Maggie Haberman, and when Trump access no longer matters

No more scoops

  
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Nobody in journalism rode the Trump wave quite like New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, who was toasted by the media for her dogged sleuthing.

"She’s the queen of political journalism," Vanity Fair proclaimed. She "may be the greatest political reporter working today," Elle announced in a 5,000-word profile. And the Times itself worked hard branding Haberman, hyping her Trump coverage as "one of the most astonishing runs in the history of American journalism."

But the constant scoops that marked her Trump era work have dried up with his exit from the White House, a development that would confirm just how important access played to Haberman's success during the GOP years. If she were the greatest reporter of her generation — if she was "regarded as the best-sourced reporter in Washington" —  wouldn't she be posting a conveyor belt of exclusives during the Biden era? Or did every one of Haberman's sources leave town with Trump?

With his White House term over, the Times announced its Trump point person, Haberman, would continue to cover D.C. politics, and also report on the former president. Two glaring problems have emerged. First, she's stuck covering a politician who's virtually vanished from the national scene. Trump's post-presidency has been a New Coke-like flop, as he flounders down at Mar-a-Lago, locked off Twitter, and releasing gibberish statements that carry no weight.

That means Haberman has been posting the kind of Trump dispatches that rarely threaten to run on page one:  

• “Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club Partially Closed After Positive Coronavirus Tests

• Trump Endorses a Loyalist, Jody Hice, for Georgia Secretary of State

• “Ivanka Trump Will Not Run Against Marco Rubio For One of Florida’s Senate Seats

Second: the new Democratic administration has turned off the leaks, leaving Haberman and other political reporters scrambling for any behind-the-scenes reporting.

"Reporters drank lustily from the fire hose of leaks that emanated from the West Wing during the past four years. President Donald Trump’s inexperience and chaotic management style begot “West Side Story”-level infighting among subordinates, which translated into the drip-drip-drip of insider accounts, sometimes on a near-daily basis," the Washington Post's Paul Farhi noted this week.

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It was the leaks and the Trump White House's circus-like environment that fueled book deals for so many Beltway journalists. Odds are there won't be many six-figure publishing contracts signed during the Biden years. (Haberman is writing a Trump book, which won't be published until 2022.)

Haberman not only feasted on the Trump White House leaks, she benefited from direct access to him, thanks in part to the time she spent at Rupert Murdoch's New York Post, which often served as a p.r. arm for Trump during his New York City days. "Longevity, just being around him a long time, is something he values," Haberman once explained of her relationship with Trump. Introducing her at 92nd Street Y event in New York City, former ABC News journalist Jeff Greenfield said he couldn't remember a reporter who had established a relationship with a U.S. president the way Haberman had with Trump.

I have no doubt Trump himself served as a source/leaker for Haberman during his four years in office. Yes, he often publicly railed against her and the "liberal" New York Times, but that was likely part of the kabuki dance that went on as Trump and the Times often used each other to their benefit. Trump certainly provided the paper with crucial access. “He wouldn’t talk to me as much as he does if I wasn’t at the Times,” Haberman once said on a podcast. “That’s just the reality. He craves the paper’s approval." According to Haberman, as president he would at times call her and thank her for her coverage, at one point giving one of her Trump stories an "8."

In return, Haberman and Times often normalized him in ways large and small. The daily spent years painting a false portrait of adult decision making at the White House, suggesting Trump was surrounded by a beehive of aides who plotted policy, instead of a madman setting the agenda.

Example: In March 2020, when Trump changed his mind about America "re-opening" by Easter, Haberman reported the "decisive" U-turn came after he pored over sobering data points about the pandemic. That just happened to be the exact narrative (anonymous) Trump aides wanted the Times to report. In subsequent weeks and months, it became clear that Trump didn't care about data points, or science, or saving lives, which made Haberman's reporting look naïve.

Of course, the daily for years also refused to accurately call Trump a liar in its news stories. Instead, he pushed innocuous "falsehoods." (Haberman though, has no problem calling Democrats liars.) Do you think Haberman would have received privileged access to Trump if each day her employer were publishing "Trump Lies" headlines, or if she regularly interviewed mental health experts about the ramifications of having a pathological liar in the Oval Office? 

Normalizing seemed to be the goal. When Haberman sat down with Trump in early 2019 for an extended Q&A, he lied nonstop and came across as utterly incoherent, yet the Times politely typed it all up as a normal White House interview.

In 2019, Haberman famously reported that Trump's former communications director (and likely longtime Times source) Hope Hicks faced an "existential choice " about whether or not to cooperate with a congressional subpoena, as if that's somehow the norm. "When a respected paper such as @nytimes calls this an ‘existential’ question, rather than a question about complying with the law, we have a very serious problem with our democracy," Princeton University historian, Julian Zelizer stressed at the time. "This is what it looks like to become dysfunctional."

One year ago, Haberman's byline appeared on a deeply misguided front-page Times piece as America suffered from the government's futile pandemic response: "Despite Pushback, Trump Suggests Testing Is No Longer an Issue." As if his blatant lies ever should have ever been taken at face value, let alone during a deadly public health crisis.

Nonetheless, Haberman won industry accolades for her Trump reporting. Now with him off the stage the future seems uncertain. That’s what happens with access journalism.

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(Photo Robert Daemmich/Getty Images)

💻 GOOD STUFF:

From Los Angeles Times’ Politicians Dread the Sting of #KHive, The Fervent Online Fans of Kamala Harris”:

Members of KHive, a riff on Beyoncé’s loyal fanbase known as the Beyhive, sometimes use the hashtag #KHive in their social media posts, and many mark their allegiance in their Twitter profiles with yellow hearts and bee emojis.

They share videos of Harris stepping off Air Force Two, make offline friendships, and wear socks and hoodies bearing her name and likeness. They organize virtual “cooking Sunday” parties and offer support to other hive members.

But it’s not all sweetness. Almost any politician, activist or reporter who has questioned Harris has felt the group’s sting.

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🎙 FUN STUFF — BECAUSE WE ALL NEED A BREAK

Lake Street Dive, “Hypotheticals”

Another great Boston Band. Powered by lead singer Rachael Price’s rich, magnetic voice and the group’s love of R&B grooves, Lake Street Dive’s latest keys into the early days of a budding romance.

The song really starts to hop at the :45 mark.

I've been playing out a lot of hypotheticals in my mind
I've been writing your name down next to mine
Been imagining all the things you and I could do
I've seen all the possibilities in my dreams
You're alone when you should be livin' next to me
Baby, let's not wait and see

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