My Life As: Margaret Sullivan

By Rachael Eyler 

Margaret Sullivan at Stony Brook University on October 16. Photo by Nicholas Musumeci.

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post and former public editor of the New York Times critiqued the current media coverage of the Trump Era as part of School of Journalism “My Life As” Speaker Series.

After leaving the Buffalo Times in 2012, Sullivan joined the New York Times as public editor, where she responded to readers complaints and questions about how journalist worked, essentially being “the watchdog of the watchdogs.”

School of Journalism Dean Howard Schneider stated there was no better time to hear from Sullivan.

“I have tried for several years to lure Margaret here to speak, but now I’m happy we waited,” Schneider said. “I can think of no more appropriate time for her to be here than in the midst of one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of the Republic and the news media.”

Since the 2016 election, reporting for The Washington Post has become “all Trump all the time,” due to the strange and paradoxical relationship the president has with the media, Sullivan explained.

“The president commonly talks about the news media as the enemy of the people,” Sullivan said. “He’s referred to reporters as the scum of the Earth. And yet, he actually loves the press in many ways. He thrives on the attention, he enjoys the interplay and he knows how to work the media.”

Sullivan called out news organizations who have played into the president’s attacks, even criticizing her own colleagues who were shocked and unprepared at Trump’s presidential win. Many journalist had the preconceived notion that it would not be a good idea to have him as president and therefore could not be president, she added.

While Trump’s twitter posts and degrading comments on journalists has led the public to distrust the media, Sullivan put part of  the blame on news organizations who have taken advantage of using anonymous sources, saying it has become an addiction to publish “off-the-record” like stories.

“It’s almost an addiction among reporters to get their stories, to get that access to the powerful people and to protect their people by allowing them to speak anonymously,” Sullivan said.

While the end of journalism criticism is far from over as the presidential campaign begins to gear up for the 2020 election, Sullivan said it has been fascinating from her point of view of reporting.

Margaret Sullivan answers questions at Stony Brook University on October 16. Photo by Nicholas Musumeci.

“It’s been a great opportunity for me to write about the things I care about which has to do with how people can trust the news media, how reporters and editors can engender that trust how the media can do better,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve done a great job on covering trump, we don’t seem to know how to cover him and we’re scrambling. We need to get better at it because it matters an awful lot to our democracy.

During a conversation with Schneider, Sullivan stated a large problem across the news media is the blending of news and opinion. She added after speaking with multiple news consumers, the press needs to be more clear when differentiating online news pieces and readers have moved to an online news platform.

“Of course if you read the print paper then you know you will be reading news stories and the you are going to get to the opinion section and then you are gonna go on to the feature section,” Sullivan said. “But if you are reading on your phone or your laptop everything is going to become disaggregated and you may not recognize that this is an opinion piece or this is a news piece.”

Many audience members asked how to regrow the trust of the news media and what advice she could give for more news consumers and future reporters during the Q&A, much to which Sullivan responded saying there needs to be a better understanding of what a journalist does and the reporting process.

“We have to figure out how to deal with this new environment, which is all digital,” Sullivan said. “If we could form a closer relationship with our readers and listen to them more, and also be more transparent about how we do our jobs, then that might help.”

Sullivan ended the conversation by discussing a column she recently wrote on seven ways news consumers can better deal with news coverage.