In an era when the U.S. is governed by a man who regularly disseminates “truthful hyperbole" and “alternative facts" in a matter of seconds through his tweets and comments, journalist Jane Mayer clings to the wisdom of her icon, Robert Caro. The truth, he said, “takes time.”
In an event Monday evening, Mayer spoke with Medill professor Peter Slevin about President Trump, the Koch brothers and the state of truth in the news media today. The talk was part of the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities’ TRUTH dialogues, which aim to create “a year-long conversation about knowledge crises and politics from humanistic perspectives.” Medill co-sponsored this second of three public keynotes, which focused on truth in reporting.
Mayer, an investigative journalist for The New Yorker since 1995, has published stories on myriad topics and figures in current U.S. politics such as hedge fund director Robert Mercer, the Bush administration’s use of torture and Trump’s ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz. Her 2016 book Dark Money investigates the political and financial network of the right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch.
In her conversation with Slevin, Mayer shed light on Trump’s complicated nature with the press, which he at times lambasts in fiery tweets and speeches and other times welcomes into exclusive meetings and allows to wander the halls of the West Wing at will.
“It’s not just that he thinks we’re the enemies of the people and fake news – he wants to be in print and on the air all the time, and he’s tweeting all the time,” Mayer said. “He’s really needy and there’s an aspect of that that’s really strange and, I think, underappreciated.”
Although she is highly cautious of Trump’s anti-press rhetoric, she also recognizes that it is both the best of times and the worst of times for journalists, a phenomenon she calls the “Dickens effect.”
“I think we’ve seen some of the best press coverage in a really long time,” Mayer said. “I have a lot of confidence in the power of the press to just keep its head down and keep reporting.”
As Mayer spoke about Trump and the obscure money-powered dynamics of American politics, the community members, students and faculty who filled the McCormick Foundation Center auditorium responded with laughter, groans and applause.
“What has to change is our critical understanding of what we’re seeing and reading,” said Gary Kenzer, an independent lecturer on media bias in Israel who attended the event. “If we don’t start yesterday teaching people how to read the news and … be critical of it and how to validate what’s fake news and what’s not, we’re gonna be lost.”
Slevin and Mayer also discussed the role of wealthy figures in creating the current identity of the Republican Party and how money shapes national power structures. She shared anecdotes about one such billionaire, Robert Mercer, who has bankrolled a sheep farmer’s project to study over 14,000 samples of human urine to create an elixir of life and believes nuclear waste is good for human health.
“When I get to know the people who have so much power in this country, I get to thinking, ‘if the public had any idea who these people were, they’d be so shocked,’” Mayer said.
The major themes of the night, however, were all too familiar given the heightened focus on media bias, the influence of money in power and the shifting of political establishments over the past few years.
“I feel as though Jane Mayer spoke to what a lot of us had already experienced,” said Rosie Roache, Northwestern Arts Director for Kaplan. “I don’t feel she was telling us things from a far-off purview that we had no access to but we were all experiencing this together. You don’t need to have special inside access to this reality.”
At the end of the day, however, Mayer said her belief in the importance of investigative journalism and having the patience to uncover the truth in a story is as strong as ever.
“The whole emphasis right now is on moving so fast that I’m just hoping there’s still an appetite of enough thoughtful people out there who will take the time to read the longer version,” Mayer said. “And I think there are, I really do.”