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Friday, Mar 24, 2023

Pulitzer Winner Walter Mears ’56 Discusses Career, Journalism in Trump Era

News media in the United States has changed dramatically over the past few decades, and few have a better perspective on that evolution than Walter Mears ’56. Mears served as editor-in-chief of The Campus in his senior year at Middlebury, and began reporting for the Associated Press (AP) immediately following his graduation. Mears wrote for the AP from then until 2001, during which time he covered 11 presidential elections and won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the 1976 campaign. Recently, Mears spoke by phone to Nick Garber, a news editor for The Campus, and discussed his time at Middlebury and the state of journalism in the Trump era. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Nick Garber (NG): Some have alleged that the news media “graded Trump on a curve” in 2016, which minimized his flaws and exaggerated Hillary Clinton’s. What do you make of that allegation? Did you ever cover a candidate who was so unique that it felt difficult to cover them fairly?

Walter Mears (WM): “Unique” is a kind word to use for Trump. I guess the closest I could come would be [Alabama Governor] George Wallace in 1968 and 1972, and Ross Perot, who was the third-party candidate against Bill Clinton and [George H.W.] Bush. But I don’t think there’s been anyone quite like Trump.

One reason is the change in the coverage—the word news media means so many things now that it’s meaningless. You can call anything, from a totally fictitious website to the Associated Press, part of the news media, and it’s not. And the rise of social media, which I consider antisocial, has made it possible for people with all sorts of axes to grind to pose as though they were reporting news. And, egged on by Trump and also by the most liberal of us, objective news has become so subjective that it’s hard for people to know what they’re supposed to read, or hear, or see, or believe. I think that’s a great danger to our whole system, because without an informed electorate, you can’t have sensible elections.

As a reporter, I covered a lot of people I personally disagreed with. I spent a lot of time with Barry Goldwater in 1963 and ’64. I respected him and he was a patriot, but I didn’t think he ought to be president and disagreed with his views. But I covered him fairly and my colleagues did too. Barry thanked us after the campaign, saying, “I know most of you don’t agree with what I say, but I respect the way you covered it objectively.” I couldn’t cover Donald Trump fairly. I’m glad I don’t have to try. I couldn’t simply stand by and report objectively the irresponsible behavior of this man and the people around him.

NG: Can you boil down the issues with modern media into any one concept?

WM: I don’t know that there’s any one thing I could name. The fact that anybody with a computer is suddenly a journalist is part of the problem. Obviously, the biggest threat to the kind of news media I knew is the decline of the daily newspaper, because advertising migrated to the internet, and nobody’s figured out how to make a good business model to keep a newspaper going without advertising.

With that support structure being undermined by the availability of online advertising, you lose the resources that are essential to the kind of news coverage that is essential to a functioning democracy. If you look at the major newspapers, a few still maintain overseas news coverage, but most don’t bother since it’s very expensive. The coverage of statehouses is shrinking; in a lot of states where you used to have a press corps, it’s a handful of reporters who show up once in awhile but don’t cover state government the way it was covered in my era. That’s a function of resources, which are shrinking, and that’s a big problem.

NG: Thinking ahead to 2020, what do you make of the perceived split in the Republican Party? Do you expect Trump to draw any primary challengers?

WM: There’s a certain pattern that needs to be repeated. You’ve got to get through the primaries, you’ve got to get the nomination, and so forth. I’d be very surprised if there aren’t one or more challengers to Trump for renomination. [Tennessee Senator] Bob Corker, who’s retiring and telling the truth about Trump and his cadre, would seem to me to be a solid prospect for people looking for a challenger.

The campaign of 2016 was warped all out of shape by a number of factors. I hate to think a major reason was Russian interference—in my time, during and shortly after the Cold War, any candidate who was cozy with the Russians politically would’ve been laughed out of the race immediately.

NG: Can you describe how your time at Middlebury contributed to your career?

WM: Middlebury was crucial to launching me into my career in journalism. I always wanted to be a reporter. I chose Middlebury because it chose me. I wasn’t a very distinguished student going in—I did well in college and I graduated with honors, but my credentials as an applicant were not the greatest. Those four years were crucial to my maturing process, and The Campus was crucial to my career. My contacts opened the door that led me to work for the AP the morning after I graduated from Middlebury.

NG: The relationship between the student body and the administration is a dominant topic on campus these days. What kind of dealings did you have with the administration as a student, and as a student journalist?

WM: One of my duties as editor was to oversee the writing of the editorials and bring them to Sam Stratton, the president of the college, before they were published. Nothing was ever changed, though there was a sense that they were looking over your shoulder.

The biggest issue that arose in my time as editor was the summer before I became editor, a famous and beloved Dean of Men, Storrs Lee, was fired. They did it when the campus was deserted for the summer—I think because of the rebellion it would’ve caused, because he was a great dean and a fine gentleman. I wrote an editorial that basically said that we as a student body had every right to be outraged that a man of his caliber was dismissed, but that the board of trustees was within its right in doing what it did and that there was no way to overturn it. Basically, “I’m as mad as you are, but cool it.” It went over very well with the administration, but was also accepted and observed by the student body. It was regarded as a sensible, calming message from an unlikely place.

NG: Middlebury has received significant news coverage in recent months due to the March protests of Charles Murray. In the aftermath, it seemed that students on all sides of the issue were frustrated by the news coverage, which many felt failed to capture the nuances of the discourse on campus. During your career, how did you approach the challenge of accurately capturing the subtleties of the situations you reported on?

WM: Obviously, what got the attention was the fact that they shouted him off the stage and the professor was injured, and that it got out of hand. I wish that the people that objected to this man would’ve simply said, “The perfect answer is to let him have an empty arena. Nobody go—let the people who invited him listen to him, nobody else show up.” The one thing people like Murray can’t stand is to be ignored. Obviously, he wasn’t and Middlebury wasn’t—Middlebury got more news coverage than I’ve ever seen it get before or after, and all it did was inflate Murray.

It’s sort of like Trump—be outrageous and people will pay attention. I don’t know about the nuances on campus, but I think letting it get to that point takes away the ability to have rational discussion about it. I wasn’t there and don’t know exactly what happened, but it did get violent and that’s counterproductive.

NG: What advice would you give to young people that are seeking to enter journalism, or simply to hold power accountable in this era?

WM: I hope that people who aspire to journalism won’t give up because it’s too important to walk away from the institution that is crucial to democracy. I think that democracy is facing its greatest challenge in my lifetime, because its very essence is an informed electorate, and we’re losing that.

Trump, in suggesting that all stories with unidentified sources are simply made up by the reporters, is ignoring the fact that that’s a fireable offense—if you make up a source, you’re fired. That issue is one the Trump crowd rides hard because part of their stock and trade is sowing mistrust of the coverage people should be able to rely on. So, I hope people who aspire to journalism stick with it, and know it’s going to be more difficult now than ever, for the decline of the newspapers and for the fact that you’ll be surrounded by people howling that you’re a liar.

For the broader part of your question, it’s crucial to all of us that young people and old people pay attention to their sources of information. As a reporter, you don’t go with something if you have one source and you can’t back it up. Readers should apply a similar standard—not just grab a rumor from the internet, but look for backup, look for other sources. Do the research to find out what’s really going on. It’s difficult and most people don’t take the time to do it, but not doing it leads to a firestorm of misinformation. There’s so much floating around out there, and it’s easy to grab onto the latest rumor and treat it as truth. Checking sources is a standard for reporters, and it ought be what readers follow as well.

NG: We’ll see if my generation can figure that out.

WM: It’s going to be tough but I hope you do, because if we’re going to keep a democracy, we’re going to have to do better at informing ourselves about who and what we’re voting on. The whole process has been so distorted by so many factors that it’s hard to see why it’s worth it. But it’s worth it because it’s the system we’ve had for a couple of centuries, and it’s worth defending by paying attention to it.