Evan Osnos Morris Lectue

Evan Osnos spoke about the difficulty of covering modern China at the 2013 Joe Alex Morris Jr. Memorial Lecture at the Nieman Foundation

Evan Osnos is a staff writer covering politics and foreign affairs at The New Yorker and the author of “Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now” (Scribner, 2020). Published shortly before the election, the biography draws on nearly a decade of Osnos’s reporting, lengthy interviews with Biden, and conversations with more than a hundred others, including the President’s advisors, opponents, and family members.

Before joining The New Yorker in 2008, Osnos was The Chicago Tribune’s bureau chief in Beijing, where he was part of the team that won the Pulitzer in investigative journalism in 2008 for exposing faulty regulation of unsafe products. His National Book Award winning “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China” was based on his years living in China.

In a January talk with Nieman Fellows, Osnos discussed the current mindsets of the political press corps in D.C., covering Trump and the far-right moving forward, and more. Edited excerpts: 

On the Biden administration’s support of press freedom

Evan Osnos: In some ways, if we go back a little bit, the Obama‑Biden administration did not get perfect marks from reporters because of the prosecution of leaks. Certainly, in the first part of the administration, there was a very aggressive attempt to go after what we in the media think of as the normal commerce of journalism, extracting secrets.

At least the spirit of the law, if not the letter of the law, we believe our business should allow for this kind of production. The Obama administration was hostile to that for a long time. It was, I think, partly an outgrowth of the post‑9/11 period, in which there was a sense that the threats to national security were so grave that they could justify breaching these norms.

My hope — and I don’t have data to support this — is that, under Biden, we’re going to see a more recognizable tolerance of what journalists do and why there are moments when leaking is part of the process.

I think you’re likely to see this administration put more skin into the game when comes to talking about the free press overseas, because it gets to something that Biden considers one of his core political principles, which is that we lead internationally by the power of our example more so than, he says, by the example of our power.

That means standing up for the issues. One of the core things that he puts at the center of the policy now, whether you’re talking about human rights or freedom of expression, is the idea that we have to stand up for what the world believes of the United States, particularly now.

Here we are, in a moment when the U.S. and China are in a more visible confrontation, and competition, really, for governance models. The United States has been ailing over the last few years.

We could have a whole separate conversation about whether that advantages China or not. I’m not sure it does. But the United States walking away from some of its core moral, ethical commitments — like allowing a free and robust press, not calling people the enemy of the state, and so on — really undermines us and our standing in the world.

Biden’s view is this is low‑hanging fruit, that it’s one of the ways that we begin to restore what we might call the “moral glamour” of the United State. We could talk all afternoon about all the ways in which there are holes and scratches on that moral glamour. But that is at the core of America’s attempt to regain its position in the world — that one of the ways you do that is by standing up for the idea that a free press makes a society stronger, not weaker.

I think you’re likely to see them do that. Some of the key players [in Biden’s administration] — such as national security advisor Jake Sullivan, somebody who has been interested in freedom‑of‑the‑press issues, and his deputy, Jonathan Finer, deputy national security advisor and a former reporter for The Washington Post — they do see a natural logic to standing up for journalism issues abroad as a feature of foreign policy.

On how the Trump era will impact how the press covers the Biden administration

Honestly, the press corps in Washington, D.C., is in a very strange state of mind right now. Everybody is wandering around a little bit like World War I veterans, cowering at the sound of every backfire of every car.

People are really addled, I think, from the last four years, because it was so dispiriting. It undermined a lot of the things that drives people to want to cover politics; on some level, you believe it’s a dignified thing, that the practitioners are engaged in something that is seeking the betterment of human flourishing. You might cease to believe that, based on the last four years, and it was really frustrating.

It is a different moment right now, because we see some of the apparatus of journalism returning, however imperfect, like press briefings from the White House, in which designated people are in a position to try to answer questions and go seek answers to those questions. There’s a reason why that exists, and some of that is being restored.

I will say, though, that there are elements of the old Washington rhythms which are not great at all. Some of the stagecraft of the White House press briefing, which is performative, it’s designed to satisfy the cameras both for the reporters and, sometimes, for the spokesperson. But I think it is a healthy thing that we’re getting back into a mode in which the White House is more or less responsive to requests from the press. I’m already asking, nudging, pleading for information, and trying all the things that reporters usually do to try to get it.

It feels to me like something that I recognize from the other 18 years of journalism I’ve been doing, not the last 4, and I’m encouraged. I will say, though, I think political reporters should have term limits.

I don’t know if I’ve ever said that out loud, but I do believe it. I really think that you should approach Washington with a healthy degree of alarm. If you stop having that posture, if it all starts to seem normal, including the paralysis of politics, it’s time to go.

It goes back to that one line in Biden’s speech when he said, “Don’t tell me change is impossible.” To hear that from a 78‑year‑old man who’s spent his adult life in Washington is downright radical, actually, because so much of what we are told every day in the commerce of politics is, ‘Don’t expect big things to happen. Everything is going to get machined out in the end.’

I think you want to maintain some sense of what I would call hostile wonder at the moments when things don’t happen, when they’re not actually changing, when there’s as much cynicism as there is.

On responsibly covering Trump and far-right extremists going forward

There’s an interesting journalism conversation to have about how we deal then with the alt-right and the racist elements of mainstream politics today. As a basic point, we need to be aggressive and explicit. It’s worth reporting as aggressively on domestic extremism as we were in the years after 9/11, when we were trying to understand the roots and expressions of jihadism overseas.

We sent people around the world to try to do long profiles, trying to understand: How did this happen? Where did this idea come from? What are the ideological origins? What are the political reasons why these systems produced these ideas? And so on. In a sense, we’re called upon to do some of the same rigor now in understanding the level of racism and rage in American politics.

I would add one little piece of this: we’ve learned a lot in the last four years, about some of the minor mechanics of how you do it in a way that doesn’t provide unnecessary oxygen and visibility to people who are seeking simply that.

Folks who are doing this reporting day to day, there is useful doctrine out there about how you avoid the trap of giving [the far-right] exactly what they’re craving, which is attention. How to do it in a way that is clear and it’s not inadvertently amplifying what they say.

In 2015, my first piece about Donald Trump, published a few months after he announced, was called “Donald Trump and the White Nationalists.” I wrote the piece because I was alarmed at what was becoming clear. I watched the first Republican debate in the home of a group of Trump fans, and one of them was drinking out of a coffee cup with a swastika on it. This was in the summer of 2015. I remember publishing that in The New Yorker. I sometimes look back on it and think, “Why weren’t we, as an industry, more alarmed early on? Why didn’t people recognize what the full breadth of this thing was going to be?”

On covering Biden during the pandemic

It was bizarre. Reporting during the pandemic was totally strange, particularly when you’re trying to report on a presidential race. For obvious reasons, I couldn’t go out. I couldn’t go stand in the rope line. I couldn’t take the temperature of a room.

I think you could argue that Biden was a great beneficiary of the fact that he didn’t have to go out and do all that stuff. That probably prevented him from making a few self‑inflicted wounds, but from a reporting perspective, I couldn’t have done this book if I had not already reported on Biden over the years. They had a sense of me. I published on him. They knew essentially who I was.

I don’t want to pretend to have any real understanding of the race that people didn’t have. I thought he was going to lose for a while, and then South Carolina came around and he prevailed.

I was interested in Biden, partly because to be perfectly honest about it, he was not a very fashionable target in Washington. I liked the fact that he was doing substantive stuff but wasn’t really in all that high demand.

I felt to me like he was an unexploited asset, journalistically. That’s why I hung around with him, and it turned out to be useful.

On loneliness as a political issue

I am a proud product of a metro desk. What that trained me to believe was you can really not learn all that much if you’re at home or if you’re at the office.

You have to get outside and get cold feet and get hungry and stay too long and all the stuff that comes with being a reporter outside, talking to people, and, in the end, that is the only molecular basis for anything new.

By the time you’re reading something at the office, at your desk, it has been digested through layers of conventional wisdom and the kinds of little, tiny hedges we all make to try to stay within the boundaries of normal acceptable thinking. That’s why somewhat wild observations and ideas get machined out of it. One of the reasons why the pandemic’s been hard for my reporting is because I don’t like to be only here [in Washington]. I like to be out talking to people in places out in the country.

One topic I think we don’t talk enough about that is a unifying element across a lot of our political problems is loneliness. I think it is a defining fact of what ails us. We have some elegant descriptions of it. Angus Deaton and Anne Case at Princeton called it “depths of despair.” I see this when I go to a little town in West Virginia that I’ve been writing about off and on for a long time. I see it when I go to the South Side of Chicago, you go to Auburn-Gresham, or you go to Englewood and you talk to people.

The level of loneliness — it’s a deep word, it doesn’t just mean you wish you had somebody to have lunch with — it’s a sense of disconnection from systems and from community. I feel like we’re at the front‑end of a really vibrant discussion in this country about trying to restore a sense of connection between one another.

I think it’s going to take a lot of different forms. It’s one of the reasons why I care a lot about local journalism. It’s one of the reasons why I care about things like national service. The way you rescue yourself from loneliness is not by going online and having these artificial connections with people who play the same video games. It’s by sharing in a purpose larger than yourself and by finding something of meaning there.

It’s not just an American phenomenon. I think this applies in many places. I think we are all, right now, inhabiting this time in which we have the technology that gives us the illusion of community, but we don’t actually have community.

I’m going to be spending more time thinking about that, trying to report on it in really concrete ways. Trying to understand: what does it actually mean to be in a functioning society again, where we feel as if we are part of something worthy and connected.

Further Reading

Show comments / Leave a comment