How Trump's Hush-Money Trial Is Testing Mainstream Journalism

Judge Juan Merchan

Judge Juan Merchan

Drawing by Jane Rosenberg/REUTERS

Monday was genuinely historic. For the first time since the nation was founded, a jury sat down to hear criminal charges against a man who once served as the nation’s highest executive. Despite months in which pundits had dismissed this case as the weakest of the criminal cases Donald Trump is facing, the prosecution got off to a powerful start, outlining for the jury Trump’s long history of scandal, cover-up, and playing fast and loose with legalities.

Judge Juan Merchan kept things moving quickly. Even though Monday was a half day to allow everyone to go home for the Passover holiday, the trial moved through opening statements from both sides and saw the first witness take the stand.

That first witness was David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer. Though Pecker was only on the stand for a few minutes on Monday before the shortened day was called to a halt, his testimony, along with the opening statement from prosecutor Matthew Colangelo, made clear that this case is not only going to be a challenge for Trump, it’s also going to be a challenge to journalism.

In his brief appearance Monday, Pecker was open about how the National Enquirer did business. As The Washington Post reports, Pecker described the process at the Enquirer using a term that makes many journalists at more reputable outlets sneer: “checkbook journalism.”

That is, to get the stories that decorated the paper’s lurid pages, Pecker and his colleagues at the National Enquirer simply took the very direct route of opening up the checkbook and paying for them. Compared to hiring investigative reporters and the associated resources of a solid newsroom, this can be a relatively inexpensive way to operate. And when it comes to juicy behind-the-scenes tales of globe-trotting celebrities, checkbook journalism may be the only way to get the stories otherwise hidden from the public.

As Pecker made clear, those checks were often cut to hotel workers, limo drivers, or other workers who stood around being socially invisible while celebrities were at play.

Paying for a story may seem morally questionable, and many schools of journalism would hold it unethical. But is it really that much more dubious than hiring Ronna McDaniel to provide news commentary, or populating your whole newsroom with former Trump staffers?

The stories served up by the National Enquirer are often designed to feed prurient interests, but there’s another form of journalism that may be far more destructive than writing a check to someone who very likely needs it. And a big hint at that kind of journalism also surfaced in the first morning of the trial.

Midway through Colangelo’s opening statement to the jury, New York Times crime reporter Jonah Bromwich was struck by a singular thought about the story of how Trump’s relationship with Stormy Daniels was kept out of the news.

For years, this story has been told by reporters with caveats and caution. So it’s really striking to hear Colangelo lay the hush money scheme directly at Trump’s feet, with perfect clarity. “It was election fraud, pure and simple,” Colangelo says bluntly.

That certainly is “striking.” And it absolutely begs the question of why reporters would have spent years tiptoeing around this story. Why did Colangelo’s statement seem so shocking when compared to other reporting on these same events?

Bromwich might want to ask that of the other New York Times reporter working from the courthouse on Monday, Maggie Haberman.

Haberman and her bosses at the Times might turn their noses up at the idea of breaking out a wallet for checkbook journalism, but they certainly seem to be open to even more damaging access journalism.

As The New Yorker reported in 2023, Haberman has long been Trump’s personal chronicler, regarded as a “safe” and “friendly” choice when Trump needed to add some faux dignity to some claim or event. Haberman could not only be counted on to edit events to prevent Trump from coming off too badly, but she saved up some of the juiciest events she witnessed, leaving them out of real-time reporting to later drop it in her book. That included withholding knowledge that Trump intended to stay in the White House after losing the 2020 election to President Joe Biden.

Haberman was far from alone when it came to withholding critical information from the public. For example, ABC News' chief Washington correspondent, Jonathan Karl, did not mention a memo from former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows describing the whole scheme to undo Biden’s victory until Karl had a chance to drop that memo in his book nearly a year later.

The New York Times’ coverage of Monday’s court action includes its disdain for the kind of journalism practiced at the National Enquirer. In describing the catch-and-kill scheme Pecker created to protect Trump, the Times wrote, "In the world of tabloid journalism, where ethical lines are blurry, deciding what to publish and why is often a calculus that covers favors doled out and chits called in."

But how does that “blurry” world differ from the kind of access journalism practiced at The New York Times and other major news outlets? When a journalist is more interested in maintaining a source than delivering the truth, questions get pulled and hard facts are omitted. AsEditor & Publisher reported in 2021, even when a source lies to a reporter, the source is rarely dropped because reporters may feel they could need that source again in the future.

Bromwich found the story of Trump’s crimes so “striking” because prosecutors were doing what the Times is supposed to do, delivering a naked, straightforward accounting of the events without pulling punches or dropping in a charming little diner for folksy insights.

As CNN reported earlier this month, The New York Times seems to be fixated on polls about President Joe Biden’s age, while giving scant attention to Trump’s borrowed Hitler quotes or his desire to be a dictator. Few major media outlets seem to be interested in critically reporting the violent rhetoric Trump uses at his campaign rallies or the way his speeches frequently dwindle into gibberish.

And as theSan Francisco Chronicle said about Haberman squirreling away vital information:

In this instance, if Trump was so unstoppered he had started to conjure a coup, that’s news with a half-life of right now. Whistles must be blown, play stopped, the 25th Amendment consulted, Mike Pence invited in to measure the Oval Office for new drapes. At once.

Maybe the truth wouldn’t be so striking if the New York Times would report it more often.

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos.

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