Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Maggie Haberman, White House correspondent for The New York Times, initially pursued creative writing instead of journalism.

March 12, 2019

New York Times Correspondent Maggie Haberman Reflects on Media in the Age of Trump

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Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, who spends her days covering the tumultuous Trump administration, began her Statler Hall speech on Monday with something she said is rare under this regime: an apology.

“My schedule is at the mercy of the President,” Haberman said, after her original talk date was pushed last November. “Much of the Washington bureau of The New York Times faces the same fate … one of the most predictable things about the Trump era has been that it is unpredictable.”

Haberman detailed her rise in the media world, the difficulties of Washington reporting, advice to young journalists and her personal connection to Judaism during the Hillel Major Speakers Series event.

President Donald Trump, she said, presents a unique challenge to journalists covering the White House: “He never apologizes, he never walks things back. He never admits an error,” she said.

Haberman has covered President Trump for his entire tenure, but she started covering Trump long before he considered a presidential run. She said he was known as “Page Six Donald” when she worked at the New York Post in the 1990s.

However, Haberman never planned to spend her days writing articles in transit between New York City and Washington, D.C. Though she grew up with a journalist father, Haberman first headed to Sarah Lawrence College to pursue fiction writing before the lack of job prospects landed her in the tabloid — and eventually newspaper — business.

“I haven’t written fiction since the day I started reporting news,” she said, noting that she is a “million miles away” from where she was in college.

Early in her career, Haberman answered phones and contributed to The New York Post by day, and tended bar by night.

“It was some of the best training that you could ever have for being a journalist … the skill of bartending is being able to make conversation, and then when that runs thin, start asking a lot of questions. And when that runs thin, start asking more,” Haberman said.

Haberman first began to hear whispers of a Trump run for president as early as 2011, when she interviewed Roger Stone for her then-employer Politico after hearing rumors that Stone had been in the room during potential campaign talks and was working on a strategy for the The Apprentice star.

After speaking to Stone, who stressed that he wasn’t working for Trump while simultaneously laying out a detailed plan for his election bid, Haberman received a call from Trump himself. She said he told her insistently that, despite the evidence, “Roger Stone doesn’t speak for me.”

“It was a very early window into the disorienting sensation that has become familiar for journalists who are trying to establish some agreed-upon facts during the Trump presidency,” Haberman recalled.

“His relationship with the truth was notoriously elastic,” she said.

Four years later, Haberman was hired at The New York Times — a paper she said that Trump “always has felt has never gave him his due, and whose approval [Trump] has always sought,” even before Trump pivoted from real estate mogul to politician.

When The Times received a tip that Trump would run in the 2016 election, and her editors asked Haberman to break the story, she said no.

“To be clear, I didn’t think he was going to [run],” Haberman said. “In hindsight, not the best call.”

In the years since, Haberman has covered the ins and outs of what goes on behind closed Washington doors, but doesn’t think that her long experience with Trump is what defines her journalism.

“If you cover someone for a long time, you might better understand what motivates them, you might better understand how they think and how they operate,” she said in an interview prior to the speech. “But that shouldn’t form your coverage.”

Despite the accolades that coverage has won her, including a shared Pulitzer Prize, not everything has gone smoothly for Haberman over the years.

After The Times printed a Haberman-bylined story with a headline stating that Trump had made a “call to register Muslims” in the United States — when in actuality he had left the question “open-ended” — Haberman experienced firsthand the furor of Trump’s diehard supporters.

“My Twitter mentions were suddenly a cesspool,” Haberman recalled in her speech.

And a year ago, Trump called Haberman out on Twitter as a “third rate reporter” and “Crooked [Hillary] flunkie” for proposing potential disloyalty between lawyer Michael Cohen and the President. With the recent sentencing of Cohen for campaign finance violations, tax fraud, and bank fraud, Haberman said in the interview that her prediction “speaks for itself.”

“The second of [Trump’s] two tweets was ‘Cohen will never turn on me,’” Haberman said. “Ten months later, I feel like … eh, the story held up.”

Although both make mistakes, “the difference between media and politicians is that we do corrections; we correct the record,” said Haberman.

Haberman stressed to The Sun that journalists must have compassion throughout all of their dealings, which she said was one of the best things that the next generation of reporters could learn.

“Just rememb[er] that they’re humans and that things that seem trivial to you might matter a great deal to them,” she said, especially when the source is a private citizen rather than public official.

Over the course of her time in the industry, Haberman said she has faced challenges both in tangling with officials and with factors outside of her control.

“It’s hard for women in this business. Women are not afforded the same opportunities; women are not in leadership positions in the same way,” she said in the prior interview. “A man who acts emotional and screams is going to be just seen as being tough, and a woman who does the same thing is going to be seen as being crazy.”

“And every stereotype you have ever heard, for the most part will play out in some way,” she continued.

Haberman’s measured voice grew rough only once throughout the night — at the end of the talk, while speaking about her family and the anti-Semitism that has come as closely as a swastika spray-painted onto the synagogue where her children attended preschool.

“I’m used to gender-based attacks, especially online,” she said. “What I was less used to was attacks about being Jewish.”

Anti-Semitism has spread in recent years, Haberman said, expressing that news coverage of the issue has improved since the 2016 presidential run when there was “frankly, not enough.”

The event concluded with the tables turning on the seasoned correspondent. She took questions from the audience, answering queries about what she’s done lately to relax — watching Captain Marvel with her kids, and she “fell asleep for the first half hour” — and gave advice: “Stay away from Twitter.”

When asked by an audience member to reveal the identity of the anonymous author of The New York Times op-ed last September who claimed to be a White House staffer, Haberman cited the divide between news and opinion sections in the paper. “I really don’t know who the person is,” she said. “I really don’t know — swear to God, I don’t know.”

And Haberman laughed at the final questioner of the night, who asked her to posit whether Trump would be reelected in 2020: “I’m not falling for that one again!”