The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘This is the great newspaper war of my career’

On Monday, The Washington Post reported that President Trump disclosed classified information to Russian diplomats. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Trump asked James B. Comey to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn when Comey was head of the FBI.

This was just the latest scoop-for-scoop volley between two major newspapers that have been breaking news nonstop since Trump took the oath of office. Broadcast and cable news outlets have produced big stories, too.

I asked Kyle Pope, editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, whether he has ever witnessed anything like the current competition — and whether he thinks there might be a downside. Pope spent a decade at the Wall Street Journal, was deputy editor of Portfolio magazine and editor in chief of the New York Observer during the period when it was owned by Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

THE FIX: You could say the news is always competitive, and in Washington it’s highly competitive, but this does feel different, no? This has been quite the stretch, since Inauguration Day, of trying to match and one-up each other with the next great Trump scoop.

POPE: This is the great newspaper war of my career. I mean I have not seen this level of intensity with stories of this magnitude and this kind of frequency since I’ve been in this business. As a reader, it’s amazing, and I think as a journalist, it’s amazing. I’ve said before that I think this is probably the most exciting time to be in journalism that most of us have ever lived through. …

One of the things I fear is we hardly have time to digest one story before the next.

THE FIX: Well, one of the things I wrote about during the campaign is that Donald Trump seems to thrive on having many different story lines going at the same time because it becomes very difficult to focus on any one.

POPE: I think that’s right, although I don’t subscribe to the idea that this is all on purpose, on his part. I think it’s more a reflection of his personality. He seems to have a very short attention span, and he seems to foster chaos in his staff, and he doesn’t seem to have a lot of discipline. I don’t buy the idea that he gamed this out. …

The Post or the Times will do what I often think are amazing stories; the White House and the right-wing press will discredit them to the best of their ability; and then before the mainstream press can come back and counter what they’ve said, something else has happened. I don’t have a solution to this, but I do think that in this incredibly bizarre world of media that we’re in, there is a way that the frequency of these stories can help the right.

THE FIX: Some of the complaints from the White House and the conservative press are accurate, in the sense that even if you think the president deserves all the scrutiny, he is getting hit constantly, there are a lot of leaks, and they are from anonymous sources. Those basic things are true. The coverage might be perfectly legitimate, but it does create the appearance of a president under siege by the media.

POPE: Right, although we have to remember that a lot of these stories are his own doing. He didn’t have to fire Comey, but he did, and that created a news cycle. He didn’t have to disclose sensitive information to Russia at the White House, but he did.

THE FIX: Do you worry that news outlets could become more error-prone because they are rushing to beat one another?

POPE: Normally I would say yes, but I think major news organizations have a very keen sense of the incredible microscope that the media is under right now. Because of the frame that the media has been put in by Trump and others, I think there is an understanding that the margin for error is very, very small. …

I think the bigger risk right now is of somebody getting duped — intentional misdirection or fabricated leaks. In this climate, that is more what I would be worried about.

THE FIX: You mean a source who is offering false information to push an agenda or to set up a news outlet to get caught in a mistake and discredited?

POPE: I think it’s the latter.