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, Mayer talked about challenging official narratives, the distinction between reporting and espionage, and the high price of journalistic independence. Edited excerpts:Before joining The New Yorker in 1995,
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.
I.F. 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. 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. Never forget that the relationship between reporters and the subjects in power that we cover is, by necessity, one that is adversarial and sometimes full of distrust and opposition.
Small lies, like that one, seem relatively minor today now that we’ve seen things like a government practically manufacturing a false rationale for a war.
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 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 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. So I went to Grenada a week ahead of the president and I watched as his image advisers oversaw the paving of all these little dirt roads, 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.
It made for a great story, but when the offending story was published, what I remember was sitting in the press briefing room and the president’s spokesman at the time, Larry Speakes, looked across the podium at me. He was red-faced and angry and he said, “You are out of business!”
My colleagues at the time 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.
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. The price of independence is high. They really do sometimes want to put you out of business.
On dissent and treason
Today, however, the threat isn’t just about being put out of business. It’s about being put in jail. The government’s growing prosecution of national security leakers under the Espionage Act 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. 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.
On withstanding pressure
I’ve been asked, at times, by the CIA not to publish things. We at The New Yorker, for instance, published the name of someone they asked us not to. It was not an undercover person but it was someone whose life might be in danger, they said, 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.
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 end up torturing a detainee are not necessarily somebody who’s completely alien, but he was actually a family man 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.
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 many fewer good quotes and it’s definitely degrading the final stories.
I’ve been meeting with people in person. On the [Thomas] Drake [whistleblower] story I flew to the other side of the country to interview someone 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 requires people who really are committed to telling you things. In an age when every e-mail conversation produces a track record, you have to always conduct yourself as if you’re in public. 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. What was it he said famously? If he had any more fun he’d have to be arrested. I feel the same way.