• Seth Masket

Journalists Sitting On Quotes Is Not Changing Events


New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman has come under a ton of criticism lately for failing to disclose information about Donald Trump at the time she learned it, instead waiting for it to appear in her book. I agree with Dan Drezner's assessment that this criticism is way off-base -- Haberman gets incredibly useful information and this is part of how she does it. But I want to comment on this general critique of reporters who do not disclose juicy information instantly.


These criticisms seem to involve some sort of magical thinking about what that information could have accomplished at the moment it was discovered, rather than at the moment the reporter chose to reveal it. In just about every case this theory is absurd.


Take Keith Olbermann's recent tweet:

Okay, so Haberman ostensibly knew that Trump would refuse to leave the White House after his election loss, and she got a good quote out of it. So, if she'd revealed this quote in, say, December of 2020, how would events have unfolded? Pretty much exactly as they did. The idea that Trump was calling into question the election results and resisting a peaceful transfer of power was widely reported at the time. Even before the election Trump was suggesting he'd only leave office if he believed an election loss was fair, and he was already claiming fraud. Republican officials were already trying to minimize his resistance to leaving, saying they were just humoring him. What does Olbermann think would have turned out differently?


Here's a tweet calling out Haberman for failing to reveal some racist comments by Trump. Was Trump's racism really a secret? If Haberman had revealed that quote at the time, would that have been the final straw that moved millions out of the Trump camp after years of his previous comments had failed to do so?


Here's one criticizing journalists who failed to disclose that Kevin McCarthy blamed Trump for the January 6th riot. Except, we knew just a few days after the riot that McCarthy blamed Trump for it. The additional evidence is helpful, of course, but journalists who sat on some juicy quotes hardly changed history in this case.


Here's a tweet condemning Bob Woodward for failing to disclose that Trump had considered the coronavirus deeply serious in early 2020 but played down its threat anyway, saying Woodward was committing malpractice for saving that item for a book. Lest we forget, Trump told us the coronavirus was serious when it first hit the US! In March of 2020 he told us we were fighting a war with an "invisible enemy." He later changed his tune, of course, and within a few weeks was minimizing the virus' costs, mocking preventative measures, and endorsing quack therapies. But if Woodward's quotes had made it to print early that spring, exactly what would have been different? We had that information.


There are many, many more examples. But I have yet to see one of these cases in which the embargoed information would have changed the unfolding of events if revealed earlier.


Yes, these quotes are sometimes held back to help sell books. Sometimes they're held back because the reporter agreed to embargo them -- and wouldn't have gotten the quote otherwise. But the idea that the journalists are somehow complicit in protecting Trump or other public figures and changing the outcome of history is far-fetched and rather silly.

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