to resign.
I may be telescoping this in memory, but as I remember it, the very next day after I had shelved my story, they announced his resignation and I was stunned. Government officials lie. They lie to reporters boldly and straight-faced. It taught me that access is overrated, which is something to keep in mind in this era of celebrity interviews, and that they may look friendly and be wonderfully inspirational and be really attractive characters and the kind of people you wish you could be friends with, but never to forget that the relationship between the reporters and the subjects that we cover in power is, by necessity, one that is adversarial and sometimes full of distrust and opposition.
Small lies, like that minor one, seem relatively minor today now that we’ve seen things like a government practically manufacturing a false rationale for a war or denying the existence of a torture program, but the lesson remains the same. As Stone put it, “You can’t just sit on their lap and ask them to feed you secrets, then they’ll just give you a lot of crap.”
The other thing I learned early on while covering the Reagan White House and which I think bears remembering today is that when you do hop off their laps, as Stone’s own struggles illustrated, you’re not going to get pats on the head.
As we deal with the augmented powers of the growing national security state, it’s worth remembering that those in power are rarely on the side of a fully free and transparent coverage.
A minor brush I had in the Reagan White House alerted me to this dynamic. Eager to reveal the extensive and expansive stagecraft behind Reagan’s presidency, I thought it would be great to fly to Grenada a week ahead of the president’s visit there to celebrate the first anniversary of America’s victory over leftist forces on the tiny backward Caribbean island. I have to remember, though, my bureau chief at the time, Al Hunt, when I gave him the story proposal picked it up and he said, “I smell a little suntan lotion on this thing.”[laughter]
But I`ve been very lucky to work for fantastic places, The Wall Street Journal and then The New Yorker, and they indulged me. So, anyway, I went to Grenada a week ahead of the president and I watched as the president’s image advisers oversaw the paving of all these little dirt roads with beautiful new asphalt, and one Air Force cargo plane after the next landed in this little dirt patch of an airport carrying limousines and ambulances and bleachers and flags and everything else.
Anyway, it made for a great story, but when the offending story was published, what I remember was sitting in the press briefing room as a young reporter and the president’s spokesman at the time, Larry Speakes, looked across the podium at me. He was like red-faced and angry and he said, “You are out of business!”
Then my colleagues at the time sort of thoughtfully and generously held a going-out-of-business sale. They carried my desk and chair onto the lawn of the White House. But behind the hijinks was a serious message, which is that when reporters challenge the official narrative, those in power are going to push back and sometimes very hard.
As Myra MacPherson recounted, “The British publisher, Lord Northcliffe, admitted that news is something someone wants to suppress. All the rest is advertising.” In that long ago minor instance, my access dried up completely and I soon found myself berated by editors for missing stories. I was unable to get a single phone call returned. I couldn’t even get the president’s schedule. The price of independence is high. They really do sometimes want to put you out of business.
Today, however, the threat isn’t just about being put out of business. It’s about being put in jail, and this is what I wanted to get to. The government’s growing prosecution of national security leakers under the Espionage Act I think is a watershed escalation of the longstanding tensions between the government and the Fourth Estate blurring the distinction between journalism and espionage, and between dissent and treason.
I fear that vital coverage will be in peril if we allow this to become the new normal. The chill is already palpable. Several sources of mine have faced federal investigations. They’ve had to hire lawyers at draining personal expense. They’ve had to undergo enormous personal strain.
Just a few weeks ago, a new potential source asked whether his e-mails and phone calls were protected if he conversed with me. Even though I now know how to use an encrypted e-mail program, I couldn’t really reassure him totally, which of course impedes newsgathering.
Right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I wrote about the Stasi for The Wall Street Journal. I was there as an unimaginably vast archive of government spying on private citizens was opened, and I was so deeply impressed by how lucky we are in this country not to live under a totalitarian state.
I take the threat of the government’s expanded surveillance powers seriously and think it’s essential that, as reporters, editors and publishers we speak up, or as Stone put it, “Almost every generation in American history has had to face what appeared to be a menace of so frightening an order as to justify the limitation of basic liberties.” But he argued, “A newspaper man ought to use his power on behalf of those who are getting the dirty end of the deal, and when he has something to say, he ought to not be afraid to raise his voice above a decorous mumble and use the 48-point bold.”
On that note, I want to take some questions from all of you.[applause]
Here come a couple. There are mics, too. There’s one over there.
Man 1: Yes. My question is, as reporters when we write stories that we know that the officials don’t like, our attitudes can be, “Well, screw them!” If they begin to push back, we almost sort of feel good about ourselves because we’re pissing them off. We’re doing something right.
But I’ve seen instances where that can lead to arrogance on the part of the reporter and I wonder if that’s an issue that you think about or grapple with.
Mayer: I basically try not to think about the effect on the people that I cover when I write about them. I try always to keep in mind the reader instead. The relationship that really matters to me is to try to tell the readers as much as I possibly can or as much as I possibly know of the truth.
It’s not about getting back at people you cover or helping people you cover. I just try not to think about it that way. It’s all about getting the truth. That’s for the readers and that’s so they can make informed choices in this fabulous democracy. That’s what I think about. Over here?
Man 2: Yes. I just wanted to know what was the most serious threat you got from the government?
Mayer: From the government, I’ve been asked, at times, by the CIA not to publish things. I suppose we felt a little bit of peril at The New Yorker but it’s an amazing staff of editors and lawyers there. We, for instance, published the name of someone they asked us not to. It was not an undercover person but it was someone they said whose life might be in danger if we published it.
There was a very heated exchange over this. We decided to go with exposing the officer because he, first of all, had put his own name out in promotional material in some ways so it wasn’t the biggest secret in the world even though it would appear in a different context in this story. He, as far as my reporting appeared to show, had tortured somebody to death and I felt like it was important for there to be some kind of accountability and not to use national security reasons for him to hide behind the kind of accountability that we require in our system.
It was interesting. I went to his house. I wanted to speak to him about it before we published it. I wanted to be able to show that people who do things like that, people who end up torturing a detainee, are not necessarily somebody who’s completely alien, but he was actually a family man with a nice suburban house whose kids played in sports games who had been stuck in a very scared and scary position.
I thought it was important to show the larger dynamics of what happens when the government puts employees in a program where they might end up doing the wrong thing because they put so much pressure on them. In order to tell his story I wanted to name him and we did and there were no repercussions, though he was really angry about it. Anyway, the government wasn’t happy about it but we went ahead with it.
No threats. The most threatening story I have written, in a way, was not about a government figure. It was the story I did about a couple of billionaires who fund politics, the Koch Brothers. As I was working on that story, it turns out, simultaneously, and, who knows, maybe just coincidentally, I became the subject of a private eye’s investigation into everything in my life, looking into legal files, former romances, you name it. Everything was turned over. Every story I’d written, books I’d written.
They put all my writing through some sort of forensics program that looks for plagiarism and were hoping to expose me in some way or another. That’s actually pretty threatening and scary. Luckily, it all fell apart. To its amazing credit, the New York Post media correspondent, Keith Kelly, wrote a story saying who’s trying to frame this reporter and dangled a couple of possibilities that were much like the people I was covering.
It blew up but that was scary. You were certainly feeling pressure. Over there.
Man 3: Hi, Jane. Danny Schechter. Congratulations on your award. Izzy would be very proud that you’ll be wearing this medal to various functions around town.
Mayer: It’s very heavy.
Man 3: Like those people that wear those Mercedes.
Mayer: A rapper.
Man 3: A lot of us, at least of my generation, I’m not sure which one it is, felt like the Republicans, the Reagans, the Nixons, they were the bad guys. The Democrats were somehow of a different order, particularly President Obama. You’ve been covering this White House and this president. Help us understand the psychology, the mentality, of this person who many saw as the second coming and now see as the second coming of Richard Nixon.
Mayer: One of the great things about being a reporter and not a pundit is you generally only have to go out in public when you know the answers to things. I’m not sure I have all the answers to that. I’ve been struck by a few things, particularly in the national security area. Thinking about the drones program, which, in many ways, is a continuation of the Bush years and an escalation of it and in these leak prosecutions, as well, and in some of the surveillance issues, also.
I think the dynamic that those three programs have in common is that this administration, I think, has been, to some extent, overpowered by the tremendously powerful national security apparatus in Washington since 9/11. It’s grown and grown and grown. If you look at the Justice Department, there’s a whole division of national security which is there to promote the views of the CIA and the other national security parts of the government, but there’s no office of civil celebrities, there’s no office of the First Amendment.
In fact, [U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder recently, after being criticized for subpoenaing reporters’ records in two cases, invited some reporters and editors and bureau chiefs in, and I went in with some of them because I’m on the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He seemed surprised at how far they’d gone out on a limb and seemed almost as if he hadn’t thought about it enough.
What struck me, looking around the room, is they were almost all national security people advising him. I think it’s a little bit like if you go to a doctor with a backache and you go to a surgeon they’re going to want to cut. That’s basically what was going on over there. If you go to a yoga instructor, they might tell you to stretch, but there are no yoga instructors in the Justice Department right now. It’s tipped way far to the balance.
The other thing is something that a Harvard law professor here who was in the Bush administration warned people about, Jack Goldsmith. He said that he thought when Obama took office he would do much the same as Bush on some of these issues. The reason is no one in office really wants to risk being the one that has the second attack on their hands. There may be a second attack but they don’t want to be open to criticism that they didn’t do everything they could. The political damage is what they worry about a lot.
I think that is what they worry about. I think the answer is people on the other end of the spectrum need to speak up and say there are costs to this and you need to balance it.
Man 3: Just to follow up really quickly, do we, as Harvard alumni, have a right to expect a higher sense of duty and responsibility? I’m saying this knowing that Henry Kissinger was also a professor here at Harvard.
Mayer: Ted Cruz was a graduate of the law school. I’m a Yalie.
Woman 1: I’m a journalist from Canada and I’m a current Nieman. I was listening to your story and in the country I come from most people don’t think anything’s going on there and it has a government that’s basically stopped talking to journalists and only responds to us with really short e-mails and never lets us ask follow-up questions. We have, so far, done a terrible job at talking about how this is affecting our work or getting the public to actually care about that.
You mentioned earlier how much it had an impact that people actually wrote about the pressures you were under. How can we do efficient reporting about ourselves, about the pressure the press is under?
Mayer: I was really struck by Robert Caro’s talk, which I thought was wonderful—his advice that you need to always go see the person. Of course, he’s got all the luxury of time. I think e-mail is a real problem for reporters. Among other things, people consider their answers in such a careful way that they don’t just open up and hold forth. I think you get much less good quotes and it’s definitely degrading the final stories, I think.
I don’t know. I don’t know enough about Canadian journalism. I don’t think the public really wants to hear us bellyaching. I think they just want us to keep turning out great stories. I guess the example of I.F. Stone is you don’t even need to have incredible access to get great stories. I think it helps to get quotes but he obviously just read all the documents really closely.
Sometimes if you find something in a document they will, then, make time to see you if it’s bad enough. Over here?
Man 4: After I finished my Nieman year I moved from the supply side of journalism to the demand side. I teach a course called news literacy where we try to get students to be critical about the information they’re getting from every source. Every semester we put Bill Keller on trial for treason. Actually, this semester we’ve started to use Glenn Greenwald.
It’s really interesting to hear students struggle with these issues. They each play one side of the prosecution or defense team. This is being videotaped so I’m hoping to grab the clip. I’m interested in this question that students always ask which is if power is premised on secrecy, which I think is a pretty good premise, where do we make those decisions about how much a government can keep secret and for how long?
Certainly, in your work you’ve had to balance this in deciding what to put in print. I’m just curious what your answer would be on that.
Mayer: I don’t really accept the premise. In fact, I was very impressed by a book that Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that’s about secrecy that basically argues secrecy weakens power. I think, for the most part, it should be the exception to the rule and that better decisions are made when there’s a competition of ideas and it takes place in broad daylight. That’s the whole idea of our system.
I think secrecy leads to, often, very poor decision-making. That’s really what happened during the Bush years in the CIA. It would have been much better if there’d been more public debate. It’s also how we get legitimacy in this country. You need to have public support. I often think the public is quite sensible. I guess I don’t accept the premise. I think secrecy is important for some intelligence operations and certainly military operations and I think the press…
Man 4: I think that’s more where they end up getting stuck. I think everybody agrees on the government end but on the operations end at what point do you as a journalist think about operational secrecy and say I’m going to inject and make the decision that this operation needs to be exposed?
Mayer: A lot. I think this is something that journalists and editors have to be very thoughtful about and not just do a kneejerk “we’re going to publish because we have it.” Not all secrets are equal. Some are really important for the public to know, and some are really important to keep secret because people’s lives are in the balance.
I would never publicize a military operation about to take place. I think what I would like to see is the government do a better job of not just saying national security is at risk. Explain it. If we’re going to hold back a story, which is a very big deal in this country, we ought to be given strong evidence that national security really is at risk.
Frequently we see things like the Drake case that Bill Kovach mentions where it wasn’t at risk. He was going to be prosecuted as if he was some major spy. He totally was not. Sometimes it’s just a turf war, or it’s about covering up something embarrassing. I think it requires thoughtfulness on the press’s part but also dialogue with the government on these things.
Kovach: I forgot to tell you the good news. Keller is almost always acquitted.[laughter]
Mayer: That’s good. Over there.
Man 5: What are your thoughts about the usefulness of a federal shield law? Second, if you are working on a sensitive story and you think all your electronic communications may be subject to government interception, what do you do? Go back to meeting Deep Throat in the parking lot?
Mayer: Yes, basically. I’ve been meeting with people in person. On the Drake story I had to fly out to the other side of the country to interview someone in a hotel room who wouldn’t stay on the phone for more than about a second.
It’s very cumbersome. It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. It’s difficult. It requires people who really are committed to telling you things. Often sources are sort of semi-committed. It really raises the stakes. I’m sorry, what was your first…
Man 5: On the federal shield law.
Mayer: I don’t really know, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. I think there are two major problems with it. One, there’s a loophole for national security stories, so it won’t protect sources in the national security arena, which I think is really where they need the most protection.
The other is, of course, this issue of who is a journalist and the government licensing and deciding who is a real journalist and who’s not. I think it’s definitely worth trying. I think we need help. For somebody like James Risen it would be a big help right now. It’s past the Senate and, like everything else, is falling apart in the House of Representatives. Over there.
Man 6: I want to thank you for framing the question and presenting us with this very clear image for journalists. I wonder sometime if as journalists we’re too focused on personalities. We think that Obama will be different than Bush and Bush is different than so and so.
I’m wondering to what extent you’ve seen a structural continuity between the expansion of government under Bush and how it’s been exercised under Obama. Is Obama falling into patterns that are already there for him? Is it really political, or is it a structural change in the structure of the way the government is operating under Bush?
Mayer: I think Obama is quite different from Bush. I don’t see them as the same at all really I do think, and I think the founders of the country were obviously smart about this, there’s something about power that likes to perpetuate itself. That goes across party lines completely. It’s just human nature.
I guess the argument was if men were angels we wouldn’t need laws. I feel that they could also add “and we wouldn’t need reporters,” but we do.
Man 6: I was thinking structural changes like expansion of the NSA, the expansion of certain executive powers, the signature and the rest of that. Hasn’t Obama just continued what Bush created for him? Bush expanded the clothes that Obama then can wear.
Mayer: Some things have expanded and some have not. They really did end the secret prisons in which detainees were being tortured. They have closed down that particular program, which I think is a vast improvement.
I do think the national security establishment is just immensely powerful in Washington at this point. People have been warning about it since Eisenhower, about the military industrial complex. Terrorism is a business. It’s, again, an area that’s really great for reporting. It’s ripe for it.
Woman 2: Two more questions. We need to make it quick.
Mayer: OK, over there.
Woman 3: Hi, I’m a Nieman from Pakistan. I’m back in Cambridge now. There are two things I want to ask you about. One is what you just said, actually the second thing because I was going to ask you about something else, about how terrorism is a business.
As journalists, this is a dilemma. I really don’t know how this can be resolved. The fact is terrorists strike now knowing that the media is going to amplify their actions, and it’s going to create that impact. That’s why they go to the shopping mall in Kenya that all the experts go to and they’re not hitting the bazaar down the street where the locals go and so on.
Perhaps they wouldn’t be doing this if their actions weren’t being amplified the way they are. I’ve seen this in Pakistan. I’ve seen this elsewhere. That’s one thing. The second thing is about the surveillance expansion and the security question.
Of course, that’s such a dilemma. As you said, it’s expanded everywhere, and we’ve seen even now that the diplomatic missions are more and more staffed by security agencies that are withholding visas to genuine visa seekers because they are looking at everything from a security prism.
The excuse or the justification for the surveillance obviously is the terrorism question, which, as you said, is a business. I suppose this is something everybody has to grapple with. How do you see this whole issue of security? I think you maybe might have kind of already answered that. [laughs]
Maybe I’m being redundant. The fact that surveillance is maybe trying to actually stop terrorism, but actually it’s not because the guy who does the shooting in the Batman movie, there was no security surveillance on him. They were all focusing on the Muslims.
Mayer: It’s a big subject, many questions. I have found it heartening that Obama has said in a speech a few months ago that he thought it was time that the war on terror came to an end. The closer I think we can get to a state of pre-9/11 normality and deal with terrorism, this is not a popular view of many people, but deal with it as a crime and not a full-fledged war, we’ll be on a different legal footing then.
It’s certainly worth having a big debate about in the country. I don’t know how long we can stay on that kind of war footing. Also, it’s, obviously, incredibly expensive. Over here.
Woman 2: Last question.
Woman 4: Thank you for your comments. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about private intimidation. You talked a lot about the government intimidating you, and you mentioned just briefly about the billionaire brothers.
If you get sent to jail, you get sent to jail and then the entire country is up in arms and we all support you. But if you get destroyed and your credibility is destroyed, then you’re lost as a voice. Everybody says, “Oh, well, it was somebody who plagiarized or it was somebody controversial.” The controversial author says “blah, blah, blah,” and we can dismiss it. Could you talk about that please?
Mayer: I think it’s something that all reporters have to be pretty mindful of now in an age when in every e-mail conversation you have there is a track record. There’s a written record of when you try to get an interview with somebody.
You have to, I think, always conduct yourself carefully as if you’re in public when you’re dealing with professional things, even your reporting. Just be careful about things like acting responsibly so you don’t give people fodder to take you down, basically.
It makes it a little less fun, but I’d say it’s still, to end with Izzy Stone, probably the most fun kind of life you could have. It’s the most interesting. What was it he said famously? If he had any more fun he’d have to be arrested. [laughs] I feel the same way.[applause]