In Praise of Political Reporters

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last night, President Obama gave the keynote lecture at an annual dinner to honor excellence in political reporting. The dinner is held once a year to commemorate Robin Toner, a legendary reporter who covered domestic politics for The New York Times until her death in 2008. (Obama recounted one of the anecdotes that has sealed Toner’s legend: over the course of nearly 25 years of reporting for the Times, she filed or contributed to more than 1,900 stories. She was such a meticulous fact-checker of her work that only six of those stories had corrections appended.) Every year, a political reporter is awarded the Toner Prize for his or her work; this year’s winner was Alec MacGillis of ProPublica. My colleague Molly Ball won the award in 2013 for her terrific coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Obama’s remarks came at a somewhat freighted moment for the nation’s political press corps. Countless stories from political reporters and media observers over the past several weeks have posed questions about the appropriate role of the press in covering a candidate like Donald Trump, who is an expert at using critical coverage of himself as a foil to draw more attention from the media and more approval from his supporters.

Although Obama didn’t mention Trump by name, the GOP front-runner’s unique relationship with the media was the implicit focus of the president’s comments (highlighted in the clip embedded above).

Obama seemed to draw a contrast between Trump and himself, calling for reporters to take tough looks at his own words and deeds. “In any country, including our own, there will be an inherent tension between the President and the press,” Obama said. “I may not always agree with everything you report or write. In fact, it’s fair to say I do not. But if I did, that would be an indication that you weren’t doing your job.”

As examples of journalists who have done their jobs, in addition to Toner and MacGillis, the president called out one reporter in particular: my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, whose cover story on Obama’s foreign policy legacy has sparked much debate and dialogue in the national and international press. In his remarks, Obama let slip the interesting detail that the story had come up in a conversation he had with Russian president Vladimir Putin:

I had an in-depth conversation with President Putin a while back about Syria and Ukraine. And he had read an article in The Atlantic that Jeff Goldberg had done about my foreign policy doctrine. And he said, well, I disagree with some of the things that you said in there. And Jeff is a remarkable journalist who I admire greatly, and all the quotes that were directly attributed to me in there I completely agreed with. I said, well, but some of the things that were shaped may not fully reflect all the nuance of my thoughts on the particular topic that President Putin was mentioning. But I pointed out to him, of course, that unlike you, Vladimir, I don’t get to edit the piece before it’s published.

I can confirm both of Obama’s claims here: Jeff is in fact a remarkable journalist, and if you haven’t read his story, get on that. And as the story reflects, he is appropriately—someone from the White House might say “cussedly”—independent in his reporting; he calls it like he sees it.

Obama’s lecture and the Toner Prize were good reminders of the fact that for all the disapprobation heaped upon journalists covering politics this election cycle, many are quietly and not-so-quietly doing tremendous work. Once you’re finished reading Jeff’s story, take a look at MacGillis’s Toner-award-winning coverage for ProPublica. And Molly’s on a roll this season as well, while you’re at it. Heck, here’s our politics and policy coverage—go nuts.

You can watch Obama’s entire Toner Lecture here: