wapo journalists

From left: Carol Leonnig, Alexandra Petri, Catherine Rampell and David Maraniss.

When President Donald Trump presented a map that looked like it had been edited with a Sharpie to back up his claims that Alabama would fall in the path of Hurricane Dorian, it launched an onslaught of memes poking fun at the president. 

The unconventional methods of the Trump Administration can be entertaining, journalists from the Washington Post said at a Cap Times Idea Fest panel discussion Saturday morning. But behind the humor of the situation, there can be important policy changes and very real effects on people’s lives, they said. 

In the case of the Sharpie incident, accurate information about the weather is potentially a matter of life or death, said Catherine Rampell, a Washington Post columnist who focuses on economic issues, pointing out that in one of the deadliest tornados on record, a report found many people were desensitized to tornado warnings.

“There are costs to this kind of nonsense,” she said. 

The panel, titled “What Trump Wrought and What 2020 Will Bring,” featured three journalists: Rampell, investigative reporter Carol Leonnig and columnist Alexandra Petri. They reflected on how their jobs as journalists have changed since Trump came to office. 

Madison native and Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss moderated the event. 

Asked by Maraniss what it’s like “to get up every day and deal with this world of Trump,” 

Leonnig talked about the relentless pace of national news under the Trump administration. 

“It is as if the pace of news has accelerated … it’s just been an amazing algorithm of increased intensity,” Leonnig said. 

Part of that is because of Trump’s own attempts to control the news cycle, and there’s plenty for journalists to do besides covering his tweets, announcements and firings, she said.  

Additionally, Leonnig said she had been misled by the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, but had never been directly lied to. That changed with the Trump administration, she said, and Maraniss pointed out that this has led to an evolution in how the press characterizes statements from the president. 

“We’ve been very, very slow and cautious to say ‘lie,’ but we have gotten there in key moments where it’s undeniable that’s it intentional, and that it’s knowing and it’s false,” Leonnig said. 

Rampell, a columnist who often writes about economic policy, said it’s always difficult to draw readers to stories about public policy. But it's especially hard to get readers’ attention when she’s in competition with flashier news like the latest Trump tweet.  

“There’s so much going on administratively, regulations are changing on the environment, reproductive health, on health care in general, that people aren’t aware of. And (it’s) finding a way to make that stuff a little bit sexier, because it really does affect people’s lives and their livelihoods,” she said. 

It would be easy to think that all this would be fodder for Petri, who writes satirical columns for the Post. But in some ways, it actually makes her job more difficult, she said. She often can’t use the humor technique of trying to “dial it up to 11,” because it’s already there. A prime example: she wrote a satirical column titled “Trump’s budget makes perfect sense and will fix America, and I will tell you why.” The White House then used that piece in their newsletter as an example of favorable coverage, she said. 

“Once you have facts starting to melt, you get this Dali-ist sort of landscape where the clocks are sort of mushrooming and it becomes difficult to write jokes,” Petri said. 

And some issues are “not really joke material, that’s people's lives are being devastated and ruined,” Petri said. She has written about mass shootings and the need for gun control laws, to try to “maintain the sense of horror about things that are truly horrible.”

Maraniss asked how being called an “enemy of the people,” or referred to as “fake news” affects their work. Leonnig said it was disheartening to be on the receiving end of many diatribes and expletives accusing reporters of making up lies to take down the president. 

But now, she and other journalists are working to earn credibility by explaining how they do their jobs. They’ll weave this into their stories, explaining why sources want to stay anonymous or listing the documents they relied on in their reporting. 

“If you don’t believe we’re gathering this (information) carefully, accurately, truthfully, rigorously, scrupulously, then I’m going to show you,” she said. 

Looking forward, Maraniss asked Leonnig whether she thought Congress would move toward impeachment. She said she didn’t see this happening.

Leonnig then quoted an unnamed colleague, who said, “This presidential election will not hinge on impeachment proceedings. It will hinge on Donald Trump. Has he done enough to infuriate people that they get up and do something about it? Or is his way of governing, very blunt, very course, very pugilistic, appealing enough to people that they choose him again?”

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