Toner Prizes Celebration

Held each year in Washington, D.C., the Toner Celebration honors the winners of the Toner Prizes and features a keynote speaker who highlights the craft, the value and the challenges of political reporting.


Keynote speaker: Roy Cooper, Governor of North Carolina
Master of Ceremonies: Asma Khalid, NPR White House Correspondent


Keynote speaker: Mitt Romney, United States senator
Master of Ceremonies: Abby Phillip, CNN anchor and senior political correspondent


Featuring: Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives
Master of Ceremonies: Boris Sanchez ’09, CNN anchor


Keynote speaker: Cory Booker, United States senator
Master of Ceremonies: Melanie Hicken ’09, senior writer, CNN Investigates


Keynote speaker: Larry Hogan, Governor of Maryland
Master of Ceremonies: Lakshmi Singh ’94, newscaster, NPR


Keynote Speaker: Mark Warner, Senator from Virginia & Vice Chair, Senate Intelligence Committee
Master of Ceremonies: Rene Marsh G’03, CNN correspondent


Keynote Speaker: John R. Kasich, Governor of Ohio
Master of Ceremonies: Bob Dotson G’69, retired NBC News reporter

Read the Transcript

2017 Toner Prize Celebration with Gov. John Kasich of Ohio
March 27, 2017
Washington, D.C.
Bob Dotson (Event Emcee): Welcome once again, on behalf of Syracuse university and the Newhouse School, to the 7th annual Toner Prize Celebration. This event honors the memory of Robin Toner, the first and, so far, only woman to be chief political reporter for The New York Times. But more than that, it shines a spotlight on reporters who dig day in and day out for the facts – determined to keep us informed and our democracy functioning, even when the powerful try to hide the truth. It is our best answer to politics that resembles a child’s board game that ended angrily. The Toner Prize applauds those who do some of journalism’s best work and most important work. The kind that is job one at The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, and Bloomberg, and Politico, and Kaiser Health News and the Knight Foundation, PBS and NPR and WETA – all long-time supporters of the Toner Prize. So is the Newhouse family—they nourish job one at Syracuse University. I graduated Syracuse back when the Earth was cooling. (audience laughter)
I used to think our grandparents saw the greatest change in life. I mean, my grandfather was literally a horseback-riding court reporter in Kansas. And he lived long enough to watch people walk on the moon. And yet, just think, I graduated from Syracuse in 1969, after that moonwalk. What has changed since 1969 in our business and in the world, right? Well, my friend Lorraine Branham helped make our communications school one of the finest in the country. And please welcome Dean Branham, your host, tonight.
Dean Branham: Thank you,Bob,for that very kind and generous introduction. Good evening, everyone, and thank you for joining us tonight. As dean of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you to the 7th annual Toner Prize Celebration. And this is our fifth year here in Washington. We love to come down to the nation’s capital, because we know it will be warmer here, and there will be no snow. (laughter)
And every once and awhile, the timing works out and there are cherry blossoms, although I guess they’re a little late this year. Maybe soon, maybe before we leave. The Toner Prize and the program of which it is a part has grown from a tiny start-up to one of the most prestigious awards in American political journalism. We are pleased to be able to highlight talented political journalists whose work grows more important by the day. We’re also pleased that we can celebrate one of our most distinguished alumna, the late Robin Toner of The New York Times. We’re gratified that political reporters across the country find the recognition that the Newhouse School and the Toner Program offer encouraging, supportive and something worth striving for. These are difficult days for journalism and for the nation. The work of some our finest reporters is under attack almost daily, both from the highest reaches of government and the hate-mongering basement of the web. There hasn’t been a lot of good news about news-gathering as of late. Tonight, I hope is different. We will honor a terrible loss in the passing of our colleague Gwen Ifill, of PBS, one of the most prominent political journalists in the country. But I also hope think we will offer some substantial hope for the future of journalism and the role it plays in an engaged, pluralistic society.
It now gives me pleasure to introduce to you someone who has good news and a bright spot to offer about journalism – Joe Goldman, whose organization stands with us in the effort to strengthen the future of journalism. Joe is president of Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation created to help ensure that our political system withstands the new challenges it faces. He was an investment director at the Omidyar Network, which was established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, to harness the creativity of business to the task of positive social change. In that role, Joe helped establish the Democracy Fund and help usher it to an independent foundation in 2014. The Democracy Fund tries to strengthen the democratic process in three ways. First, it seeks bipartisan solutions to make the electoral process more reflective of the will of an informed electorate. Secondly, it aims to help government and especially Congress to overcome polarization and find solutions that best serve the nation. Finally, it helps to ensure a vibrant public square that delivers information critical to the intelligent participation in the democratic process. Joe joins us tonight to discuss this third prong of the fund’s efforts. He will deliver news that anyone concerned about a strong free press should find encouraging. Please join me in welcoming Joe Goldman of the Democracy Fund.
Joe Goldman of the Democracy Fund: Again, my name is Joe Goldman and I come bearing good news. So I’m here speaking on behalf of the Democracy Fund as well as our colleagues at First Look Media. On behalf of both of our organizations, I just really wanted to thank Peter (Gosselin) and everyone at the Newhouse School’s Toner Program. It’s really wonderful to be here. Most of you I’m sure are familiar with First Look Media and our colleagues at the Intercept do such incredible investigative reporting. First Look is also home to an array of other journalism programs, including Laura Poitras’ award-winning documentary unit Field of Vision. And of course, we’re all in debt to First Look for producing the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight,” which so beautifully told the story of journalism at its best.
Michael Bloom, the president of First Look Media, and Betsy Reed, the editor of the Intercept are here with us and I just wanted to recognize them here tonight. You may be less familiar with the Democracy Fund, however. As you heard, we’re a bipartisan private foundation created by Pierre Omidyar. Since our inception about five years ago, we’ve invested more than $50 million in organizations working to make sure the American people come first in our democracy. We work on a variety of different programs, from modernizing our elections to building bridges across polarized divides. But from the beginning, one of Democracy Fund’s core commitments was to foster a robust and vibrant public square. My colleagues who lead our public square program are also with us tonight—Tom Glaisyer, Josh Sterns, Paul Waters, Teresa Gorman, and Estizer Smith.
So the reason I’m here, the reason we’re here, comes back to Lorraine’s initial comments. I don’t need to tell anyone here that the kind of clear-eyed, hard-hitting political reporting that Robin Toner was known for is under attack. For years, this industry has faced great economic challenges, something that we at the Democracy Fund have been working on for some time now. But the politically motivated attacks that we’ve seen against reporters over the past 18 months is something wholly different and represents something potentially toxic for an open and free society such as our own. We at the Democracy Fund and First Look Media are here tonight because we believe these attacks cannot be ignored. My colleagues and I believe that a strong Fourth Estate is vital to a healthy democracy. We want to do whatever we can to stand with you in this difficult moment.
With that in mind, I’m happy to announce that on behalf of the Democracy Fund and First Look Media, we are ready to give the largest grant that either organization has made to date in support of journalism and a free press. We specifically chose to make this announcement here tonight, because this evening is a celebration of the best of journalism. Indeed, that is what Robin Toner represented for everyone who knew her. Tonight we’re announcing more than $12 million in grants from the Democracy Fund and First Look Media. These grants represent a significant financial commitment towards excellence in journalism. But they don’t represent the end of our support. In the weeks and months to come, we hope to work with you to find creative ways to make sure that journalists have the resources they need to do their jobs.
Many of our grantees are here tonight, I’m going to ask them to stand and be recognized together, after I’ve announced each of the grants. Our first set of grants will go to three national and non-profit newsrooms. Each organization will receive a grant of $3 million over the next two years. These include the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica. Additional funds will go to the investigative reporting workshop at American University, which will see $500,000. And a new investigative media project led by Jay Rosen at NYU will receive a grant of $275,000. First Look Media has also granted $550,000 to support a partnership between The Intercept and the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additionally, to ensure that these fearless journalists and many others have the legal protections they need, the Democracy Fund is also announcing an $800,000 grant to the Reporter’s Committee for the Freedom of the Press.
Finally, following the lead that the Knight Foundation set last year with their matching fund, I’m happy to announce the establishment of a new fund for local, in-state reporting to support the essential journalism that’s taking place in communities across the country. The final will receive an initial investment of $1 million from the Democracy Fund, which we hope will be matched by other partners within philanthropy in the weeks and months to come.
So we feel pretty good about the support. We hope that our support for the field will enable journalists and the tradition of Robin Toner and the tradition of Gwen Ifill to do their jobs with the integrity and commitment that we know is so important for our country. I wanted to close by sharing a quote that isn’t very well known. It’s from an early Federalist leader named Fisher Ames. While trying to explain the difference between democracy and a more authoritarian government, he said the following: “Monarchy is like a sleek craft. It sails along until some bumbling captain runs it into the rocks.” He said, “Democracy, on the other hand, is like a raft. It never goes down but damn it, your feet are always wet.” I think it’s an understatement to say that lately, all of our feet are a little soggy. But thanks to the many journalists in this room and around the country, I feel pretty confident that we’re not going to run into the rocks. On behalf of the Democracy Fund and everyone at First Look Media, I really wanted to thank everyone for the work you do now and that you’ll be doing in the future. It really is for the good of this country and for our democracy. Thank you.
Dotson: To quote my grandmother from Iowa, “That is not a stick in the eye.” Wow. The first time I ever went to an event as plush as this, I took my grandmother. I asked her, “What do you think of this splendid gathering?” And she looked up from her meal and she said, “I wonder who put up all of the folding tables.” Well, you can thank Robin’s good friend John Chapple and Hawkeye Investments, and the Walton Family Foundation and its adviser, Kiki McLean, and a lot of companies too: Goldman Sachs, Finsbury, and Google’s Washington communications executive Becca Rutkoff. PhRMA has been with us since the Celebration came to Washington, and the Democracy Fund, which you just heard from, offered us something very special tonight. It is part of our geography of hope.
You know, I got to thinking when I was sitting at the table, that a lot of us are homesick for places we’ve never been. That’s what pulls the immigrants to America. And Kent Syverud is the same way. He started chasing his American Dream right here in Washington, D.C., as a clerk for (Supreme Court Justice) Sandra Day O’Connor. And now, he holds a spotlight for the next generation of students at Syracuse University. Would you please welcome, the chancellor of Syracuse University, my friend, Kent Syverud.
Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud: On behalf of Syracuse University, I want to welcome all of you to this wonderful event. I want to particularly note that later tonight, you’re going to be hearing from Robin Toner’s adult children, Jake and Nora Gosselin, and I want to thank them. But I particularly want to recognize Peter Gosselin, their father. Jake and Nora, I think you are blessed by both of your parents and having been able to work with Peter the last couple of years, I just feel very fortunate. I want to also recognize our great dean of the Newhouse school, Lorraine Branham. I want to thank Adam Clymer for help in recruiting our keynote speaker, and Charlotte Grimes, longtime administrator of the Robin Toner Program in Political Reporting. And also thank life-trustee John Chapple of Syracuse University for his help in establishing the Toner award. Robin Toner was a great journalist with dual degrees from Syracuse, representing the high-ideals of the Newhouse School of communications and the passion for citizenship of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Of course, she was lost all too young, and the Toner Prize is a testament to her ideals. With us tonight are people who are carrying on those ideals, and that’s the students of Syracuse University, from Newhouse, Maxwell and elsewhere. Could they all rise and be recognized? (applause)
Robin Toner saw journalism as a true public service. She created change, as the first woman to be a national political correspondent for The New York Times. She raised the bar with her courage to hold the powerful accountable. Her reporting was both meticulous and illuminating. In her obituary, The New York Times said that Robin had authored more than 1,900 articles while on staff there, and less than 10 required any kind of correction. The editor in chief of The Atlantic, at her passing, said that Robin was a genius of reporting, in fact she almost never got anything wrong. It’s hard not to wonder how Robin would have covered this last presidential campaign. I wonder how she would have reacted to the state of politics and the media today, but I believe she would’ve appreciated the recent words of our keynote speaker, who last month, told the press “thank God you are there to hold people accountable.”
Our speaker John Kasich this week was named by Fortune magazine as number 12 on the list of the world’s top leaders. He has been a dynamic leader of Ohio. He endured many months on the 2016 campaign trail, under the watchful eye of many of the journalists here tonight. Throughout the campaign, Governor Kasich remained grounded in integrity and in his convictions. He promises to talk about his experiences in a new book due out next month, titled “Two Paths: America Divided or United.” In the book, Governor Kasich addresses news media bias, the race for ratings, and the proliferation of fake news. Governor Kasich is also the father of twin 17-year-old daughters, who are now looking at colleges. So I’m asking you all to join me in urging them to think Syracuse. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming our keynote speaker, the Governor of the state of Ohio, John Kasich. (applause)
Governor of Ohio, John Kasich: I was going to try to joke, but then I saw how all of the jokes have gone over—pretty poorly—so I’m not even trying. Other than to say that if I knew that we were going to be honoring or helping Syracuse University, you have Jim Boeheim—could you send him to Ohio State? We didn’t even make the NIT this year. I don’t quite know who’s here, who’s in this crowd, so I don’t know if what I’m going to say is going to be meaningful to you or not.
I was up on Capitol Hill today, and I broke out into a cold sweat as I always do when I fly into the town, and it had me thinking back to the 90s. For a second, I want to take you back to the 1990s and to think about it a little bit. Back in the 1990s, you may recall that’s when Al Gore invented the internet. That’s when we all bought Nike shoes, not these young kids that are here. You know, Michael Jordan was a great basketball player for those of you that don’t know this, and we bought Nikes because we thought that if we could wear them, we literally could fly like Michael Jordan. We were all on the Titanic with Leo, who I happened to meet during the presidential campaign. And we were all told—not any of you young people—that everyone of us, that we were told we needed to dance the Macarena.
There were some other things that were happening in the 1990s that I’d like to remind you about. Number one, is we reformed the welfare system. It’s definitely not reformed to the degree that I would like today, but it was a big deal to see the Clinton administration and the Republican majority come together to try to create an environment where people could get help, but then they could move on. That was landmark. Because in 1997, then we actually balanced the budget. For four years, it was balanced and we paid down the largest amount of the publicly held debt, and it was done by Republicans and Democrats, even after a government shutdown. It was during the period of the balanced budget that we created the Child Healthcare Program (CHPS) that many of you know about, which has been sustained now for over 20 years. Now, I was one of the partners in that, to try to make sure our kids and our children would get what they need. It was also a time of very significant Pentagon reform. When chief hawks and Democrats came together, I had a relationship, a partnership back then with Ron Dellums, and we put together a bipartisan coalition that changed that system. It was also in the ‘90s when Tim Penny, the former Democrat, now Independent, came with a group of Democrats and a group of Republicans that I led to try to cut a penny out of every dollar, only to be defeated by a bipartisan coalition of appropriators in the Democrat administration. It was very interesting.
Those were much different times.
Back in those days, we got along. Four o’clock every afternoon, we’d go down to the gym and play basketball. We would knock each other around down there. In fact, some of us got hurt playing basketball and we loved it. We hung out together down in that gym and we lifted weights and threw the ball around, and kidded and joked. We had dinners where Republicans and Democrats would get together and have a dinner and a great laugh and maybe drink a little bit or maybe drink a lot more than a little bit, and slap each other on the back and become people—not Republicans and not Democrats. You could actually call your Democratic colleague during a holiday, and somebody didn’t think you were crazy. And wish them a Happy Hanukkah or a Merry Christmas or a Happy Easter. It was also a time when we could celebrate each other’s children. “Hey, your kid just graduated!” or “Hey, your kid got into…” —if they couldn’t get into Ohio State, they’d have to settle for Yale or Princeton, or something like that, or Syracuse. But we did that. There were actual friendships that occurred. That’s gone.
Today on this Hill, just talking to a few of the people up there, I was in some ways, astounded and toward the end of the day, when I saw the milling around the steps of the Capitol, I could sort of see a reason maybe to be optimistic about their ability to get along. They have to create these personal relationships where they decide that the country matters than their own political careers, or the country matters more than reporting to the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee. I like to say the Republican party has only been my vehicle, never my master. Where the heck did we get to the point where we thought we had to line up with our political operations in order to feel like we were making a contribution. We have total dysfunction up there. And it just didn’t start now, in the last 100 days. This has been going on for a long period of time. We didn’t get here overnight. And I’ll tell you a story.
Before I left the House, I saw an inkling of this. I can remember being on the floor one day talking to Pat Schroder. I always liked Pat Schroder. She ran for president. I wasn’t going to vote for her but I liked her a lot. I could remember walking through the well of the House and having some Republicans sitting there—smart alecks—saying “why would you ever talk to that woman?” For those that remember me in the days of Capitol Hill, that was not something you said to me without expecting a return comment. And I straightened them out. We have a budget association here tonight that’s connected to this fund for democracy. I can remember being in the budget committee, which was one of the most frankly philosophical, ideological, committees on the hill. I can remember my Republican colleagues saying, “You know, it’s not gonna sit here all night. We’re gonna shut the Democrats up.” And I said, “Wait a minute, folks. Do you know what a pressure cooker is? My mother explained it to me. If you’ve ever seen a pressure cooker, it whistles. The reason it whistles is because it lets steam out, because if the steam didn’t come out, the whole thing would explode. Not only are we not going to shut the them up, but we need to figure out what we’re going to give them to win. Because if all they do is lose, we’re all gonna lose.”
And then we entered an era where people gave up bowling, and they took up politics. And here’s what they do: If you’re a conservative, you read conservative newspapers or a conservative newspaper, conservative editorials, you watch conservative television, and you listen to Rush Limbaugh. And you know everything there is to know about the way the world should work. And if you’re a liberal, of course, you read liberal newspapers, you watch Rachel Maddow and you love it, and maybe you read the Huffington Post. And you’re now an expert. You see, you know everything that there is to know. And then we feed ourselves day-in and day-out with material that reinforces everything that we happen to believe. And if there is anything that we don’t believe, we know that’s fake news. See, that’s where we are. I wish people would go back to bowling, because in the process of this, what happens is there’s this polarization, and here’s what’s really amazing: I read an article, I think it was in The New York Timesabout a woman that was getting married. She decided she couldn’t have the wedding in America, because fist fights would break out because of the political differences. So she moved her wedding to Italy. Wish I’d had gone to that one. (laughter)
But the fact of the matter is, think about this. Families are fighting. I have an editor for this new book that I have, and he told me, “I wish you’d come to Christmas with us because my Uncle Joe sits next to me and we fight all day long. He has one set of views and he reads stuff and I have another set of views.” There’s no tolerance. This is America. People on Facebook, they’re unfriending people on Facebook because somebody says something the wrong way. I had a cable guy come to my house, and a doctor, by the way—I had this conversation twice—both of whom I hope will move up—the cable guy into a more management position, the doctor into running something big. He said: “The way things are going now, don’t express your political views. Believe me, I’m there, I live there every single day. For me, I’m not looking for anything, it doesn’t bother me. But for others, it’s a shame.” And compromise, oh my God, compromise! That’s the dirtiest word on the face of the earth. I’ve just got to ask people, what do we do in life where we don’t compromise? Where does it happen in life that we get everything single thing that we want? It doesn’t!
And so you know it’s so funny, people who aren’t in politics look at politics and say they’re a bunch of bozos. So I say, how’s it going in your life? I had a guy out—I went to this Allen Company event in Arizona—and all of these high-tech guys. One guy raised his hand and said, “Why do politicians pay attention to polls?” I said, “Well, you pay attention to polls too. They just happen to be different. I want to know when you tell your customers ‘No.’” So don’t just start holding somebody else up, look yourself in the mirror and figure out how you’re carrying on because we need more leadership everywhere.
I mentioned a couple of things that I think are great creations: Social security. Medicare. Medicaid. Welfare. The Child Health Program. The Tax Reform of ’86. Let me mention one other now, that as I’m standing here—civil rights. These things happened because both parties stamped them “approved.” Nothing—not Obamacare, not whatever this other thing was—none of them are sustainable, because if both parties don’t dig in, it becomes nothing more than a ping-pong match and a political target. This is just… I’ve got two 17-year-old daughters. This is not want I want my country to look like.
I went over to England. I was over in London after I went to this Munich conference that John McCain invited me to. I was sitting in the Parliament with some of the members, and I was asking them, in this parliamentary system, does the Labor ever talk to the Tories, does the Tories ever talk to the Labor? And they’re like, “Oh, yeah! I’ve got a bill I’m doing with this guy from the Labor party.” I’m becoming convinced that we have a stronger parliamentary system in America than they have even in Great Britain. You just need, I believe, to think about it.
So what about you, journalists? First of all, I had a dinner with like, you know, the one percent a few weeks ago, and I was flabbergasted at what I was hearing. The media is biased. Now, normally I think I’m hearing that from people who gave up bowling, but I’m talking here to the top one percent. I just had a reporter tell me that she’s doing a story about the collapse of the housing industry here—the money we provide for public housing. And I’m going to talk about what Trump did. Wait a minute. The problem with the housing stuff didn’t start with Donald Trump. What about Barrack Obama? He should’ve had this stuff fixed and he didn’t. Now, if you write a story and you spend all of your time talking about Trump, then you’ve just discredited yourself. Because I argue with these elites; I argued with them about, you don’t understand how it works. But I’ve also learned as a leader, as a governor, as a person that’s been around a long time, it oftentimes doesn’t matter if you’re right if you’re losing the ball game. You’ve got to listen to what other people say. That doesn’t mean you have to cave, that you have to do what they say, but listen. So I’m concerned about this.
So what about you? Content is king. That’s what really matters. It’s not all about how many clicks you get or about what this outrageous headline is—and by the way, those who write the stories, make sure that the headline kind of reflects what you have in the content. Maybe they say that’s not your job, well, make it your job. Because I don’t want to write something and then have somebody say, “well, this…” and kind of discredit everything I have in the content. People need more content.
Let me give you one thing that I think you all need to think about in the field of journalism. We worry now about these folks that felt that they were disenfranchised. No jobs, or partial jobs, or any of these things that we read about have created economic disruption and a lot of anger and frustration. Do you know what’s coming with the digital revolution? The number one occupation in America is driving. We’re going to have fully autonomous vehicles within the next 10 years. What’s going to happen to those people? Are we going to wake up one day and say “Oh my gosh, everyone is losing their jobs, we better get to it”? Think about the automobile. Some company told me the other day, we will hire no engineers that understand a combustion engine, we’re not interested because we want it to have the electric motor. Auto assembly lines are going to be shrunk in half. If you think we have anger and anxiety now, you take these major industries. People now say, “Oh, if I can’t get a job, I’ll get one at McDonald’s.” How long do you think that’ll last with the kiosks that are going to go in?
In other words, this country needs to prepare itself for what’s coming. Not react to what is happening once it happens, it will be too late, or it will be so difficult. Content that provides interesting things to the mothers and fathers who could have children at risk matters. And people in this country need to hear it because it’s a coming tsunami. When the election was over, I had a conversation with one of the big cheeses in television. I said, “So, okay, you made a billion dollars. You even got ratings when you just put a podium up. There didn’t even have to be anybody behind it. But you kept doing it because the cash register kept ringing. Now the election is over. And they’re going to tell you you’re gonna make another billion. You made a billion last year and you’re going to make another billion this year. So the question is, are you going to be able to live with yourself? So why don’t you think about the values that make you feel good and the values that you try to communicate to your children, and then figure out how you ought to do programming.” And you know what he said? “Thanks for calling me. You’re right.” He said, “You’re right. That’s what I do have to think about.” Because at the end of the day, they’ll never remember him for how much money he made for any network. They’re going to remember him the same way you remember Robin Toner, and the same way we’re going to remember Gwen Ifill. Because they stood for something and they had values and they were successful and Robin was a pioneer. So was Gwen. She was a pioneer as well. (applause)
Let me also say that, what about our leaders? Honest to goodness, I try to think back to when I was a congressman. I guess in my first couple of terms, I would have done about anything to be reelected. But toward the end of it, I became more and more realistic. Frankly, I didn’t make a lot of concessions back then, to be honest with you. But I guess I kind of thought I’d keep my job. But these people cling to their jobs because it becomes their identity. They just keep wanting to keep their jobs because they keep getting tickets and invites and they walk into a room and they might be able to even get up and make a talk.
Power—this is a failure for all of us—these young people that are here tonight, power never comes from the outside in. We have a guy tonight who went and helped the new leaders of Syracuse get on their feet. Tonight he’s sitting with his father at hospice. His father, his power, if it came from the outside in, it doesn’t matter. Power, if you are going to be a healthy and strong individual, comes from the inside out. And so these jobs – sometimes, you’ve got to walk. I’m sorry, I’m not doing that. We’ll defeat you. Then go ahead and take my job. You know, the funny thing about it is when you stand up and you lead, they never throw you out. It’s only the illusion that they will throw you out. But people don’t get elected in public life because somehow they got the right issue, nobody even knows what the issues are until recently. They get elected because they give people a sense that they know what they’re doing and they’re strong and they’re a leader.
We have to have these conversations with our leadership, with the leadership that you cover, privately, because I’ve got a lot of friends in the media, privately, who could give advice to public officials. And sometimes, when they do something special, notice it. Everything doesn’t have to be negative. Notice when they do something positive. The public has to come out of the silos. Somebody said to me, “How is that ever going to happen? What is the answer to this problem?” And I kept saying, “I don’t have a good answer.” I’ve been thinking about it lately. You know what, I don’t think this problem of polarization or division or intolerance can be solved from the top down.
Think about this for a second. Drugs, opiates. When we pick up the newspaper and we read about some 24-year-old kid who dies of a heroin overdose, is that a Republican or a Democrat issue? I think we mourn equally. And if we know the family, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or Democrat, we mourn with the family. That doesn’t mean a darn thing—liberal, conservative, it doesn’t matter. We have a big battle in this country. Fighting this war on drugs. I can send all of the stuff I want. Congress can send all of the stuff—and we should, we should do more. But at the end of the day, it’s who lived next door to you.
Let me give you another issue: poverty. You know the food banks? Do you ever go to a food bank? Do you ever see who goes in there? They’re us. They’re not somebody else. They look, and act, and hurt, and cry, and laugh with their children just like we do. So in my city, at least, the Kroger food store, you pay your bills, will you round up for the food bank? Nobody there is saying “Well, does this go to Democrats or Republicans?” Everybody rounds up. And you can go into that food bank and see people who take a turn, that just gives people something to eat. And that ain’t Republican or Democrat or liberal and conservative—it’s humanity.
Infant mortality. Do you ever read in the paper about these little babies that die? Is there anything that we read of that hurts us more than to think about a little baby that can’t make it? You know, a big part of this answer—not the whole answer, but a big part of this answer—is when someone in the community where there’s a young woman at risk, says I’m going to take you to the doctor. Yep, we’re going in my car, we’re going on Monday, and I will be ringing your doorbell and we’re going. And the people in that church where she goes, it says we’re not just going to have your baby born, but now we’re going to be with you to make sure that baby can thrive and grow. That’s not Republican or Democrat. That’s for all of us.
Veterans. I mean, is this the most ridiculous thing? People go out, they go to war, they leave the country, they’re out there serving us, and they come home and they can’t get a job. Are you trying to tell me that in our communities, we can’t push each other to figure out how we can get veterans a job. Or the issues of our seniors. I was in New Hampshire when I was running, and I don’t even know how this happened, but I’m at this big town hall. I said, “Did anyone here ever lose their spouse?” This guy raises his hand. I say, “How long were you married, sir?” He said, “I was married 67 years, you know I’m 83 years old and my wife died.” And I said, “Anybody come to see you?” He goes, “Well, no, not usually. My family lives out of town.” I said, “Who’s gonna take this guy to dinner?” Who’s that on? Caring about our seniors, that’s not Republican or Democrat.
The education issues or the issues of race.
Bernice King invited me to Atlanta, I mean, thank you God for giving me a chance to be heard. There were about 200 people in this room, and somebody raises “What about Trump?” I said, “Well, today I’m standing outside of Martin Luther King’s home with my 17-year-old daughter, and I was thinking about Martin Luther King. He didn’t fix this country by going to the big shots. The big shots didn’t have any time for Martin Luther King. It was too political. He went to neighbors and churches and got everybody through the force or morale and the force of reality, to force those at the top to change the laws. You see, I happen to believe that by having people forget their parties and to forget their ideology and to sit and work on these fundamental problems, that we can break down these walls again. By focusing and concentrating on those things that are about our humanness, not about our politics. And maybe after we are together at the food bank or the school or fighting the opiate crisis, we can begin to heal these differences. And we can begin to listen to one another and understand one another a little bit better.
For all of you, there’s nothing more important than the free press. I watched… over in Kiev, they gunned that guy down just a week ago. The enemy of Putin. Could you imagine… tell me, being one of those people to go out and stand to cross Russia and speak out against Putin? Could you imagine what that would be like? The next thing you know, you’re sitting in the God darn jail, maybe in a gulag somewhere. The first thing he tried to do, and it’s the same thing that’s happening in Turkey, it happens whenever there are authoritarians: We’re going to shut you down. And you’re going to become a mouthpiece for us. Boy, that’s the beginning of the end, of human rights and freedoms. I was thinking the other night, objective reality. See, you’re your opinion, if you’re writer, yes, you have your opinion, but if you’re covering the news, it’s about objective reality. What you see. Two cars were driving down the street, one ran into the other one, that’s what we have. We rely on you to tell us what the truth is, and you create a lot of humility because you hold the people, oh, how the mighty have fallen. And you contribute to that.
Look, I was in the press for 10 years, not like a lot of you professionals, come on, I was on television, okay? No, that mattered. Anytime that we think that it’s all about the internet or about Facebook or whatever, if you’re a politician or if you’re an ad guy working for a company, you put it on television. Television matters. You’re serious journalists. Was I serious? I mean, I tried my best, okay? I did as well as I could do, but I so—and this is not suck-up, because I’ve given you the negative—I so respect journalism and journalists and what you do to deliver the truth. I don’t care who attacks you and who criticizes you, you do your job, and you will be surprised and shocked at how many people will man the barricades to protect what you do.
Tonight is for Robin Toner, again. And her husband who keeps this thing going. I saw a young reporter on Capitol Hill today, and she said, “I’m sorry I can’t be there tonight but I love going there.” What a woman, who broke all kinds of barriers. And Gwen… I loved Gwen Ifill. She was so smart and so kind, and she did her job, and you didn’t cross Gwen. But she did it with such class and such spirit that I have to say, I miss her. I miss her laugh and her presence and the way she thought about things. So, it’s really an honor for me to be here tonight and to be with all of you. I just have a sense deep in my soul that we’ll get through this time, but it’s going to take all of us. Not just one or two and not just the people at the top. But most important, where we live, in our neighborhoods, with our families and our friends.
So, God bless you, and thank you all very much for allowing me to be here. (applause)
(Tribute to Gwen Ifill slideshow plays)
Bob Dotson:Governor Kasich is going to be with us to enjoy a glass of wine, as much as we enjoyed your speech. Thank you so much, appreciate it.
We all know what is. And we think we know what ought to be. But not many of us recall what was. When Gwen Ifill and Robin Toner were young journalists, women faced a lot of closed doors. Reporters who desperately needed a hand were offered theirs. The way those two friends followed their careers created a portal for thousands of us to follow.
Both Robin and Gwen died too soon, but their kindness lives on. That is why, tonight, we are honoring a minority journalist in Gwen Ifill’s name. And here to tell us about it is her brother Bert.
Roberto Ifill, Gwen Ifill’s brother:I just want to make a personal observation, I realize I’m the fourth person up here wearing a shiny gray suit. So I guess I got the memo. Well, I want to thank the Newhouse School, the Robin Toner Prize and particularly Peter Gosselin for inviting me up here. I’d like to say a few words about a person we all came to love, all came to know, all came to be inspired by – my sister, Gwen Ifill.
As we all know, Gwen was committed to this program, to this Robin Toner Prize, serving on the board, and I think she was also committed to what it stands for: celebrating powerful, great journalism. And particularly, two important principles: getting the facts right and getting the right facts. I remember meeting Robin some years ago, actually, when she and Gwen were in the Washington bureau of The New York Timesand I noted that they had a particularly close relationship, almost like sisters. In many ways, like sisters, they consoled each other, confided in each other, celebrated each other’s triumphs, commiserated over each other’s frustrations, and like sisters, they competed against each other fiercely.
But I think they also shared the values that you’ve heard so much about tonight. About being courageous in ferreting out the truth, in being ineffaceable, about getting the truth out there for people to see. About being accurate, about being clear, and about being human and humane. The stories we read from Gwen and from Robin were always testimonies to the humanness of the subjects, whether it was politicians or their politics. I think bringing us closer to those politicians as people brought us closer to the politics, got us closer to the issues, got us closer to enlightenment.
I think another thing—and I think I can speak as someone who knew Gwen all of her life—is that among the things that were really important to Gwen, was the notion not only of her faith, that sustained her during that last difficult year, but also her commitment to family. And in Gwen’s mind, family wasn’t just simply people who shared DNA – family were people that you could depend upon. And when she considered herself a part of your family, you could depend upon her. You could depend upon her for advice, sometimes very stringently applied advice. You could depend upon on her to share your triumphs and your joys, as well as your sorrows. And I can say as a member of the family, that she loved sharing. She loved sharing those mountain-top moments with us. I like to say when people ask, “Have you ever felt that you were in her shadow, as this wonderfully famous journalist and commentator?” And I, to quote Mick Jagger’s little brother Chris, “No, I was never in her shadow, I was in her light.” Because she shared her light with all of us. (Applause)
And she got the greatest joy in that sharing with family. Family that included not only relatives, but so many of her colleagues. And among the things she was proudest of was being able to share what she’d learned coming up the hard way, as a pioneer along with Robin, in the business. She was not one of those folks that when she attained her position of prominence, folded her arms and blocked the door for anyone to come after. In fact, what she would do is she would find out where the secret passages are, where the doors that were locked and where the doors that were unlocked were, and she would point them out to the people that would come after.
Her major contribution is probably yet to be seen. Not just simply her sterling form of journalism, but really her opening of doors, her opening of opportunities. It’s not only about getting the facts right or about getting the right facts, but getting the stories told that otherwise would not be.
And that leads me to essentially the first honoree in Gwen’s name: Yamiche Alcindor.
I will say that the example that Gwen and Robin set are extraordinarily lofty ones, and might seem difficult for anyone else to achieve or even approach. But in her work and her relatively brief career, Ms. Alcindor has done more than simply meet those expectations. The fact that her hard-hitting journalism exposes us to stories that would otherwise be buried or ignored, and force us to consider and contemplate the lives of those we otherwise would not consider.
The fact that her writing is sparklingly clear and direct. And that her presence on news programs has been not only direct and clear, but unmistakably honest. Unmistakably committed to getting those stories out. In my mind, I’m thinking of Gwen smiling down on us right now, and really saying how proud she is that the first journalist honored in her name is Ms. Alcindor.
Yamiche Alcindor:  Thanks so much. Thanks so much, Mr. Ifill and Robin Toner’s family for selecting me for this honor, and thanks to my fiancé and fellow reporter Nathaniel for being here and supporting me through the work that I do. I’m incredibly humbled to be recognized among the sea of journalists who are working just as hard as me to tell these stories. The first time I met Gwen, I walked up to her and I was utterly amazed. And I said, my name is Yamiche, but you can call me “Miche” if you want to. And she quickly stopped me and said, “Own your name. Own who you are and don’t let people name you.” And what she was telling me in essence was to be who you are, to own what is important to you, to take all of the things and all of the experiences that you have and pour them into your stories.
Fast forward several years and I was weighing whether to come to The New York Times—which I weighed, I know—and she encouraged me to understand the opportunity, but to also recognize what I brought to the table. It was in that conversation that I thought about why I became a journalist in the first place, and I was inspired by the death of Emmett Till and the courage of his mother to open that casket and allow the world to see her son. I’m a journalist who has spent just this afternoon talking to a woman who is making $40,000 a year and is trying to raise a family of four, and who bought her home using a federal program that is staged, that may be cut under President Trump’s administration. I thought to myself, that I am doing the work—though sometimes I may be frustrated and sometimes it takes time—is the work that I want to do.
I’m a reporter who ultimately is energized by civil rights issues and who believes that those issues are at the center of the political debates that we’re having currently. Gwen told me that sometimes people can’t picture you in positions and sometimes you have to often make people believe in your skills and will yourself through your own talent to be in those positions. She said, and I quote, “It’s important to be reminded how easily we can be denied simple and obvious opportunities, how low the ceilings can get, how much fortitude it takes to refuse to accept the limits that others place on you. But now you have the skills to transcend those limits.” Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff transcended those limits when they became the first all-female team to anchor PBS NewsHour. Robin Toner transcended those limits when she became the first woman to be a national political correspondent for The New York Times and covered five presidential campaigns. To receive this honor in their names means that I can transcend limits even if the ceilings remain low.
Thank you so much. (applause)
(slide show of Robin Toner plays)
Bob Dotson: I’m a T.V. guy, I love looking at pictures. Robin Toner and her life charted a course that changed America’s political reporting, and the prize given in her name honors those who do the same. We know why this Celebration began – here’s how. Peter Gosselin, her husband, won a lot of awards. Most of you know, he’s an investigative reporter, and being an investigative reporter he wins a lot of awards. Back in the day, Robin was a political reporter who got to report more politics. So Peter figured that it may be a little cosmic twist, because, as he now admits, she was the better writer and the better reporter. To actually give a prize in her name for outstanding political coverage.
Tonight, Robin’s son and daughter will hand out those awards and also tell you a little bit more about their mom. And there will also this year be an honorable mention, because after last year and its kind of in-your-face politics and on-your-phone confrontation, it has produced a deal of very dramatic coverage. One of our judges, Adam Clymer, the former New York Times political editor, is here to explain.
Adam Clymer:Thank you very much for joining us in honoring Robin and Gwen. I’ve been a judge of the finals since this contest began seven years ago. We never had had—well, excuse me, we once had more entries than this year – 147 was a lot. I think it might have been even bigger if reporters had been covering the campaign and had a normal post-election period where the amount of collected articles and submitted them. Instead, they’re busy covering the insanity that follows. One thing we didn’t get this year was as many articles about campaign finance and dark money as we have seen in recent years, and I hope that subject doesn’t get forgotten because while dark money may not have affected the presidential election, it certainly affected legislators and the congressional elections as well.
The most important thing about this year’s contest is I’ve never seen winners superior to these. They rank with all of the best that we’ve had in the seven years of this award, and I’m not sure, I’d be surprised if I could sit back and count in a year when we had two such brilliant examples of important political reporting. We have, now to describe them, more generally, more specifically rather, and to present the awards, are two of Robin Toner’s most treasured accomplishments: Nora Gosselin, a sophomore at Brown, Jake Gosselin, a sophomore at the University of Chicago – come on up, you take over for me.
Nora Gosselin:Good evening, everyone. At this event last March, I quoted a story my mom wrote two decades ago about a just-finished fight over health reform. “Reality,” she said, “often seemed to be just another subject for debate in the health care struggle.” But it has a way of reasserting itself after the shouting is over. As has been said, we once believed our country was built on a foundation of truth, of reality. Now it seems that reality is negotiable. Suddenly we’re faced not only with the binary of fact and falsehood that we can trust but a spectrum of upside-down, inside-out claims yelled by some of the most powerful people in our country. It’s been a tough year for facts, and it has required journalists like you to work and work hard, relentless against the shouting. I watched my mom work at this enormous endeavor for years, chewing her finger nails, scribbling and scribbling over again, threads of stories she knew she had to pursue, had to write, for the people who are most removed from power and most affected.
I can’t even imagine what my mom would have had to have said about the current state of truth in this country. But I can so clearly imagine what she would have done: gotten out her legal pad, her pen, and her tape recorder and go at it. The workhorse in my mom would have loved the meticulous, relentless drive for facts found in the work of this year’s honorable mentions. While many news outlets covered the content of the infamous DNC e-mails, this group of reporters followed the thread further, asking “Where did these leaks come from?” What they uncovered in their thread-pulling was a disturbing disconnect between the FBI and the DNC, that led to one of the most high-profile cyber-attacks of modern politics. As one of our judges put it, this was great reporting on the most important political story of the year, or perhaps, the century.
As the leaks came to public attention and as Congress began to call for an investigation, this Times story was cited again and again as a common set of carefully arranged facts, a reestablishment of reality that spurred government response. This work is a testament to all that good work-horse journalism can accomplish. For this, I am thrilled to award the Toner Honorable Mention to David Sanger, Scott Shane and Eric Lipton of The New York Times for their piece, “The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyber Power invaded the U.S.”
Honorable Mention Winners:
David Sanger of The New York Times : Thank you very much. Thank you, Nora. It’s a particular honor to get this award from you. If your mom was here, and certainly her spirit and reportorial brilliance remain with us today, she’d be delighted to see everyone—all of her friends who are here—but the only thing that would rally matter I think is seeing you and Jake, the light of her life, as such wonderful accomplished adults, enjoying Brown and the University of Chicago.
It doesn’t seem so long ago, and pardon me for saying this, Nora and Jake, that I remember taking the two of you and my youngest son, along with Robin through the zoo. So it’s particularly sweet to receive this award from you tonight on behalf of the Times and Scott here and Eric Lipton, who unfortunately could not be with us tonight.
A little-known fact, Scott here and Robin shared a birthday. Not just the birthday, but the month and year. So they were making pretty good reporters that day. Eric, who as I said couldn’t be here, was really a force of nature in assembling the narrative of this remarkable episode in American politics. And I’d also like to thank Bill Hamilton, who edited the piece, and Elisabeth Bumiller, who drove it into the paper, for their great talents. They always make us look better and read better than we deserve, and we never admit that in the office.
Robin was a great friend and great colleague through much of the more than three decades that I’ve been a reporter at the Times. We arrived at about the same time. And like Gwen, a great friend who we lost far too early, she mixed incisive reporting with clear thinking, and a wonderful arch view of the world. I miss her every day, but this past week, when the politics of health care turned into an epic political failure, I think millions of Times readers missed her as well. She left a hole in the newsroom and in our hearts.
Sometimes, in the midst of the chaos and the confusion of the past few months, I think it’s easy to forget what a remarkable story this was. The tale of a foreign power, really for the first time, messing in the innards of an American election – using a mix of the newest cyber techniques in Stalin-era information warfare. We’re still exploring the details of what happened.
I think if Robin was here tonight, she’d say a few things to us. The first is, she’d look at me and say, “Don’t let it go to your head, Sanger. It’s only the runner-up. Try harder next time.” Then she’d note that her wonderful brother Mark Toner, who has been the deputy, she’d say hasn’t he been a really great deputy (State Department) spokesman, you didn’t give him a hard enough time, she’d say. Then I think she’d remind us that what Scott and Eric and I delved into was really just the first chapter of a story that’s still going on, and she’d be all over us as to where we’re taking it next. And then as a last moment I think she’d say, “Nora and Jake… wow.”
Thank you all very much. (applause)
Jake Gosselin: I really love that story that Chancellor Syverud shared earlier tonight about my mom and her habit of her self-editing her own raw copy. Because I think that story serves as a concrete reflection of her dedication to getting it right, a dedication that sometimes bordered on obsession. And I think it holds particular significance tonight because this characteristic of my mom is shared by this year’s winner.
As Adam Clymer just said, we had many, many great submissions this year. But this reporter’s dedication to seeing his story through, to keep digging and digging, set him apart from the pack. His series began at a rally in Waterloo, Iowa, last February. In the course of trying to confirm a campaign promise given by now-President Trump, our winner began a nine-month journey of exposing the Trump Foundation. I could go on for hours about what made this series so special, but in the interest of time, I’d like to highlight only one unique aspect of it.
Over the course of his reporting, our winner took to Twitter to detail his work and to crowdsource for information. This culminated in an epic search for a life-size portrait of Donald Trump that had been purchased using his charity’s funds. In doing so, he inadvertently created, in his own words, an army of strangers, one that included billionaires, celebrities and stay-at-home mothers.
I highlight this because not only was it highly entertaining, but because as someone who watched this unfold last September, I was struck that there was something oddly beautiful about it. A group of people, never having met each other before, became bound together by a shared desire to—as Nora just put so beautifully—assert the facts. I can’t think of anything that would have made Mom happier.
It is my distinct honor to present this year’s Toner Prize to David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post.
David A. Fahrenthold, Recipient of the 2017 Toner Prize:  Thank you so much Jake, Nora, for the introduction. Thanks Peter, for organizing this event. Thanks Gov. Kasich for being here tonight.
I’m so thrilled to be here, to be part of an event that honors Robin Toner. I didn’t know Robin Toner. I didn’t have the honor of knowing her. But, like, everybody else in this room, I knew her work. And, like everybody else in this room, I was jealous of it. Her stories had sort of a powerful ease to them that I always admired and I always wanted to recreate in my stories, kind of a conversational clarity. You never struggled through one of her stories, you skated through it. When you got to the other side, suddenly you knew everything about—well, let me pick a few examples that she wrote about: Democrats poor fortune in the South, Republicans tying themselves in knots over right-wing orthodoxy, blue-collar voters turning on Washington insiders because of trade. She had covered all of those things by 1992. The politicians at the time that had been bested by those trends told her that they had learned their lessons and would never be surprised by them again.
In these hard-to-explain times in Washington, we all take Robin’s example with us to work every day. And I’m so glad to be here to say how grateful I am for that example.
I wanted to thank a few people who are here in the room with me: my wife, Elizabeth Lewis, who is sitting here in the front row. When Elizabeth married me, I was the Post’s New England correspondent, the last New England correspondent. I covered things like lobster larceny—not larcenous lobsters, but people stealing lobsters—it was a big deal in Maine. And a man in New Hampshire who’d grown a 1,300 pound pumpkin. The point is that I seemed harmless then. But then last year, Elizabeth wound up handling breakfast and bedtimes with our two girls by herself night after night while I was at work. She found herself with me sitting at our kitchen table with a security expert the Post had hired after I received a death threat, who was evaluating whether or not our house was vulnerable to a car bomb. I’m grateful that she gave up so much time, sacrificed so much, put herself in all those situations, and also served as the sounding board for me through endless evenings of me talking through my stories and my reporting process. So thank you.
Also, a lot of folks from the Post are here tonight. So I wanted to say thank you to some editors: Terri Rupar, Steven Ginsberg, Scott Wilson, Cameron Barr and Marty Baron. Marty’s not here, but it was sort of him that gave me the idea that really changed the course of last year for me, which was after we had seen then-candidate Trump basically try to wriggle out of a promise to give $1 million to veterans that he wanted to say he’d given it, but he hadn’t actually given it. Marty came back to me and said, we should look more, we should look deeper. To go back and say that this person tried to get out of a promise to veterans under the brightest spotlight that we have on American journalism, the middle of a presidential campaign. What was he doing before? Nobody was looking. So go back and look at the charitable promises he was making then and on the follow-through. That changed the course of my year and sort of became project for the next several months. I tell that story because it’s true and very important, but also because if they make the movie “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” then I can include any of those other editors and I want to make sure I get my part.
I also wanted to say thank you to a few other folks who aren’t here but are very important. The Graham family, Don Graham, Katharine Weymouth, who built their great newspaper. Jeff Bezos, who infused ambition, creativity and great talent at this time when we need it most. So thank you to both the Graham family and to Jeff Bezos.
I also, last and most important one, need to say thank you to Alice Crites, our tireless Washington Post researcher, whose searching in the deep caves of the internet led to so many phone numbers, and clips and other things that I use in my reporting. The most difficult job that I gave Alice last year was, I wanted to know when Donald Trump fired Chloe Kardashian on the “Celebrity Apprentice,” and promised to give her charity a donation to soften the blow, what did Chloe Kardashian say in response? You would think this is an easy assignment. It is not. Somehow, nearly all records of what was said on the “Celebrity Apprentice” had been scrubbed from the earth and from human memory by NBC or by a higher power – it’s gone. Alice found it. After days and days of searching, she tracked down the transcript of what Chloe Kardashian had said. What Chloe Kardashian had said was… “It is what it is.” So, uh, we didn’t use that. For all of you who know researchers or are researchers, that’s the life. Sometimes you find the pot at the end of the rainbow and what’s in it is not gold but dirty dishwater, and, uh, it is what it is.
So I just wanted to say one thing about now, the moment we’re in now. We live in a time of enormous power for the news media in Washington. I really mean that – power. Although we have been derided by some as purveyors of fake news or as enemies of the people, the reality is that in today’s chaotic Washington, those with power often lack the unity and discipline to control the way the world sees them. The power lies on us, the news media, more than ever to make sense of what just happened. Often those who have power depend on us to tell what just happened to them. For instance, how did Vice President Pence find out that the national security adviser had misled him about contacts with the Russian Ambassador? He read about it in The Washington Post. How did the House Republicans find out that their health care bill had been pulled? They read about it from The Washington Post and the failing New York TimesThe president had called in this moment because apparently he thought we’d get it right.
So what’s our responsibility now at this moment of unaccustomed influence? Beyond the age-old requirements – that we be right, that we be fair, that we be clear – I think that there’s a requirement for us to be transparent, now more than ever. There are new people who are reading our work, the work of Washington journalists, who for the first time are so excited, are so encouraged, or so terrified, that they’re reading every little thing about the House Intelligence Committee, or about appeals courts decisions in Maryland or Hawaii. For those folks, we owe them proof of why what we do is better. If they don’t know it from our name, they must see it from our work. I tried to do some of that on social media last year by putting the questions I had asked, facts I had learned, how I had learned them, and also what I hadn’t learned yet. What I wanted to know and what I hadn’t figured out. I’ve seen journalists doing it in amazing ways this year, and this genre of stories, this new thing we’re all seeing in the Times and the Post and Politico and many other places where people put in their stories exactly how many people in the White House leak to them for their story about chaos in the White House. Often, the number of leakers is greater than the number of people you thought worked in the White House. Being that transparent, of course, helps our readers understand that we’re not fake news, but it also helps us by helping us focus what we know and what we don’t know and by spelling it out in a way that we didn’t spell it out before for public consumption.
If you call that 20th source just to get the bigger number in your story, you might find something the first 19 leakers didn’t tell you, or find out the first 19 leakers were wrong. In my case, I also had this amazing experience of putting questions out to readers, of putting out unanswered questions to readers and finding that they knew things. They had context, they had background, they had ideas that I never would have thought of, and they helped me get things that I thought were basically just impossible. Just to give one brief example: I learned from a tax return from 1989 that the Donald J. Trump Foundation had given in that year a $7 charitable grant to the Boy Scouts. Seven dollars. So I thought there had to be a story there. I called the Boy Scouts, they wouldn’t talk to me. I called the candidate, he wouldn’t talk to me. It’s 20-something years ago. I thought, well, this is basically just impossible. I’ll never know the answer to this question. I put it out on Twitter thinking people will get a laugh out of this. I didn’t even know I was asking for help, is the point. I didn’t think there was help to be gotten. An hour later, my Twitter followers who had contacts and knowledge and backgrounds that I couldn’t have anticipated had found the answer in an hour. They found the answer – wwhich was that in 1989, it cost $7 to register your son for the Boy Scouts. So that was the year Donald Trump Jr. turned 11, old enough to join the Boy Scouts. So I don’t know for sure that’s what it was, because the Boy Scouts and the president won’t talk to me about it, but it seems that in 1989, a man that had just two years earlier written a book that said he had so much money he could not use any more, had used the charity’s money to register his son for the Boy Scouts. That’s the kind of thing that I wouldn’t have gotten if I hadn’t told people that I didn’t know how to get it.
The brightest lights in our profession, including Robin, including Jimmy Breslin who we just lost a few days ago, stand out because they could make things complicated—complicated people, complicated ideas—seem accessible without making them seem simple. And I think right now we can apply the same thing to ourselves and to our work, by providing more details, more of the gears moving, more first-person accounts of how we report in this era, I think we can show people how hard we’re working to earn their trust. My little experiment last year I think provided some really thrilling evidence that this complexity is exactly what readers want. So thank you again for allowing me to be honored in Robin Toner’s name.
Bob Dotson: Yes, there are dark shadows on the earth. But the people we honored tonight have a light that seems a lot brighter than that. I’m so happy that you all came to this gathering, not just to honor Gwen and Robin, but to tell America’s political reporters that in some small way, we’ve got your back.
Now, an event like this doesn’t happen unless you can count on more than just your fingers. Robin has a large and loyal family, especially Patrick and Bridget McCall who helped, and her sisters Jane and Gretchen, and her kids too, Nora and Jacob. The best of your mom lives on in you.
And now for a final word, Jake’s going to come with a little benediction.
Jake Gosselin: Before we let you go, I’d like to single out some of the people who made this amazing event happen tonight. I’d like to thank in particular Chancellor Syverud, Provost Wheatly and Dean Branham for doing so much to help the Toner Program grow. Governor Kasich, for defending a free press tonight, and at other times, the need of Americans, no matter rich or poor, for good health care. Our panel of finalist judges, especially Ann Compton, Adam Clymer, Evelyn Tsu, Lonnie Isabel and Maralee Schwartz. John Chapple, for his continuing generosity. Joe Goldman and the Democracy Fund for seeing a need for new reporting and supporting it. And the unsung heroes of this event, Audrey Burian, Luke Miller, Charlotte Grimes and my dad, whose work is too often unappreciated.
I’d also like to thank all of you. As Nora said earlier, this year has been tough for facts, for figuring out what’s going on in the world, and it reminds me of a speech my dad gave seven years ago at the first Toner event. In it, he remarked that he hoped this program would make Nora and I ask ourselves as we grew older what Mom would think, how she would make sense of the world we live in. I believe that line holds more significance today than it ever has. The truth is, I don’t know what Mom would think about all that’s happened in the past year, but I know what she would think about all of you. The only thing she loved more than reporting was reporters. She had immense respect not just for her coworkers, but for her competitors, for everyone who helped perfect the craft she held so dear. I think now more than ever she would appreciate the work all of you have done, and the work you will continue to do. I know we do.
See you all next year.


Keynote Speaker: Barack Obama, President of the United States
Master of Ceremonies: Larry Kramer ’72, former president and publisher, USA Today

Read the transcript

2016 Toner Prize Celebration with President Barack Obama
March 28, 2016
Washington, D.C. 
LARRY KRAMER: Okay everybody, I’m back. I’m sorry I was rude last time – I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Larry Kramer, I’m one of the trustees at Syracuse University, I’m a former Newhouse student and most recently was the publisher and president of USA Today.
That still, however, hasn’t provided me with enough light to read my notes so I’m using this. The Toner event’s grown every year since its arrival in Washington. Thanks primarily to three things: the immense generosity of the program’s supporters, the measure of people’s concern about the state of journalism, and a show of affection for Robin. So we’re all excited to be here again about this. I’m truly really honored to get things rolling tonight by introducing my very dear friend, a woman who inspired students and the staff of the Newhouse School of Public Communications since 2008 as our fearless leader, distinguished journalist, and a very dear friend of mine, Dean Lorraine Branham of the Newhouse School.
LORRAINE BRANHAM: This mood lighting is lovely, but it makes it hard to see up here. Good evening everyone and on behalf of the Newhouse School and Syracuse University, welcome. We’re so delighted you could be here with us tonight. I know you’re anxious to get to our keynote speaker, but I would me remiss if I didn’t take a moment to congratulate the Syracuse Men and Women’s Basketball team. (applause)
Yes, indeed, we’re going to the Final Four. Okay, now back to the business at hand. Chancellor Syverud, members of the Board of Trustees and our other distinguished guests, thank you for joining us for the annual Robin Toner Awards ceremony. Most of you know that the Toner Prize was created to honor the late Robin Toner, a Newhouse alumna who was the first woman national political correspondent for The New York Times. Every year, we gather to award the Toner Prize to an outstanding political reporter and celebrate the importance of high-quality, fact-based political journalism, the kind for which Robin was known. And in this political year, perhaps the craziest political year any of us have ever seen, we’re reminded on a daily basis not only of the importance of this kind of work, but also of the critical need for it. Now perhaps more than ever before, we need rigorous and relentless political journalism. We need journalism that educates and informs. We need thoughtful analysis. We need journalism that serves democracy.
The work of tonight’s honoree, who you will meet shortly, exemplifies that kind of journalism. I think robin would be pleased. Before I turn over the microphone, I’d like to thank some of our friends and supporters, starting with Syracuse University trustee John Chapple, whose initial gift helped to launch the Toner endowment. The Toner Program would not exist were it not for him. I also have to thank SU trustee Larry Kramer, who you just met, who has supported the program financially and also by emceeing tonight. I’m also delighted to recognize a three-year financial commitment by The New York Times, where Robin worked for a quarter of a century, as well as the extraordinary support for the Toner Program by the Ford Foundation and the Kaiser Family Foundation. We are grateful also for the generosity of longtime sponsors such as Bloomberg, Pharma, the Knight Foundation, Google, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, SKDKnickerbocker and Lake Research Partners. We also want to welcome some new sponsors to our stable of supporters including NPR, Wells Fargo, Jenner & Block, The Democracy Fund…Finsbury and the Walton Family Foundation. Now let me introduce to you Drew Altman, the president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on national family health issues and global health policy. Prior to joining the foundation, Dr. Altman was commissioner of the Department of Human services for the state of New Jersey. Just as the Newhouse program honors Robin for the tradition of quality she upheld in advance in political reporting, Kaiser honors her for another aspect in her career, with the Robin Toner Distinguished Fellowship in Health Policy Reporting. Kaiser is among the co-hosts of this evening’s event.
DREW ALTMAN: This is our torch. (Laughs) Thank you so much. When I was in government, one of you major newspapers called me a nice guy trapped in a deadly serious face. But I’m smiling uncontrollably tonight because this is a truly wonderful evening. We’ve long had our own Toner Fellowship at Kaiser Health News. It’s currently held by Julie Rovner. At KHN, we just lost another beloved journalist, Peggy Girshman, so at Kaiser we have both Robin and Peggy in our hearts tonight. In other years, I’ve talked about Robin and what she’s meant to us in health journalism. But tonight, I’m not going to talk about Robin because I want to say just a word about Peter this year. A lot of people in big institutions have to come together to make an evening like this happen. Syracuse University deserves enormous credit. But the secret has been Peter, whose commitment to this won’t flag and who just won’t take no, ever, for an answer. Those of you who know Peter know that he can be a delightfully stubborn ass. He’s been awesome. I remember when Clinton health reform was in its final days and on life support, Peter wrote a piece in The Globe suggesting that it was not yet quite dead. And it was right after that, just two days after that, Robin and Robert Pear and Adam Clymer, who’s here, wrote a long piece in The New York Times pronouncing it totally dead. Peter took a lot of heat, as you would imagine, at The Globe about that. And as always, Robin was right and Peter was wrong. But you know Peter not only stuck to his story– he invited Robin to lunch. So actually if you think about it, Clinton health reform was a success. It didn’t cover 20 million people as President Obama has, but it brought Robin and Peter together and it brought all of us together tonight. Maybe health reform isn’t always divisive. So Jake and Nora, you should truly be proud of your dad. I am and we all are and the President came tonight to recognize Robin. What could possibly be better than that?
And now it’s my great pleasure to introduce Kent Syverud, the distinguished chancellor of Syracuse University, which unlike the presidential candidate of the same color, truly does own the brand orange. It’s my privilege to introduce Chancellor Syverud of the Final Four, Syracuse Orange.
CHANCELLOR KENT SYVERUD: Good evening, everybody , and welcome on behalf of Syracuse University to the presentation of the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Peporting. I also want to thank the Gosselin family, Robin’s family – Peter, Jake and Nora for enabling this to happen and John Chapple for the support that made it happen. And I thank Lorraine Branham, the great dean of our Newhouse School of Public Communications. And also here tonight is Charlotte Grimes, long-time administrator of The Robin Toner Political Reporting Program at Syracuse. Robin Toner was a great journalist with dual degrees from SU. She exemplified the high ideals of the Newhouse School of Public Communications and she lived out the passion for citizenship that represents the spirit of our Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Robin was taken all too young from all of us. The Toner Prize is a testament to her ideals. with us are a group of students from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University charged with carrying on Robin’s vision. They could hardly have a better role model on earth than Robin Toner. I’d like all the Syracuse students here to stand and be recognized. (Applause)
We are so greatly honored by the presence of our keynote speaker tonight. And first, on behalf of Syracuse fans everywhere, I have to offer a tongue-in-cheek apology: We are sorry we blew both of the President’s brackets. Syracuse has a rich history of interaction with American Presidents. Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Cinton – all served at pivotal moments in our history and all brought their perspective to bear from their great office to our students. in 1957, John F. Kennedy, as a young senator, came to Syracuse to deliver a commencement address. Speaking in old Archbold Stadium, now the site of the Carrier Dome, Senator Kennedy described American politics as an abused and neglected profession. He spoke with passion about the nobility of elected office at its best. He called on the graduates to apply their talents to the public domain, to solve the great problems of our time. The challenge that that speech in Syracuse in 1957 has been met by President Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States.
As many of you know, 44 is a number that is sacred at Syracuse University. It was a number carried with great honor by Jim Brown. It was a number carried with great honor by Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. And it was a number carried with great honor by one who is here tonight, and will be honored in seven weeks at commencement by an honorary doctorate in humane letters, my friend Floyd Little. American politics now seems more bruising than anything Floyd Little confronted on the gridiron. Despite that, President Barack Obama carries himself with a reaffirming great, with a dignity that is a reminder to us of the gravity and stature of his office. He calmly steered us through moments of national crisis. As Syracuse Univesrity graduate, Vice President Joe Biden has said of our president, “This man has courage in his soul, compassion in his heart, and a spine of steel.” Ladies and gentleman, the President of the United States of America.
PRESIDENT OBAMA:   Good evening, everybody.  And thank you, Chancellor Syverud, for those wonderful remarks and reminding me of how badly my bracket is doing.  (Laughter.)  Congratulations, Syracuse.  You guys are doing great.  (Applause.)  I want to thank Robin’s wonderful husband, Peter, and their incredible kids, Jake and Nora, for organizing this annual tribute to her memory.  And I want to thank all of you for having me here this evening. A Washington press dinner usually means ill-fitting tuxes, celebrity sightings, and bad jokes.  So this is refreshing.
And it is a great honor to be here to celebrate the 2015 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.  In this political season, it is worth reflecting on the kind of journalism Robin practiced — and the kind of journalism this prize rewards.
A reporter’s reporter — that was Robin.  From her first job at the Charleston Daily Mail to her tenure as The New York Times’ national political correspondent — the first woman to hold that position — she always saw herself as being a servant for the American public.  She had a sense of mission and purpose in her work.  For Robin, politics was not a horserace, or a circus, or a tally of who scored more political points than whom, but rather was fundamentally about issues and how they affected the lives of real people.
She treated the public with respect — didn’t just skim the surface.  Few reporters understood the intricacies of health care policy better.  Few could cut to the heart of a tax reform plan more deeply — and analyze how it would affect everybody, from a struggling worker to a hedge fund manager.  Few could explain complicated, esoteric political issues in a way that Americans could digest and use to make informed choices at the ballot box.
Robin’s work was meticulous.  No detail was too small to confirm, and no task too minor to complete.  And that, too, she saw as her responsibility — the responsibility of journalism.  She famously developed her own fact-checking system, cleaning up every name and date and figure in her piece — something most reporters relied on others to do.  And it’s no wonder then that of her almost 2,000 articles, only six required published corrections.  And knowing Robin, that was probably six too many for her tastes.
And this speaks to more than just her thoroughness or some obsessive compulsiveness when it came to typos.  It was about Robin’s commitment to seeking out and telling the truth.  She would not stand for any stray mark that might mar an otherwise flawless piece — because she knew the public relied on her to give them the truth as best as she could find it.
Of course, these were qualities that were harder to appreciate when her lens was focused on you.  She held politicians’ feet to the fire, including occasionally my own.  And in her quiet, dogged way, she demanded that we be accountable to the public for the things that we said and for the promises that we made. We should be held accountable.
That’s the kind of journalism that Robin practiced.  That’s the kind of journalism this prize honors.  It’s the kind of journalism that’s never been more important.  It’s the kind of journalism that recognizes its fundamental role in promoting citizenship, and hence undergirds our democracy.
As I’ve said in recent weeks, I know I’m not the only one who may be more than a little dismayed about what’s happening on the campaign trail right now.  The divisive and often vulgar rhetoric that’s aimed at everybody, but often is focused on the vulnerable or women or minorities.   The sometimes well-intentioned but I think misguided attempts to shut down that speech.  The violent reaction that we see, as well as the deafening silence from too many of our leaders in the coarsening of the debate.  The sense that facts don’t matter, that they’re not relevant.  That what matters is how much attention you can generate.  A sense that this is a game as opposed to the most precious gift our Founders gave us — this collective enterprise of self-government.
And so it’s worth asking ourselves what each of us — as politicians or journalists, but most of all, as citizens — may have done to contribute to this atmosphere in our politics.  I was going to call it “carnival atmosphere,” but that implies fun.
And I think it’s the kind of question Robin would have asked all of us.  As I said a few weeks ago, some may be more to blame than others for the current climate, but all of us are responsible for reversing it.
I say this not because of some vague notion of “political correctness,” which seems to be increasingly an excuse to just say offensive things or lie out loud.  I say this not out of nostalgia, because politics in America has always been tough.  Anybody who doubts that should take a look at what Adams and Jefferson and some of our other Founders said about each other.  I say this because what we’re seeing right now does corrode our democracy and our society.  And I’m not one who’s faint of heart.  I come from Chicago. Harold Washington once explained that “politics ain’t beanbag.”  It’s always been rough and tumble.
But when our elected officials and our political campaigns become entirely untethered to reason and facts and analysis, when it doesn’t matter what’s true and what’s not, that makes it all but impossible for us to make good decisions on behalf of future generations.  It threatens the values of respect and tolerance that we teach our children and that are the source of America’s strength.  It frays the habits of the heart that underpin any civilized society — because how we operate is not just based on laws, it’s based on habits and customs and restraint and respect.  It creates this vacuum where baseless assertions go unchallenged, and evidence is optional.  And as we’re seeing, it allows hostility in one corner of our politics to infect our broader society.  And that, in turn, tarnishes the American brand.
The number one question I am getting as I travel around the world or talk to world leaders right now is, what is happening in America — about our politics.  And it’s not because around the world people have not seen crazy politics; it is that they understand America is the place where you can’t afford completely crazy politics.  For some countries where this kind of rhetoric may not have the same ramifications, people expect, they understand, they care about America, the most powerful nation on Earth, functioning effectively, and its government being able to make sound decisions.
So we are all invested in making this system work.  We are all responsible for its success.  And it’s not just for the United States that this matters.  It matters for the planet.
Whether it was exposing the horrors of lynching, to busting the oil trusts, to uncovering Watergate, your work has always been essential to that endeavor, and that work has never been easy.  And let’s face it, in today’s unprecedented change in your industry, the job has gotten tougher.  Even as the appetite for information and data flowing through the Internet is voracious, we’ve seen newsrooms closed.  The bottom line has shrunk.  The news cycle has, as well.  And too often, there is enormous pressure on journalists to fill the void and feed the beast with instant commentary and Twitter rumors, and celebrity gossip, and softer stories.  And then we fail to understand our world or understand one another as well as we should.  That has consequences for our lives and for the life of our country.
Part of the independence of the Fourth Estate is that it is not government-controlled, and media companies thereby have an obligation to pursue profits on behalf of their shareholders, their owners, and also has an obligation to invest a good chunk of that profit back into news and back into public affairs, and to maintain certain standards and to not dumb down the news, and to have higher aspirations for what effective news can do.  Because a well-informed electorate depends on you.  And our democracy depends on a well-informed electorate.
So the choice between what cuts into your bottom lines and what harms us as a society is an important one.  We have to choose which price is higher to pay; which cost is harder to bear.
Good reporters like the ones in this room all too frequently find yourselves caught between competing forces, I’m aware of that.  You believe in the importance of a well-informed electorate.  You’ve staked your careers on it.  Our democracy needs you more than ever.  You’re under significant financial pressures, as well.
So I believe the electorate would be better served if your networks and your producers would give you the room, the capacity to follow your best instincts and dig deeper into the things that might not always be flashy, but need attention.
And Robin proves that just because something is substantive doesn’t mean it’s not interesting.  I think the electorate would be better served if we spent less time focused on the he said/she said back-and-forth of our politics.  Because while fairness is the hallmark of good journalism, false equivalency all too often these days can be a fatal flaw.  If I say that the world is round and someone else says it’s flat, that’s worth reporting, but you might also want to report on a bunch of scientific evidence that seems to support the notion that the world is round.  And that shouldn’t be buried in paragraph five or six of the article.  (Applause.)
A job well done is about more than just handing someone a microphone.  It is to probe and to question, and to dig deeper, and to demand more.  The electorate would be better served if that happened.  It would be better served if billions of dollars in free media came with serious accountability, especially when politicians issue unworkable plans or make promises they can’t keep.  (Applause.)  And there are reporters here who know they can’t keep them.  I know that’s a shocking concept that politicians would do that.  But without a press that asks tough questions, voters take them at their word.  When people put their faith in someone who can’t possibly deliver on his or her promises, that only breeds more cynicism.
It’s interesting — this is a little going off script.  But we still have our house in Chicago, and because Michelle, me and the kids had to leave so quickly, it’s a little bit like a time capsule, especially my desk — which wasn’t always very neat.  So I’ve got old phone bills that I think I paid — (laughter) — but they’re still sitting there.  And for a long time, I had my old laptop with the AOL connection.  But there’s also these big stacks of newspapers from right before the election.  And every time I go back, I have occasion to look back and read what I said at the time.  And Lord knows I’ve made mistakes in this job, and there are areas where I’ve fallen short, but something I’m really proud of is the fact that, if you go back and see what I said in 2007 and you see what I did, they match up.  (Applause.)
Now, part of the reason they match up is because in 2008, during the campaign, people asked me really tough questions about whether they’d match up.  And we had to spend a lot of time worrying about whether what I said I could deliver on, and whether we believed it was true.  And there was a price if you said one thing and then did something completely different.  And the question is, in the current media environment, is that still true?  Does that still hold?
I think Robin understood this because she asked those questions.  She asked me some of those questions.
One of the reasons I ran for this office was to try and change the tone of our politics in Washington.  And I remember back in early 2008 — eight years ago this month — Robin wrote a story wondering whether I could; whether it was even possible.  At the time, I probably thought the piece was fairly cynical.  And while I still believe Americans are hungry for a better politics, as I’ve said several times now, one of my great regrets is that the tone of our politics has gotten worse.  And I won’t take all the responsibility for it, but I’ll take some.  We all own some of it.  I’ll take my share.  But Robin asked that question.  She cast a critical eye from the very beginning.  And that was useful.  Still is.
As I believe that that for all the sideshows of the political season, Americans are still hungry for truth, it’s just hard to find.  It’s hard to wade through.  The curating function has diminished in this smartphone age.  But people still want to know what’s true.
Think about it.  Hollywood released films about getting stuck on Mars, and demolition derbies in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and you even had Leo DiCaprio battling a grizzly bear.  And yet it was a movie about journalists spending months meticulously calling sources from landlines, and poring over documents with highlighters and microfiche, chasing the truth even when it was hard, even when it was dangerous.  And that was the movie that captured the Oscar for Best Picture.
I’m not suggesting all of you are going to win Oscars.  But I am saying it’s worth striving to win a Toner.  (Applause.)
So, look, ultimately I recognize that the news industry is an industry — it’s a business.  There’s no escaping the pressures of the industry and all its attendant constraints.    But I also know that journalism at its best is indispensable — not in some abstract sense of nobility, but in the very concrete sense that real people depend on you to uncover the truth.  Real people depend on getting information they can trust because they are giving over decision-making that has a profound effect on their lives to a bunch of people who are pretty remote and very rarely will they ever have the chance to ask that person a direct question, or be able to sort through the intricacies of the policies that will determine their wages or their ability to retire, or their ability to send their kid to college, or the possibility that their child will be sent to war.
These are folks who trust you when you tell them that there’s a problem in their schools, or that their water has been poisoned, or that their political candidates are promoting plans that don’t add up.
That’s why the deep reporting, the informed questioning, the in-depth stories — the kind of journalism that we honor today — matters more than ever and, by the way, lasts longer than some slapdash Tweet that slips off our screens in the blink of an eye, that may get more hits todays, but won’t stand up to the test of time.  (Applause.)  That’s the only way that our democracy can work.
And as I go into my last year, I spend a lot of time reflecting on how this system, how this crazy notion of self-government works; how can we make it work.  And this is as important to making it work as anything — people getting information that they can trust, and that has substance and evidence and facts and truth behind it.  In an era in which attention spans are short, it is going to be hard because you’re going to have to figure out ways to make it more entertaining, and you’re going to have to be more creative, not less.  Because if you just do great reporting and nobody reads it, that doesn’t do anybody any good, either.
But 10, 20, 50 years from now, no one seeking to understand our age is going to be searching the Tweets that got the most retweets, or the post that got the most likes.  They’ll look for the kind of reporting, the smartest investigative journalism that told our story and lifted up the contradictions in our societies, and asked the hard questions and forced people to see the truth even when it was uncomfortable.
Many of you are already doing that, doing incredible work.  And in some ways, the new technologies are helping you do that work.  Journalists are using new data techniques to analyze economics and the environment, and to analyze candidates’ proposals.  Anchors are asking candidates exactly how they’re going to accomplish their promises, pressing them so they don’t evade the question.  Some reporters recently watched almost five hours of a certain candidate’s remarks to count the number of times he said something that wasn’t true.  It turned out to be quite a large number.  So talk about taking one for the team.  That was a significant sacrifice they made.
This is journalism worth honoring and worth emulating.  And to the young aspiring journalist that I had a chance to meet before I came on stage, those are the models you want to follow.
As all of you know, I just came back from Cuba, where I held a press conference with President Castro that was broadcast all over the country.  So in a country without a free press, this was big news.  And it was a remarkable thing that the Cuban people were able to watch two leaders — their own, and the leader of a country that they’d grown up understanding as their archenemy — answer tough questions and be held accountable.  And I don’t know exactly what it will mean for Cuba’s future.  I think it made a big difference to the Cuban people.  And I can’t think of a better example of why a free press is so vital to freedom.  (Applause.)
In any country, including our own, there will be an inherent tension between the President and the press.  It’s supposed to be that way.  I may not always agree with everything you report or write.  In fact, it’s fair to say I do not.  (Laughter.)  But if I did, that would be an indication that you weren’t doing your job.
I’ll tell you — I probably maybe shouldn’t do this, but what the heck, I’m in my last year.  (Laughter.)  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.  (Laughter and applause.)
So you are supposed to push those in power for more evidence and more access.  You’re supposed to challenge our assumptions.  Sometimes I will find this frustrating.  Sometimes I may not be able to share with you all of the context of decisions that I make.  But I never doubt how much — how critical it is to our democracy for you to do that; how much I value great journalism.  And you should not underestimate the number of times that I have read something that you did, and I have called somebody up and said, what’s going on here?  Because as Bob Gates told me when I first came in — I think it was my first or second week — I said, well, what advice do you have, Bob?  You’ve been around seven presidents.  You’ve served in Washington, in the administration.  He said, Mr. President, the only thing I can tell you for sure is that you’ve got about two million employees, and at any given moment in any given day, somebody, somewhere, is screwing up.  (Laughter.)
So you help me do my job better, and I’m grateful for that.  Because the point of politics, as Robin understood it — certainly as I’ve tried to understand it throughout my tenure in this job — the point of politics is not simply the amassing of power.  It’s about what you do with that power that has been lent to you through a compact, with a citizenry, who give you their proxy and say “I’m counting on you” to not just make my life better, but more importantly, to make my kids’ lives better, and my grandkids’ lives better.  Who will we help?  How will we help them?  What kind of country do we leave to the next generation?
My hope is, is that you continue to ask us questions that keep us honest and elevate our democracy.  I ask that you continue to understand your role as a partner in this process.  I say this often when I speak to Democratic partisan crowds:  I never said, “Yes, I can.”  I said, “Yes, we can.”  And that means all of us.  (Applause.)  If we can keep supporting the kind of work that Robin championed, if we cultivate the next generation of smart, tough, fair-minded journalists, if we can all, every single one of us, carry on her legacy of public service and her faith in citizenry — because you have to have a certain faith to be a really good journalist; you have to believe that me getting it right matters, that it’s not just sending something into the void, but that there’s somebody on the other end who’s receiving it, and that matters — if you continue to believe that, if you have faith, I have no doubt that America’s best days are ahead.
So thank you to Robin’s family.  Congratulations to this year’s winner.  And thank all of you.  God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.  (Applause.)  Thank you.
LARRY KRAMER: Okay, how about that speech. (Applause.) From his mouth to God’s ears. Um, so, we’re going to go into this final part of the program, it’s a short part, but it’s the prize part. This year’s Toner Prize winner joins a very eminent group of previous winners, many of whom are here, including Dan Balz and Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Molly Ball of The Atlantic and Craig Harris of The Arizona Republic. Now what I’d like to do is introduce Adam Clymer, a retired New York Times political editor, and a very close friend of Robin’s. A major league curmudgeon, I might add. And a pain in the ass to several presidents. And he’s also a finalist judge in the prize and he’s here to tell us a little about the entries this year and to introduce Nora and Jake to tell us who won.
ADAM CLYMER: Sorry the only lights are in front of me, give me a second. Chancellor Syverud, friends and admirers of Robin Toner. It’s been an honor for me to be, for six years, a finalist judge for the Toner award. The prize, as you’ve heard, is a tribute to the political reporting my friend Robin did so often for The Times – emphasizing policy and not horse races. You’ll hear more about this year’s winner in a moment. The winning entry was among many of this year’s 134 entries that dealt with dark money – a sinister term popularized by our 2013 winner Jane Mayer. And the best of those entries, including the winner – but not limited to it – told us more than where the money came from and where it went. But whether it actually succeeded in maintaining or changing public policy. The good news is sometimes it didn’t. Anyway, that is what Robin in particular would’ve wanted to know and to report. This year’s winner was the first ever to be a unanimous choice. So for me and the other four finalist judges, the judging process was not difficult. But you should know that a lot of hard work went before the final judging. That unsung work of sorting entries and recruiting preliminary judges – 39 of them listed in your program, I believe – was done as has been mentioned, by Charlotte Grimes, Knight professor emerita, and by Audrey Burian at the Newhouse School. Audrey and a few of the preliminary judges are here, so I’d like to ask you all to stand so that your work gets some applause. (Applause.)
Finally, it’s my distinct pleasure to introduce one of my friend Robin’s proudest accomplishments, her daughter Nora.
NORA GOSSELIN: Good evening. Jake and I take turns presenting the actual Toner Prize and, as this year it’s Jake’s turn, I was left with the huge task of speaking for our family. Faced with the same task last year, Jake talked about what this program has meant to the two of us in the past. Tonight, I want to talk about what I think it will mean in the future. And to do so, I would like to begin at the end.
Each year, Jake and I end our speeches with some variation of an expression I believe to be beautiful and true – that twe are eternally grateful for the program, for the expansive and enduring newsroom family — many of you sitting in this room tonight — that has carried us through by the sheer force of your convictions. But this year, as — it’s hard to believe– we’re beginning our adult lives, I want to amend my statements of mere gratitude. Because this program, and what it stands for, are not simply things to be grateful for. They’re things that Jake and I and every one of us need and need to fight for. On a personal level, Jake and I look to you all for what it means to be Mom’s children as adults. We’re both trying to figure that out, especially now that we’ve left home. You pass on wisdom about what she held most dear. How to be ferocious in seeking the truth but also compassionate in listening to those often unheard. How to be independent in one’s work but also invested in a team of family. When this program began, Jake and I were 12 years old, and these things, these were intangibles that our parents often lectured to us about, but that we couldn’t possibly understand just yet. Seven years later, these lessons of the craft my mom so loved, embodied by the people she cared for, make more sense to Jake and I because of you. We begin our adult lives deeply inspired by them.
But at once the purpose of this program is much deeper than the two of us. It’s even bigger than this immediate and tightly knit newsroom family. It’s about the world. It’s about reclaiming the idea that there exists a set of facts easily and often lost in the noise that, like it or not, binds us all.
Two decades ago, my mom wrote about a just-finished health reform fight. She said reality often seemed to be just another subject for debate in the health care struggle. But it has a way of reasserting itself once the shouting is over. We need programs like this and work like yours . So lean against the shouting and perhaps quietly, persistently insist upon the facts. So this year I want to thank you all not just for the lessons you have taught Jake and I but also for what each and every one of you do each and every day to ensure that reality is not another subject for debate. We’re grateful. The world should be too.
JAKE GOSSELIN: Thank you. As Nora said, the purpose of this prize is to recognize the kind of fact-based reporting which defined my Mom’s career. This year’s winner embodies these values and more. His submission, which included an expose on ConocoPhillips influence in congressional chambers, an investigation into why bipartisan infrastructure legislation consistently fails, and an analysis of why some traditionally Democratic states are turning red, caught the eyes of our judges due to its breathtaking reporting and excellent writing. But what truly made his entries stand out from the pack was that in the words of our judges, he quote “looked at areas that affect people’s lives.”
As the president said, my Mom began her career at a small local paper, the Charleston Daily Mail. She spent most of her time there covering the coal mining industry and the miners who worked for it. In fact, the first story she wrote that gained national attention was covering a strike held by their local part of the United Mine Workers. And though she rose quickly from paper to paper, she never forgot the bonds she formed during these first years in West Virginia. Her commitment to fact-based reporting was informed in part by a deep sense of empathy she developed during this period. For the people behind the politics. Even in the heat of the dramatic elections she subsequently covered, she never forgot that these were the people she was fighting for.
This year’s winner’s decision in the midst of a wild campaign season to focus on the issues that affect people’s lives is one that I can say without a doubt my Mom would’ve admired and respected. The kind of journalism he practices is the kind my mom prized above all else. It is truly a privilege to present this year’s Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting to Alec MacGillis of ProPublica. Thank you. (Applause.)
ALEC MACGILLIS: Um, thank you so much, Jake. This is a tremendous honor for me and ProPublica. I’ve been at this work for 20 years now. I started at a two-person, weekly paper in Winsted, Connecticut. Kind of like Robin, in West Virginia. That was Ralph Nader’s hometown. I worked my way up from there, and through all that time, I’ve never gotten a prize like this. Much less one that was overseen by the Secret Service. So it’s very exciting and also a little overwhelming. It’s also a bit strange for me to be in this very grand building. The last time that I was here, in fact the last time that Rachel and I were down for an evening from Baltimore where we live, was 16 months ago when we attended the big celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the New Republic. Along with President Clinton and Justice Ginsburg. It was a grand event.
A few weeks after that dinner, the magazine exploded in staff revolt as I and many others walked out of the office en mass. So to the Newhouse School and ProPublica, take that as a warning. I want to thank Robin’s family. Peter’s second job reporting was in my home county in Western Mass., but this is the first time that I’ve gotten to meet him and Nora and Jake. And it was great to do so. Also the selection committee and the Newhouse School, once again, congratulations on the big win last night. I want to thank the guest of honor for making the trip over tonight. We first met on the trail back in 2008 when he had to take a detour from campaigning in Ohio for the memorial service after an awful campus shooting in Illinois. And I was the pool guy assigned to come along for that. I remember being struck that when we were flying to rejoin the pack in a Gulf Stream jet and were chatting over breakfast, that we eventually broke off the conversation to read the papers. Like all the papers – – The Times, The Journal, the FT, deep into the business sections. That was impressive. However, that does not get him off the hook for his administration taking so long to respond to our FOIAs. (Applause)
I want to thank my editors at ProPublica, Larry Roberts and Steve Engelberg, (applause) who are both here tonight. And also others at the organization like Robin Fields, Dick Tofel and Eric Umansky. I also want to thank the many editors at my previous stops, who gave me opportunities and improved my work. I’m so fortunate to have had their guidance. Some of them are here tonight. Thinking of Diane Webber, Mike Pride, Bill Marimow, John Fairhall, Bill Hamilton, Steven Ginsberg, Kevin Merida, Richard Just, Rachel Morris and Frank Foer – or should I say, Frank Foyer. A little in-joke there.
I also need to thank another editor, my father, Don MacGillis. He’s the original role model. And I need to thank my wife, Rachel Brash. As many of you know, being married to a journalist is not easy. I couldn’t do it without her.
So I’ve got to admit that I was surprised to get the call about this political reporting award because I spent most of the last year pretty far from the big political story of the year, which was of course the start of the campaign. And there was plenty of good reporting on that by the people in this room. Larry suggested that we apply anyway. Thank you, Larry. What I should have kept in mind was that the prize was in memory in someone who showed how broad the definition of political reporting can be. That it’s not just about the campaign. And it’s not just about policy, either. It’s about pulling it all together. The elections, and the actions in office, and the implications for real people. The Flint crisis is a political story and an even better one would have been exposing it before it took its toll. How Appalachia responds to the collapse of the coal industry is a political story. How a $3-billion transit line for West Baltimore, where in live in Baltimore, was killed on the verge of construction last summer is a political story. But it was barely told as it was happening, even when Baltimore was allegedly higher on our radar of concern. And that’s just 40 miles from here.
I’m well aware that I’m in a privileged space, working in the non-profit, donor-supported realm. Thank you, donors. I understand the market pressures that lead to a more narrow approach. To start covering the campaign two years ahead of time, to send hundreds of people to one debate after another. People like the horse race, I like the horse race. I even sometimes bet on actual horse races because I live in Baltimore.
But this isn’t a matter of absolutes, it’s a matter of degree. Of shifting the balance. We have agency. We have so many models for defining political reporting more broadly. There was the Chico Harlan piece in The Post last year about the workers at the Chinese-owned factory in Alabama that are humiliated by their low pay. There were Abby Goodnough stories about Obamacare in Kentucky. There was Nick Confessore’s piece today in The Times, which is a fantastic piece about Trump and the Republicans. There’s all this stuff being done by the political economics wiz-kids that make me feel really old.
This is a pretty crazy stretch we’re in right now. High-quality, reality-based reporting suddenly seems awfully important. And I think we’re rising to the challenge in some ways. We seem to be to calling things more for what they are, which is a big step. But what’s happening now also shows why it’s important to broaden the lens, so we can better understand what’s happening out there. We all know the deal. Across the country, 1 out of every 4 reporting jobs was lost in the past decade. 12,000 of them. Over the same period, the number of reporters here in Washington has doubled.
There are important stories to be told here of course. To cover the government as it actually exists now, in advance of the next election. To hold the officials accountable. To scrutinize the influences working on them. To explain how things have gotten to be so broken in Washington, which has played such a big part in fueling the alienation that’s out there. But if we’re going to figure out this great disconnect, between places like this that are more prosperous than ever, and places that really are not, we need to be out there more too. Not just talking to voters, but looking for the stories of the problems in their lives and towns, that simply aren’t being captured anymore because of those coverage gaps.
And here’s the thing – there’s real demand for those kinds of stories. I was amazed by the response to my piece in The Times about anti-welfare sentiment in poor areas of the country. There’s a hunger to understand what’s happening. There’s an appetite for that kind of political reporting. The kind that Robin Toner showed us how to do. Thanks again.
LARRY KRAMER: We want to congratulate Alec. It was a wonderful piece of journalism. And I also want to congratulate ProPublica, which has really done a fantastic job over the last 8 or 9 years of really leading us and to make sure we don’t forget what investigative reporting is.
This has been a wonderful night. I want to thank the President of the United States for a terrific speech. I think we owe a debt to the Gosselin family, who have done a tremendous job as well. And the Syracuse family, many of whom are sitting out there today, for doing a great job too. And finally the men and women of our hoops team who helped to provide a terrific weekend as well, and I’m sure you’ll be watching next weekend in Indianapolis for the women and in Houston for the men.
Meanwhile, for the final word of the night and for benediction, let’s bring Jake back up.
JAKE GOSSELIN: There is an immense amount of work that goes into making this event happen each year. And so before we finish, I just want to single out a few people in particular who have been absolutely essential to this program’s success. Syracuse University and the Newhouse School have been amazing partners over the past seven years. And I want to thank Chancellor Syverud and Dean Branham in particular, for keeping this program alive and allowing this program to grow into what it is today.
I want to thank our fantastic judging panel, especially Tom Brokaw, Adam Clymer, Paul Delaney, Pam Fine and Maralee Schwartz, for their hard work and dedication in combing through our now hundreds of submissions each year.
I want to thank this program’s many sponsors and supporters. Especially John Chapple, who’s a loyal friend to my Mom and who’s generosity is the reason this program began in the first place. I want to thank the President and his senior staff. I know I speak for my family and this entire room when I say having him here tonight was an honor and privilege beyond words. I want to thank Arthur Sulzberger, Dean Baquet and The New York Times. You were my Mom’s family as much as I was. And having your support for this program means more than I can say. And I want to thank the unsung heroes of this program and this event – Luke Miller, Charlotte Grimes, Audrey Burian and my dad, who as was said earlier, is the life and soul behind these events. (Applause)
The amount of work he has put into this program for the past seven years, while working and raising two kids by himself is genuinely awe-inspiring. And as his son and as a supporter of this program, I am incredibly grateful. Finally, I want to thank all of you. These events don’t happen unless we have the people to fill these seats. And while many of you are new to this event, many of you have been coming to this event since I was 12 years old.
As Nora said so eloquently, this program holds a special place in both of our hearts. And it doesn’t happen without all of you. So for that, I thank you all. I hope to see you again next year. Goodnight.


Keynote Speaker: Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Secretary of State
Master of Ceremonies: Larry Kramer ’72, former president and publisher, USA Today

Read the transcript

Toner Prize Celebration with Hillary Rodham Clinton
March 23, 2015
Washington, D.C. 
Larry Kramer: I’m Larry Kramer and I am the publisher of USA Today. I’ll be your emcee tonight. (applause) I am a member of Board of Trustees of Syracuse. A proud member. I want to welcome you all on behalf of the Robin Toner Program of Political Reporting and the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse. Robin was a ’76 Syracuse grad – for those who don’t know – who rose to become the first women as national political correspondent for The New York Times. This is the 5th anniversary of the Toner Program and the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
Let me just extend a special thanks to our sponsors. The first is John Chapple, who is a Syracuse trustee and chairman of the board. John was a close friend of Robin’s and remembers how she could out-work him just about at every exam prep and out-write him at every paper. He is also the founding benefactor of the Toner Program and he just made a generous new gift to the program. Thank you very much, John (applause).
The other sponsors of today’s event are USA Today (applause) – a good American paper – Bloomberg, Google, and PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. I would like to thank all of them.
And finally, the last person that I want to thank that is not here. But Newhouse Professor Charlotte Grimes who held the Knight Chair at Syracuse after a distinguished career as a political reporter. Professor Grimes was the founding administrator of the Toner Program and she had this amazing mix of Alabama sweetness and ferocious drive to get this program off the ground. And I am pretty certain that without her, none of us will be here tonight if it wasn’t for her. Charlotte, you’re not here but thank you very much. (applause)
So you have already started eating. The remainder of this event celebration will occur in a few minutes. Highlights of course include keynote address by the former Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton and the presentation of the Toner Prize. So have fun at dinner and I’ll talk to you later.
—– break —–
Larry Kramer: While you continue your meal, we want to get things going because we have a tight schedule tonight. And the Secretary of State has agreed to join us for dinner. So she is down here now – leave her alone is my advice. (Applause).
Now that we got our scheduling moving. Let me get things rolling by introducing the dean of the Newhouse School. Former journalist – Philadelphia Inquirer and the Baltimore Sun, and was the director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. But fortunately for us, gave that up and came to Syracuse in 2008 and become dean of the Newhouse School. And she has done a fantastic job. Ladies and gentlemen: Dean Lorraine Branham.
Lorraine Branham: Larry forgot to mention when he introduced himself that he is also a proud alumnus of Syracuse (applause). But good evening and welcome. Thank you Secretary Clinton for being our guest. tonight. I am so delighted that so many of you were able to come out tonight to support S.I. Newhouse School’s Robin Toner Program and its endowment. Because yes, this is a fundraiser. Before I introduce our Chancellor, I just want to thank a few people on our end that helped make this happen. Larry already mentioned Professor Charlotte Grimes who worked to help me create this program several years ago. She retired from the University last year but she continues to oversee the awards. I also would like to thank Audrey Burian, our program assistant who works on this project and its many moving parts from her perch in Syracuse. We really could not do this without her. Thank you, Audrey. And we thanked him once, but I have to thank again – Syracuse University Trustee, John Chapple, who made the founding gift to this endowment and who continues to support the program. So thank you, John (applause). And last and by no means least because I don’t know if anyone will thank him tonight. I have to thank Peter Gosselin (applause). He truly has been the guiding spirit behind this program. And you’ll hear a bit later but I have to tell you Peter has put so much time and effort into the fundraising part of this project, you’ll think that he works for Syracuse University. And I assure you that he does not. However, we would not have our guest speaker, this lovely venue, so many of our sponsors without his tireless effort and dedication to this cause. As you might imagine, for him it’s a labor of love but we are very appreciative of his efforts and he has been an amazing partner in this endeavor and has worked closely with both Charlotte and I over the past five years to make this program as successful as it has been. So thank you, Peter, for all you’ve done for the program and for Newhouse and for its students. (Applause).
And now I would like to introduce our Chancellor, Kent Syverud who became the 12th Chancellor and President of Syracuse University in January 2014. He brought with him nearly two decades of academic leadership and experience at premier national universities. Most recently serving as Dean in the Ethan A.H. Shepley Distinguished University Professor at the School of Law at Washington University in St. Louis. Prior to that he served as Dean for Vanderbilt Law School and as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University Michigan Law School. He has held numerous national leadership positions as well. Since 2010, he served as one of two independent trustees of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Trust and I’m sure everyone in the room know about that disaster and the fact that they were busy paying out claims from that devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s also served as the President of the American Law Deans’ Association, as Chair of the Board of Law School Admission Council and editor of the Journal of Legal Education. Chancellor Syverud is also an award-winning teacher in his own right and a member of the College of Law and the School of Education faculties at Syracuse University. Tonight he is accompanied by his wife, Dr. Ruth Chen, an accomplished environment toxicologist who is a professor of practice at Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. Please join me in welcoming to the podium our chancellor, Professor Kent Syverud.
Kent Svyerud: Good evening everyone and welcome. It is a pleasure for Ruth and me to welcome you tonight to celebrate to a renowned journalist and our alumna, Robin Toner. I also want to thank and recognize so many people including our great Dean, Lorraine Branham. And also Peter and Jacob and Nora Gosselin and John Chapple for their vision in establishing this award, and all the staff at the Newhouse School that put this event together.
One outcome of great journalism is to provide people with the information to be free and self-governing. Robin Toner was known for her high-quality, fact-based and accessible and clear journalism. She launched her career that would become legendary, using a strong foundation of skills and experience gained from her Syracuse education. She was the first female national political correspondent at The New York Times, a job she relished and that was exceptionally suited to her. She illuminated the electoral process, revealed the politics of policy and engaged the public in democracy. She made the intricate details of policies understandable and enabled voters to make informed decisions. Her husband and John Chapple, Syracuse trustee and Robin’s classmate, established this prize in 2009 to increase the same kind of reporting that Robin did. And in just five years, the Toner Prize has become one of the most prestigious awards for political reporters. As we can see shortly, when the prize is awarded to this year’s recipient, Robin’s brand of journalism is thriving. Tonight’s celebration serves in many ways is to inspire the next generation of Robin Toners, a select group of whom are here. There are students here from the Newhouse School of Public Communications and from the Public Diplomacy Program in the Maxwell School. And so I would like those students to stand and be recognized.
We’re of course terrifically honored to have with us here tonight, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Secretary Clinton has frequently made history during her long career in public service. She served as the 67th Secretary of State of the United States from 2009 until 2013, after nearly four decades as an advocate, an attorney, a First Lady, and a senator. As First Lady, she advocated for healthcare reform and led successful bipartisan efforts to improve adoption and foster care systems, to reduce teen pregnancy, to establish Early Head Start, and to provide health care to millions of children through the Children’s Health Insurance Program. In 2000, Secretary Clinton made history as the first former First Lady elected to the United States Senate. As a senator from New York, she worked across party lines to expand economic opportunity and access to quality affordable healthcare. In 2007 and 2008, Secretary Clinton made a historic campaign for president – winning 18 million votes and more primaries and delegates that any woman had before. In her four years as the Secretary of State, Secretary Clinton played a central role in restoring America’s standing in the world and strengthening its global leadership. She traveled to more than 80 countries as a representative of the United States, winning respect as a champion of women’s rights, human rights, democracy, civil society and opportunities for women and girls around the world. Today through the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, Secretary Clinton builds on a non-profit work that she began nearly four decades ago. And she is a potential presidential contender in 2016. (Applause).
Just a word about the connections between Secretary Clinton and Robin Toner. In her work at The New York Times, Robin Toner covered much of Secretary Clinton’s career, including her efforts while First Lady in the early 1990s to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system. It was over this issue that Robin Toner and Peter Gosselin met as competitors. Secretary Clinton wrote the couple a congratulatory message upon their marriage in 1996 and then wrote them again upon the birth of their children in 1997. Peter recalls that her note said, upon the marriage and then the twin’s birth, “At least something good came from healthcare reform.” Secretary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008 was among the very last of Robin’s reporting. She passed away in December 2008 shortly after the presidential election. It is my great honor to welcome on behalf of Syracuse University and the Newhouse School — Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: Thank you. Thank you very much. I am really honored to be here. I want to thank the Chancellor, Dr. Chen and everyone associated with Syracuse University. I was privileged when I was Senator from New York to spend a lot of time at the University, to spend some really great hours talking about the work that is done there. And I’m delighted to be here to support all the Newhouse School and Robin’s legacy that invests in the future of serious substantive public journalism. Just a few minutes ago I had a chance to meet the journalism students and I was delighted to see the next generation on the way. But I am well aware that some of you may be a little surprised to see me here tonight. You know my relationship with the press has been at times — shall we say, complicated. And when Peter asked if I wanted to spend an evening with a room full of political reporters, I thought to myself, ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ It didn’t take long to accept. But then, of course, I’ve been ruminating about it.
But I am all about new beginnings: a new grandchild, another new hairstyle, a new email account. Why not a new relationship with the press? So here goes: no more secrecy, no more zone of privacy — after all, what good did that do me? But first of all before I go any further, if you look under your chair you’ll find a simple non-disclosure agreement. My attorneys drew it up. Old habits…last.
But I am certainly aware that public figures can’t complain about coverage we don’t like, if we don’t give credit where credit is certainly due and that’s why I’m here. To join all of you in supporting the kind of journalism that Robin loved and exemplified and that so many if you work hard to do everyday. Journalism that informs our debates, educates our citizens, and makes it possible to base public policy decisions on evidence rather than ideology. So I want to thank all of you who have helped to make this program possible, including John Chapple, Gwen Ifill and Adam Clymer. I also want to recognize Lieutenant Governor of the state of New York, Kathy Hochul who is here. And she has already been twisting arms in the legislature. So you’ll notice her’s is broken — but that’s all in the pursuit of the public interest.
But mostly I’m here because I really admired Robin. I admired her approach toward covering the events that I was involved in directly, starting in the 1992 presidential campaign , when she covered that campaign, wrote a little bit about me and my journey through that time, to the very last interview that I had with her in September of 2007. It was about healthcare. I had just rolled out my healthcare policy for the presidential campaign. And we had a long substantive conversation about what I had learned, what the country had learned from the ‘93-‘94 experience, what could be done, and how best to organize healthcare reform going forward.
But I also am here because I am so grateful that Peter asked me and I have a chance to see them–Peter, Jake and Nora – and nd thank them for being so involved in this prize and what it means. The idea that they are actually contributing to helping other reporters’ reporters get the recognition that they deserve is incredibly meaningful to me and to so many of you.
In fact, I learned that Nora actually is the editor-in-chief of her school paper. (Applause). I’m told she’s leading a transition to digital and mobile while insisting on high-quality content across platforms. She’s probably getting ready to Meerkat us at any moment. And of course Jake is the captain and star of the cross-country team. (Applause). And the two of them will head off into the world to go to college next year, carrying with them so many lessons that their parents have instilled in them and determined to make their own marks. And I am thrilled to be part of this evening with them.
So when I first got to know Robin in the ‘92 campaign, which ,you know, some of you might remember had a few ups and downs. Came out the right way. That’s sort of the best way for a story to end, in my opinion. I saw a reporter who really liked to delve into the substance of issues and that was particularly meaningful to me, being kind of a policy person myself. And I saw that again during the healthcare reform debates in ‘93 and ’94. The Chancellor’s absolutely right – the best thing that came out of those two years was Peter and Robin getting together—brought together by covering the arc of our efforts. They disagreed actually. I think Peter was somewhat more optimistic than Robin was.
But in all the partisan back and forth about healthcare, it was easy to lose sight of what was really at stake and Robin never did that. She understood that the debate fundamentally was about lowering cost, improving quality, and expanding coverage for Americans. The details were complicated and she immersed herself in them. But she understood that the details really mattered and she was one of the best at explaining all of it in terms that her readers could understand.
The Columbia Journalism Review once described Robin’s approach as, ‘Digging beyond the obvious to provide insight into other forces at work that ultimately may shape debate or affect an outcome.’ That’s what her career represents to me, as someone who is both an observer and a reader, as well as an occasional subject. From her start, covering coal miners in West Virginia through her 25-year barrier-breaking career at The Times, she really set a high standard. She was relentless in pursuit of a story. And she had this look, Peter, which you probably can recall, when she was interviewing you in person, and either you weren’t doing a very good job of explaining what she was asking you or she was not buying it. And she just kind of peered at you and then hammered in to those questions –not in an aggressive way just the kind of like, ‘How would that really work, because after all if you to suppress this area of cost then it probably going to pop up over here and what are you going to do about?’ She always put you on the spot, but in a way that you felt was totally fair. It was a search for understanding. She brought balance to her writing. She understood that we were all trying to figure out how to make sense out of these difficult issues. And I appreciated that even if sometimes it was my stumbles and setbacks that she was sharing with the world, it was always in a context that I could recognize and make sense of. She’s not been gone very long but I think it’s gotten even harder to do the kind of journalism that she did. Everyday, you – the reporters, the writers in this room – are under more and more pressure from changes in technology, in the marketplace and, of course, in our politics. You’re facing fundamental questions that may not fit into 140 characters but are nonetheless vital to our democracy. I think the stakes are really high. Too many of our most important debates occur in what I call, an evidence-free zone: Ideology trumping facts, made-for-cable shout fests, Twitter storms drowning out substantive dialogue and reporting. That too often leads to shallower, more contentious politics and either no or not the best public policy.
I think it’s important as the media landscape fractures and there’s the rise of more overtly partisan and ideological news outlets that we rely even more on reporters to try to get us out of the echo chambers we all inhabit. So it’s pretty clear that, you know, I believe we need more Robin Toners. More reporters who can cut through the noise to get to the hard truth that matters. And we need more prizes that really recognize those who try and succeed.
To look no further than the issue that Robin mastered, you can see that in the current debate about healthcare. Today is the fifth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act and over these five years we’ve heard plenty of scare tactics, wild claims about socialism and death panels – but not nearly enough about how to keep expanding access, lowering costs, and improving quality. These are complicated but very consequential questions. Why is it, for example that healthcare costs for our economy as a whole are finally slowing down but out of pocket cost for many American families are still rising? Is it at least in part because too many pharmaceutical companies take advantage of the lack of competition to charge Americans the highest prices in the world? Is it really possible that the Supreme Court will decide to strip more than 7 million people of their ability to pay for health insurance? What will the new Republican plan to end Medicare as we know it mean for middle class families?
These are critical questions and their answers will impact tens of millions of Americans. And so we should be exploring those – but at the same time trying to ask ourselves: how to improve the Affordable Care Act, how to build on the successes?
Sixteen million Americans have gotten coverage. Millions of young people are able to stay on their parents’ plans. Insurance companies can no longer discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions or charge women higher rates just because of our gender. Innovations are actually moving us towards a better model, based on the quality of care instead of the quantity. That is an important record and one that there is a lot to be proud of. But there’s so much more to do to protect people from high drug costs and insurance company abuses, to simplify and streamline to ease burdens on small businesses, to extend the bipartisan Children’s Health Insurance Program.
I’m well aware none of this will be easy but it will be impossible if we don’t have people like those in this room explaining what’s at stake. What are our blind spots? We all have them. Where could we try to find common ground? What do we do after the Supreme Court decides, regardless of which way they go?
So we need more than ever, smart fair-minded journalists to challenge our assumptions, push us toward new solutions, and hold all of us accountable. Now I don’t want to get carried away here – those of us on the other side are not always going to be happy about whatever it is you do.
But we do understand that, in our more rational moments, that is your job. And we and our democracy depend on you. That’s why the Toner Prize is so important. And I am grateful that you are keeping Robin’s legacy and her reporting and her standards of quality alive and more relevant than ever. Because of you, Robin’s work – her example—goes on and we are all better off because of it. Thank you very much.
Larry Kramer: Thank you, Secretary Clinton. What’s not to love about that? Now we’re going to move on to the other reason we’re here, the heart of the program – awarding the Toner Prize. Just a few short years the prize has succeeded in recognizing some of the very best political journalism in the country and some of the best political reporters. The four previous winners are: Craig Harris of The Arizona Republic, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker — who’s with us tonight. (Applause). Molly Ball, of The Atlantic. And someone else is here with us tonight, Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post. (Applause).
So next up is a former colleague and editor of Robin’s at The New York Times for nearly a quarter of a century. Adam Clymer was a good friend of hers, a friend to her family, and a generous contributor to the Toner Program. He has also been a final judge for all five of the Toner Prizes. Adam, by the way, is a legendary reporter in his own right. He’s probably best remembered for an incident during the 2000 presidential campaign when then-candidate for president, George W. Bush, was caught in an unfortunately live mic — that happens, Secretary Clinton, I know– whispering to his running mate Dick Cheney, ‘There’s Adam Clymer, major league asshole from The New York Times.’ Adam will share some of his insights and experiences into this year’s entries and what they show about the state of American political journalism.
Adam Clymer: Well, Larry, obviously Googled me. I mean nobody else remembered. Actually my reaction was to think of Mark Twain, who cited a character who was tarred, feathered, and written out of town on a rail. And his reaction was ‘Well, except for the honor of it, I had sooner have walked.’ It’s been a great pleasure to judge these contests to help shape these awards for five years. We’ve had a continuing expansion of interest. This year we had a 165 entries, which is far more than ever before. (Applause). I’m struck by all of the different things that news organizations, and some of them with big budgets like The Times or The Post and some of them like with very small budgets, have found ways to do – covering things like the techniques of politics, money, data mining, all of these great adventures that computers bring us. I’m struck sometimes that there may not be quite enough focusing on the impact of these elections on policy, which is what Robin did best. When Robin and Robert Pear and I covered the Clinton healthcare program in 1994, as the Secretary suggested we tried very hard to keep the word ‘Clinton’ off the very front page of the story. We weren’t really interested in whether it was a success or a defeat for the President and the First Lady, because if it had passed it would have been a success, we all know. But we were interested in how it impacted people. And that’s a worthy thing for reporters to do. And we’ve got a winner tonight, and you probably read about. I’ll leave it to Nora Gosselin to explain it. But before then, this has been a good event, a big success — the biggest we’ve had. And we’re moving on and let me turn this microphone over to Jake Gosselin to carry on.
Jake Gosselin: Those of you have attended previous events know that every year my sister and I have the honor of presenting the Toner Prize. We alternate who gets to award the actual prize with each event. And since I had the privilege of presenting it to Karen Tumulty last year, today it is my sister’s turn. Which raised the interesting question last week when I began writing this speech of what exactly I was supposed to say. After a bit of discussion with my dad, I decided that I would use this time to say a few words about what this program has meant to both me and my sister over the past six years. For those of you who don’t know, both Nora and I had to endure the college application process this year. And because we we’re both lucky enough to be accepted early admission, we received a barrage of congratulations from friends and family. Congratulations that are almost inevitably followed by the phrase, ‘Your mom would be so proud.’ That phrase has always held a huge amount of significance to me because the question it answers, the question of whether mom would be proud is one that I think both me and my sister have a asked ourselves a lot over the years. There’s a two-part tragedy that accompanies losing a parent at a young age. And the first part is that they never get to see the person you become. Leaving you with this constant small doubt about whether you’ve lived up to their expectations. The second part is that to a certain extent, you get to never see the person they were. When I was eleven, I knew my mom was a journalist. But to me she was just my mom. The idea of her having a job and a life that didn’t revolve around me was impossible to comprehend. And that’s where this program has come into play. As I was writing this speech last night, I looked through some of the old transcripts from previous events in search of inspiration. And I found a speech my dad gave at the first Toner Prize. In it he talked about how this program would quote, ‘Remind Jake and Nora, should they forget as time passes, that their mother with someone to reckon with in her chosen field. And in doing so make them ask through the years: What would she have thought? What would she have believed? What would she have hoped? What would she have loved?’ Over the past six years this program has served to remind me and Nora of the legacy that my mom left behind. A legacy we couldn’t really understand what she passed when we were eleven. It has giving us the chance to see who she was a writer, as a reporter, and as a person. And for that, the both of us are eternally grateful to everyone here. Thank you.
Nora Gosselin: Good evening, I want to join Jake in thanking all of you for being here tonight. Each year, I’m simply overwhelmed by the passion and commitment of this group. Each year I am reminded of what an honor this program and prize are for me and my family and for the memory of my mom. As Jake mentioned, he and I both endured the grueling college process this past fall: the testing, the applications, the endless waiting and worrying. For one of my very first essays I was asked to write about what defined me, what over the course of my life as made me the person I am today. And as I sat there startled by the sheer enormity of this question, I kept returning to one thing — coming back to one aspect of my 18 years, and that growing up in a newsroom. But it’s not the formal bring-your-kids-to-work day or the specific bylines or any of mom’s endless treks to Iowa that I remember most clearly. No, it’s the little things that stand out all these years later: Adam Clymer’s spontaneous Friday afternoon toasts where I sipped my glass of grape juice and felt like such an adult, the reporter’s notebook that I was allowed to filled with my own news stories, which my mom then edited, the singing moose head next to Adam Nagourney’s desk that absolutely terrified me. It’s these little things that made me feel like part of an enormous and enduring newsroom family. A family that taught me what conviction and dedication are. A family that pulled together when mom was sick, bringing meals to our house each night. A family that made me the person I am today.
Tonight we honor a reporter who’s been part of that newsroom family for 45 years. His entries painted thoughtful and complex political portraits of the key players on both the Democratic and Republican sides. From carefully analyzing Thad Cochran’s strategy in the Mississippi GOP runoff race, to covering the shifting dynamics of the Democratic Party in preparation for the post-Obama election. This writer illuminated and contextualized the political figures of today. The nuance, insight and engagement of his pieces was so completely unparalleled that runner-ups were not even selected, a first in the history of this prize. Therefore, it is my great honor to award this year’s Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting to Dan Balz of The Washington Post.
Dan Balz: Thank you. Thank you very much. Secretary Clinton, thank you for continuing to sit here through this. I didn’t expect that you were going to be here. I’m happy to yield my time back to you if you want to take some questions. (Laughter and applause). Nora and Jake, thank you. This is really very special award for me. I’m honored and humbled to win a prize named after someone who I so admired when we worked together on the beat for many, many years. And honestly winning this award as Charlotte Grimes will tell you was a complete surprise. The truth is I was not going to enter this year. I had entered every year so far and there’s only so much rejection a person my age can take. The deadline came upon a time. I was on the road I was with Phil Rucker out in California at the RNC meeting and Steven Ginsberg said you should, you know we want to an entry from you. And I thought alright, but there’s no way The Washington Post is going to get this award twice in a row. My inestimable colleague, Karen Tumulty won it last year, deserve-ably so. I though no way the Post gets two. And so I said alright, I will enter, I said this to Steven, but I said, I know I will not win and I will buy you a dinner if I am proved wrong. So Steven, this maybe the dinner that you get or I may owe you another one. If 90 percent of life is showing up, certainly a significant part of winning an award is entering. So let that be my one piece of advice to you. I have a lot of people that I want to thank tonight for this and I want to start with my wife Nancy.
We met as college students many many years ago. We have been married now almost 46 years. And this award like so many other things would not be possible without your love and support. Thank you. (Applause). Thank you also to everybody at the Syracuse and the Newhouse School, Dean Branham, Charlotte Grimes, John for your generous contributions. Everybody who oversees this program keeps Robin’s flame burning brightly and those of us who knew her as well as I did very much appreciate that. Thank you also to Peter Gosselin for creating this award. To Jake and Nora for being a living embodiment of what and who Robin was. (Applause). I’ve also learned over the years it’s dangerous to follow any of the Gosselin family to the podium but I will labor on. I want to thank a lot of people at The Post. We brought a cheering section just in case. Marty Baron and Kevin Merida are leading a great newsroom and have brought us back after some difficult years and we are all grateful for that. I mentioned Steven Ginsberg, our Senior Political Editor. We have a lot other political leaders who some of them are here: Cameron Barr, Scott Wilson, Anne Kornblut, Dan Deacon, Terry Samuels, Rebecca Sinderbrand and others who keep our political coverage operating. We have more political editors than a lot of places have political reporters at this point. But they’re great. But I want to give a special thanks to the reporters that I work with everyday, with whom I am in the trenches and whom make our coverage as vibrant as it is. It is a pleasure to watch this team of ours crank into high gear when something happens and some days I just want to sit back and watch rather than actually report myself. But they won’t allow me to do that so. When he was alive, Dave Broder instilled a culture of collegiality to The Post political coverage. It has always been a team effort and it continues to be that way. And I’ve been lucky to be a part of a long time. As I said there’s something especially gratifying about winning an award named for Robin Toner. She was a friend and a competitor. We shared a lot of miles and a lot of meals together covering presidential politics and other things over the years. You’ve already heard from Secretary Clinton about her talents and her gifts. I would have echo all of that. She was smart, she was generous, she was tenacious, she was gracious, she had tremendously high standards. I remember that one of these dinners a few years ago, a friend of hers from college days repeated a comment that Robin had made when she was an aspiring journalist. ‘Never settle,’ she said. And she never did and for that we are grateful. Robin is a reminder to all of us in this room who are practitioners of this craft of what political reporting can be and should be. We spent a lot of time writing about the horserace in politics and I’m as guilty as everybody else because we all love the horserace. But it is a small part of political reporting. It’s not just– campaign coverage is not just about who’s up today or down tomorrow or chasing shiny objects or being clever on Twitter. It’s about much bigger things, as Robin always reminded us. It’s about the character and records of the candidates who want to be president as much as it is who leads the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s about what an election says about the changing forces at work across our country, about the hopes and dreams of voters rather than the ambitions of the candidates. Today it is also about tribal politics in the yawning gulf between red and blue America. Robin’s work – if anybody here hasn’t read it, they should go back and read it – reminds us that political reporting is not just the coverage of campaigns. She understood the importance of the intersection between policy and politics. And I fear too often we highlight the politics at the expense of the policies. I know I’m guilty of doing that, but campaigns after all are a means to an end not an end in themselves. I’m also lucky to have won this award this year for another reason. Over the last half-dozen years there has been a major generational shift in the political reporting cadre who were doing national politics. People of my generation, those who are left, are being supplanted by a newer younger group of reporters. I see this at The Post every day, working with some amazing reporters. And I see it when I am out on the trail trying to keep up with everyone – a lot of whom are in this room.
There’s a tremendous amount of talent in the young group covering politics today and I marvel at what you are doing across many platforms. One thing I’ve learned over many years is that you have to reinvent yourself in one way or another for a new campaign cycle. And all of you in the young generation have helped me redouble my own efforts to produce the best work that I can. This leaves me with a parting thought, courtesy again of Dave Broder. A long time ago he talked about how the lessons learned in one campaign rarely applied to the next. He said it was often the case that the reporter who was spot on in one campaign could be as dumb as you know what in the next campaign. And with that in mind, I happily accept this award, knowing full well that we are only as good as our next story. It’s been a wonderful night. Tomorrow it’s back to work. Thank you very much.
Larry Kramer: What a terrific night and what a fantastic winner. I’d had the extreme pleasure working with Dan during my tenure at The Post. I started at The Post as a reporter in ’77 and Dan came just a few months later. He was one of the smartest, most talented and nicest people I’ve ever met and ever had the privilege to work with. Secretary Clinton, I hope you heard that story about what can happen if you just keep entering over and over again. (laughter and applause) When I knew Dan, he didn’t need all those editors to work on his copy, stuff just went in. I don’t know. And ,Jake and Nora, I want to thank you. And, Jake, that was a cool tie. For those who don’t know is the tie that we gave out at the dedication of the Newhouse 3 in Syracuse, which, besides having a lovely color of orange, has the First Amendment all over it, which the building does as well. It was great thank you for honoring us with that. So let me just say, thank our sponsors one more time: Jon Chappell, USA Today, Bloomberg, Google, and PHarma. And let me thank finally for all of this and creating this event, Peter Gosselin, who did a fantastic job. I think it’s only fitting for Peter to come up here and give the benediction for us.
Peter Gosselin: Thank all of you for coming and for supporting this program, which is still finding its sea legs. I owe a debt of gratitude to all of you. I owe a debt of gratitude to Secretary Clinton. I read the stories that I was blessed with her being willing to do this program because this is Women’s Month — you have a series of events about women. But I actually, I would posit that at least part of the reason she agreed to this is because she’s a mother and because she realizes what it means for kids to lose a mother. And finally I’m incredibly grateful to my kids. When you get out this far from a death, people say things like ‘So get over it’. And the fact is you don’t get over it. You get on with it. You grow — but you don’t get over it. But getting on with it is a great thing. And Nora and Jake are living embodiments of that. (Applause). I’m well aware and I’m particularly aware now that I’ve come back after a detour through the administration back to journalism, that these have been very hard years. I am stunned at how much has changed, that I am supposed to tweet — which I still can’t figure out what to say in 140 characters because I can’t clear my throat in more than 15 tweets. But I just say that Nora and Jake offer us, reporters a lesson in that we are not going to get over in what we lost. But we can get on with it and we are getting on with it. And I hope that this program in some small way helps us get on with the enterprise that’s so important, which is maintaining what’s so great about fact-based quality journalism that covers both the politicians but also the policy. See you next year.


Keynote Speaker: Joseph Biden, Vice President of the United States
Special Remarks: Representative John Lewis of Georgia

Read the transcript

2014 Toner Prize Celebration with Vice President Joe Biden
March 24, 2014
Washington, D.C.
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: Everyone. Hello, everyone. As a professor I’m accustomed to getting crowds to be quiet for a few minutes. So if you would please help us welcome Drew Altman, who is the president and CEO of Kaiser Family Foundation and who’s given us this beautiful venue. (Applause)
DREW ALTMAN: Thank you, Charlotte. My name is spelled A-L-T-M-A-N but it’s actually pronounced Biden. I know you thought the Vice President was here – no, he’s here and we’ll have him out here in just a minute. Friends, so many friends that are here and colleagues and especially to Jake and Nora and to Peter. Welcome to the Barbara Jordan Conference Center. (Applause)
As you know, we’re based in California, where they do crazy things like surf and implement the Affordable Care Act. But this is our home in Washington, D.C. And with Vice President Biden here to honor Robin and the Toner Prize tonight, and most of all your continued commitment to Robin’s legacy tonight, what a wonderful, wonderful evening. I know Barbara Jordan is smiling and Robin is smiling and even though when I was in government and a major newspaper called me a “nice guy trapped in a deadly serious face,” even I’m smiling tonight. You’re in the Barbara Jordan Conference Center tonight. Barbara Jordan was a close friend of a small group of trustees who helped me establish my organization in the ‘90s and when Barbara retired from our board, I asked her what she wanted as a gift. You know, a traditional retirement gift like a watch or a chair. She wanted an American flag installed on a 40-foot flag pole behind her house in Texas so she could wheel out every day, every morning in her wheelchair and raise the American flag. And that’s what she got. And that’s what she did. She also wanted the flag of Texas, but since I’m from Boston, I drew the line. Barbara was one of a kind and she set the standard at Kaiser and for so many of us in the country. And Robin also set the standard. She was also one of a kind, and her reporting was a beacon of light just like Robin – just like Barbara was. I used to so look forward to every one of her stories. Except with a little trepidation when I was quoted in them.
The Toner Prize, which we are here to celebrate, recognizes Robin’s contributions as perhaps the foremost political reporter of her era. I thought that she was. But Robin was also the best health policy and politics reporter I ever worked with, bringing her special ability to weave politics and policy and history and wisdom and the facts – yes, there are facts are in health policy—into complex and hot health policy stories. After we lost Robin, we established the Toner Distinguished Fellowship in Health Policy Journalism at our Kaiser Health News to help carry on her legacy. After we lost Robin, great journalists took up the torch of excellence in health policy journalism. But nobody did it quite like Julie Rovner did at National Public Radio. (Applause) Julie’s work and her insistence on reporting what’s important and not just what the political process serves up everyday and her stubborn refusal to let false balance get in the way of facts – it’s helped to make health policy at least semi-sane or not totally insane and has certainly helped to inform the American people. And so we have named Julie Rover our Robin Toner Distinguished Fellow at Kaiser Health News. (Applause) Where she will start in just a few weeks on the fifth floor of this building. And it’s a great floor because it has the most free food in this building. So Julie will you stand? And will you all join me in recognizing Julie Rovner, our Robin Toner Distinguished Fellow.
I think Jake and Nora know how much we cared about their mom and care about their mom at the Kaiser Family Foundation. To see the Vice President here and this community of people so committed to honoring Robin’s legacy is very special and Peter should be very, very proud. He has worked so hard to make this happen. So we’re looking forward to a wonderful, wonderful evening tonight. And now, and next, we’re looking forward to Lorraine Branham, the dean of the Newhouse School of Public Communications. Thank you very much. (Applause)
DEAN LORRAINE BRANHAM: Thank you Drew, I appreciate it. Well, good evening, and on behalf of the Newhouse School, welcome. So great to have you all here tonight. It’s our pleasure to come down from Syracuse to come to Washington where it’s just a little bit warmer. Although I hear you’re getting snow tomorrow. We came down here to get away from snow so this is a great disappointment. But it is nice to be in the nation’s capital and especially here tonight to present the Toner Prize, which honors the life and work of the late Robin Toner, a graduate of the Newhouse School and a former national reporter for The New York Times. You’ll hear a lot about Robin tonight and the recipient of the prize as well. My job is simply to introduce our Chancellor who will go on to introduce our keynote speaker. But before I do, I just want to mention that today is National Orange Day, and for those Syracuse alums out there, you understand the importance of that. We’re celebrating the university’s 144th anniversary on campus and around the nation. This would probably be a great day for those of us who bleed orange, except for the fact that we’re still in mourning over that devastating loss on Saturday. I’m hoping we’ll have a different outcome today with the women’s basketball team, which is playing as we speak. Well, enough about basketball, my bracket is busted. I want to root for Florida and Virginia, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. So, I’m done with March Madness. Let me introduce to you our university’s new Chancellor and President Kent D. Syverud. And Chancellor Syverud was appointed by the university’s Board of Trustees in September. He assumed the leadership post in January and he is the 12th leader of the university since its founding in 1870. Chancellor Syverud came to Syracuse from Washington St. Louis where he served since 2006 as Dean of the Law School and the Ethan A.H. Shepley Distinguished University Professor. Prior to that, he served eight years as dean at Vanderbilt Law School. During his tenure at Washington University, he led efforts to create university-wide programs in Washington, D.C., and in New York. He also led efforts to expand online education opportunities, including the development of an innovative, online master’s degree program. Chancellor Syverud has served since 2010 as one of two independent trustees of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Trust, a $20 billion fund created by BP in negotiations with the White House to pay claims arising from the BP oil spill. He’s a native of Upstate New York, so he has a little experience rooting for Syracuse. He was born and raised in Irondequoit, a town on Lake Ontario, which is right near Rochester, for those of you who know Upstate New York. After attending high school there, he earned a bachelor’s degree, graduating magna cum laude from Georgetown University in 1977. He went on to get his law degree from University of Michigan in 1981 and a master’s degree in economics from Michigan in 1983. He served as law clerk for Judge Louis Oberdorfer for the U.S. District Court of the District Court for the District of Columbia and for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He practiced law in the fields of litigation and insurance at Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering in Washington, D.C. And from 1987 to 1997, he served on the faculty of the University of Michigan Law School, earning tenure in 1992 and advancing to Associate for Academic Affairs. He’s a past editor of the Journal of Legal Education and he also served as president of the American Law Deans Association. Chancellor Syverud and his wife, Dr. Ruth Chen, who we’re pleased to have us here with us tonight, are the parents of three adult sons – Steven, Brian and David. Dr. Chen is a Professor of Practice at Syracuse and she is working in the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science at SU. The Chancellor has actually been pretty often on campus these past few months, meeting faculty, alumni and students on campus and around the country. He immediately endeared himself to students on campus upon arrival when he decided to spend a week in the dorms. That was a real eye-opener for him. You can follow his introduction to campus by reading his blog Bleeding Orange, which he regularly shares his thoughts with the SU community. He’s going to be officially installed as chancellor on April 11th. I think it’s fair to say that even though he’s spent a lot of time wearing Michigan blue and yellow, he looks really good in orange. Please join me in welcoming our new chancellor, Kent Syverud, who will introduce and be joined at the podium by our very special guest and keynote speaker Vice President Joe Biden. (Applause)
CHANCELLOR KENT SYVERUD: Thank you, Dean Branham, and I get mortified by long introductions. I’m going to give a shorter one to the Vice President of the United States, which seems to lack humility but actually it’s because –
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN (interrupting): This crowd knows me too well.
CHANCELLOR KENT SYVERUD: First, let me thank everyone at the Newhouse School who had a role in sponsoring the Toner Prize and for this wonderful event. A lot of staff worked hard on this I know, including the Vice President’s staff and staff in Washington. I want to thank Drew Altman of course from the Kaiser Family Foundation, who provided this venue and Peter Gosselin for all the wok on the arrangements tonight and all the work in making this work possible in memory of his wife Robin. I’m so glad that Peter’s children Jacob and Nora are participating tonight. I want to thank John Chapple, who’s an SU trustee and also a former classmate of Robin’s, who also joined with Peter in creating the endowment and helping make it happen. And of course Charlotte Grimes, who we all met coming in who’s our Chair in Political Reporting and coordinator for the Toner Prize in the Robin Toner Program.
This ceremony honors the life and work of one of Syracuse’s own, Robin. But it also recognizes excellence in journalism that everyone at Newhouse aspires to. The prize was specifically created, of course, to honor political reporting and excellence and Robin epitomized that throughout her career, as the vice president was telling me about earlier today. I think that Robin was the model of demanding excellence and honesty as a reporter. I think the prize winners that we’re honoring tonight did the same. I think their work demonstrates the importance of thoughtful journalism to this society and to democracy. I’m just so glad that tonight also honors another graduate of Syracuse University, which I’m so proud to be now leading — Vice President Joe Biden. As the vice president told me, Robin and his paths crossed often. These two high-achieving alumni are examples of taking Syracuse education and making the most of it. I do want to say a few embarrassing things that the vice president has heard many times, but he has not heard me say them. I want to say that he’s had more than four decades in public office, elected to the Senate and at the age of 29, a senator from Delaware for 36 years. A leader in so many issues, domestic and foreign. Including the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Made the 1994 Crime Bill and the Violence Against Women Act happen. He was tapped by freshman Senator Barack Obama, as we all know, to be a running mate for the presidency in 2008. Obviously to get a partner with a vast knowledge of foreign policy and security issues, but he also gained a vice president with a warm, human touch and a natural connection to middle-class Americans. I think that stands out for me in so many ways and that I’ve now been able to see in person. He’s been such a loyal friend and supporter of Syracuse University for six decades. That’s what the text told me to talk about – six decades. It makes you sound like you’re in your nineties. That can’t be possible. He’s delivered commencement addresses many times. He’s brought the White House Task Force on Middle-Class Families to our campus for a national conversation on college education affordability – something I hear a lot about lately. Most endearingly, on the eve of our epic February 1st game against Duke, he permitted himself to be photographed — with a fist-pumping picture of himself wearing a bright orange Beat Duke t-shirt. It was tweeted around the world. Thank you. (Applause) Mr. Vice President, for all of us who bleed orange as they say in the MasterCard ads, for us, that was priceless. We’re deeply honored to call him one of our own. Please join me in welcoming the 47th Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden. (Applause)
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much, Chancellor. Please, please sit down. Quite frankly, I don’t know why you’re all not eating. I was a United States Senator for 30 years, I’m used to not being taken seriously. Hey look, Dr. Altman, you know it wasn’t so bad that the chancellor pointed out how long I served, but sitting here in a room that was named after another – Barbara – I knew well, realizing I served longer than she did — she was junior to me in the House – makes me feel what I don’t like feeling, very much older. But it was a great ride. And you’re right that, for real, Barbara and Robin had something in common. They had steel in their spine. They both had steel in their spine. And it was a sense – how can I say it? – it was a sense that there was a truth. And they were hell-bent to find it. And so it’s a great honor to be here. Chancellor, thank you for that introduction. And Dick Thompson, who is a Syracuse board of trustees member, and Dean – it’s great to see you. I’ve been up to campus a couple of times in the past five years and I still haven’t seen the new Newhouse building. So I have to come back. And again, Drew, thank you for hosting us tonight. I appreciate it. I want to thank Robin’s family. I was speaking with Peter and the kids and the family backstage. This is a celebratory moment but I know from experience when any occasion occurs like this it’s a bittersweet moment because you’re talking only a short number of years. It makes them proud but it’s a bittersweet moment. Robin was much too young. And Peter, without running the risk of ruining your reputation among all these journalists, thank you for the help in the administration for rescuing our economy from the brink of collapse and helping enact the healthcare reform. And by the way it is working now, guys, but that’s another issue. (Applause)
And you did this all while your personal life and your home was being turned upside down. To Nora and Jake and all of Robin’s family, I had a wonderful time meeting you all backstage and an even greater time knowing your mom, your sister, your family. You know it’s beyond the power, at least my power and capability, to talk about the life of a woman who accomplished so much in so little time. And who was loved so dearly by those she worked with and respected by those she covered. And that’s an interesting fact, if you think about it, you reporters know. Even as tough as she was, she was respected by those she covered. So Nora and Jake, I have a slight advantage, I knew your mom personally and I knew from when she came. I knew the school she went to very well, the place she grew up was in my backyard. And I also know a lot of people who are friends of your mom, who are obviously a lot younger than me, and my sister, but who still talk about her, know her and care for her in Delaware. Robin went to the premiere academic girls Catholic high school in the state. I was kidding with her sister backstage that it used to be, I went to the Catholic boys school, which was a small school in Claymont, Delaware. And they were almost like sister schools and brother schools far away. And there was a rule back into the ‘70s where you were not allowed within the Christopher Columbus statue of Ursuline before 5:00 – for real. And if you got caught and were from Archmere – the Sallies guys didn’t pay much attention to that – that’s another story. If you’re from Archmere, you’d literally get summoned by the nuns and get taken in to wash the windows. It was a sad day they closed down because there’s so few nuns now. As Wilmingtonians know, they closed down the convent. There’s a little memorial plaque – Biden did the windows, because I did so much time there.
But Robin grew up across the state line, about 10 miles from where I grew up in my home, to a working class Irish family like mine. She and her sisters went to Ursuline, that all-girl Catholic school as I said, and her brothers went to our nemesis, Salesianum. They had five times as many boys and they used to beat the living hell out of us. So I’ve never forgiven anyone who went there. All kidding aside, it was a great school. I also went to that other Catholic school and my sons and daughter did as well. We grew up with the same set of values although distance in age. I never knew Robin’s parents but I suspect we were raised to have the same intense sense of pride and self-worth. It’s my impression that Robin’s mom had absolute certitude that Robin and her siblings were every man and woman’s equal and it didn’t matter where they came from or who they were. My mom used to say Irish is about family, it’s about faith, it’s about courage and without courage you can’t love with abandon. And it was the same kind of environment we grew up in. Robin’s mother literally was a Rosie the Riveter working in a factory, while her husband, Robin’s dad was a pilot in World War II. And Robin, even though I never met her mother, was obviously her mother’s daughter. And she was committed to making a difference.
The interesting thing is, as those of you know, she excelled at everything she did. She excelled in high school, when she thought she might want to be a reporter. And at our mutual alma mater, Syracuse, where she knew she was going to be a reporter. Robin and I, so I’m told, had something else in common at Syracuse, years apart. Neither one of us were big partiers, but that similarity ended at Syracuse University. Robin preferred studying and debating politics at the common room in the dorm or Bird Library and it’s no surprise she graduated magna cum laude. I didn’t. But we both loved and cared about politics. Me as a combatant and she as a reporter. Robin covered me in my Senate days as a young senator from Delaware, down here from New York Times in the Senate. And in my first presidential run. Even then it was clear she was destined to have a great career, a career she dreamed for herself. She was fair. She did all the hard work and homework. She was insightful. And she had an incredible eye for detail that other reporters often miss and that we candidates often hope and pray you miss. But the thing I can say about the years that she covered me is she was always straightforward, fact-based and never judgmental. And there were some tough times in my career when she was covering me. That’s why I was always comfortable speaking to Robin. You probably don’t believe it, there are some very serious reporters in this room. But with talking to Robin, I always knew it wasn’t a cynical exercise for her. It wasn’t scorekeeping. She knew the outcome of the election affected real people’s lives and that’s why she held us accountable. It wasn’t just a game, a sport. It mattered. It mattered to her. I don’t know if you’ll believe this, but I’ve always and I think most people would rather be covered by a tough, smart reporter who respected the process and the seats we were occupying than one who’s cynical and didn’t respect those offices and not so smart. I really mean it. I really mean it. And I’ve been doing this job a long time. And some of you, we really learn a lot about ourselves when we are candidates who hold public office. Robin had a way, and I’m not sure if she knew it or not or if many of you know it or not, about making, in my case, more introspective and more self-critical. When she wrote about the workings of government, Robin, I believe from my perspective when I read her and was interviewed by her, thought about the people she grew up with. It mattered. This business matters. It’s not just an exercise. That old Peter Dunn adage, I think, fits her to a T. The job of newspapers is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That’s how I think, and I can’t presume to know, but that’s how I always think about her. She knew words and fact matters. Ladies and gentleman, it matters if there’s respect in the political process. It matters to people’s lives. It matters that we can have strong disagreements and compromise. It matters whether the system works. That our government functions well and that it serves everyone in the country. It matters. I think that’s what drove Robin.
The point I’d like to make tonight is both a state of both our positions – politicians and journalists. We could use a hell of a lot more people like Robin. People who are less cynical about a system that has to function in order to meet the needs of the American people and quite frankly the world. Cynicism pervades too widely in both our professions. All of you in this room, I know, know that. Robin’s ability to take complicated issues and tell stories that are accurate and that people could understand, that was one of the great traits she had. It’s a great talent. And that’s still in high demand and that’s why Peter, your colleagues and Newhouse, I think, decided it was so important to establish an award in Robin’s name. Reminding folks why solid journalism matters so much.
I’ll spare you all the Jefferson quotes, but she was tough. Not in the service of undermining the system, but in strengthening it. She was a remarkable woman. Let me close by directly thanking and talking to Jake and Nora., 16-year-old twins. It’s become obvious to those who know them—and Jake goes to my granddaughter’s school and they know him. It’s obvious to everyone who knows you that you are your mom. You are what she was. Her blood runs through your veins just as much as your dad’s does. Jake, I hear you’re a heck of a writer and a debater and an athlete. And Nora, your love of art and the written word. Everybody who knows you knows it means something to you. Just like it did to your mother at your age.Sixteen years old. Nora, Mrs. Biden and I are extremely happy that you’re coming to a reception at our home to celebrate Women’s History Month. There’s going to be a lot of strong, bright, successful women who are going to be making changes just like your mom and just like you’re going to. Making a big difference in many people’s lives. So to both the kids, let me just say I know children who lost their mom. I know there’s nothing that makes up for that. I know this a bittersweet thing, hearing all these wonderful things about your mom. But you have each other and you have your dad. That’s the place in which you’re going to draw all your strength. And she’s part of you, she’ll never leave you, she is you.
So to the past Toner Prize winners and Fellowship winners and this year’s recipients, congratulations. And thank you for attempting, whether you knew it or not, for trying to emulate those incredible traits and characteristics and integrity that Robin represented. We need you. We need you badly. May God bless you and may God protect our troops. Thank you. (Applause)
ADAM CLYMER: Good evening. I get the opportunity to speak after the vice president and before Congressman Lewis, so you won’t expect much, and you probably won’t get it. But you’ve had appetizer and your dessert, I guess I’m your vegetables. I’m Adam Clymer. I used to be with The New York Times. I was a friend of Robin’s. I worked with her in the 1980s when she was a Times stringer in West Virginia. I worked with her in various roles and she was always a great friend and a great reporter. The reason I’m here is in our judging process. I’ve been a member of the final panel each year that we’ve given out the prize. And this year we’ve never had as close a competition as we had this year. We had a lot of good entries – a couple of brilliant entries. And we had to choose. But that’s what life is about, I guess. But at any rate, I don’t remember a situation where all the judges said it was very close between the two of them and if one or the other wins, that’s OK by me. If anyone had suggested anyone outside of the two you’ll hear from tonight, they’d have been lynched by the rest of the judges. But anyway, it’s been a pleasure. And one of the things about it, even the entries that didn’t win the prize gave you a little hope that despite the decline of journalism that everyone talks about and the menace of the web and all that, there’s some darn good political reporting in places all around the country and we got to see that. But anyway, that’s enough from me. I’m here to introduce the people who will describe and present the prizes. It’s my privilege to introduce Nora and Jake Gosselin. (Applause)
NORA GOSSELIN: Good evening. I want to begin by saying what an honor this program and prize are for me and my family and for the memory of my mom. So thank you all so much for being with us tonight. I learned my first curse word during the 2004 presidential election, folded in an office chair, on some bring-your-kid to work day at The New York Times bureau. The swearing reporter, who I remember as Rick Berke, was fighting for a story for the fact that he had gathered and that he knew to be true. And so my mom just shrugged, smiled even, because her kids were getting a taste of the passion that she so loved. It was in this same bureau that I also witnessed the true power of a story for the first time. The awe of what even 500 words could accomplish. If they were about something that mattered to people’s lives. A tax cut. A policy change buried in a  bill. A campaign contribution secretly, wrongly given. I watched my mom on her feet yelling into the phone in New York, fighting because she knew the responsibility that a byline gave her and she was going to do it right. My mom made sure that I saw the backside of the American news business. The colorful chaos behind the clean, black type only to burst forth the next day. And today, I like to consider myself a small part of this, as I write for my school newspaper. Twenty-five years ago, my dad investigated Jonnie R. Williams Sr. for The Boston Globe. Last week, I wrote about Williams and his recent partnership with Governor McDonnell myself and I came across my dad’s old articles. I’m so grateful, I’m so excited to be part of all this. And I’m inspired by journalists like Jennifer Davidson (Eds. Note: surname changed to Moore) from KSMU radio in the Ozarks. We honor Ms. Davidson (Moore) tonight for her exceptional coverage of the potential Medicaid expansion in Missouri. The judges agreed that she successfully broke down the issue into accessible, bite-sized chunks for her local community. So insight, compassion and what goes on in that zone between politics and policy that my mom so loved to cover. That’s why I’m thrilled to award Jennifer Davidson (Moore) the Toner Honorable Mention for her pieces “Missouri and Medicaid Expansion: What’s the Stake?” (Applause)
JENNIFER (Moore) DAVIDSON: Thank you. Thank you to the judges. And thank you to Robin’s family, of whom I have had the immense pleasure and honor of meeting so, so many of you tonight, hearing about Robin’s courage firsthand. I will say I didn’t have the honor of knowing Robin personally, but I do know that she was a trailblazer for political journalists like myself, both women and men, but particularly women. And I’m proud to be walking on that trail. This is an incredible honor, thank you.
JAKE GOSSELIN: My mom loved politics. Anyone who knew her during a presidential election knew that she, like many of the people here, loved the thrill of big-time political reporting. But even in the heat of the most intense campaign, she never lost sight of what she believed was more important. The people behind the politics. When she left for Iowa, or Ohio, or many of the battleground states every four years, she was excited to report on politicians and campaigners. But she was more excited to report on the voters, the men and women whose stories would often be overlooked. That was her passion. This year, as Adam said, the judges received some of the best pieces they’ve had since the prize began. Almost every submission was both well-written and well-reported. Today’s winner demonstrates skillful writing and deep reporting on a variety of issues. But what really made her stand out to the judges was her ability to marry politics and humanity. Of all the stories she submitted, the piece that won her the prize was a compelling expose she wrote just before the president was inaugurated for the second time. In it, she told the story of Earl Smith, a man who, like many, had become enthralled with the presidential candidate and through a chance encounter with the then-Senator, bestowed on him a military patch to quote “help keep him safe on his journey.” She brought to light an amazing American story, of a man who’s life of struggle and sacrifice embodies many of the values we hold most dear. Her decision to write about Earl Smith, to shift the focus away, just for a moment, from campaign politics, makes her a perfect representation of the kind of journalism that my mom prized above all. It is my honor to present this year’s Toner Prize to Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post for her collection of pieces on the 2012 presidential campaign. (Applause)
KAREN TUMULTY: Thank you. Thank you so much. I feel so honored and more than a little flabbergasted. But for me, receiving this prize, which is named for someone I knew and admired has also been a reminder of something and that is that the person with the byline is the one who gets the recognition. And you know in this unsettled time in our business, when we are all being told to develop our own brands or whatever it is this week. The fact is that most of the stories that made me the proudest come from the kind of journalism that you can really only do at a great news organization. And I am so happy that the story that impressed the judges was the story of a stranger who encountered then-candidate Barack Obama on an elevator and had given him a cherished keepsake. The night that we finally closed that story, I told Ann Gerhart, the editor and very gifted writer who had really pulled me over the finish line on that one, I’ve always felt that the very best kind of editors are the ones that get as excited about the story as I do. And I can get pretty obsessive about stories, as my long-suffering husband, Paul Richter, will tell you. And I’m really lucky that The Washington Post where I’ve been for four years has that kind of editor in abundance. I’m so glad that some of them are here tonight. Steven Ginsberg and Terry Samuel and of course the big guys Marty and Kevin. But there’s also someone here without who this full story would never have come to light. And that is Alice Crites. Alice is an extraordinary researcher who can dig out whatever information you ask for and sometimes information that you do not know is there. So after Earl told me the story of his military service, I asked Alice to do what you ask to do – just check the records, make sure he really was in the military. That he really was in Vietnam when he said he was. And less than a day later, Alice came to me with some startling news. And that was that she had discovered that somebody with Earl’s exact name and exact birthdate had spent three years in a Georgia prison. But for some reason hadn’t served his full sentence, nor was there any record of a parole. So it turned out that Earl had a secret. And one that, once we got to the bottom of it, really made his story all that more extraordinary. And, really, all that more of an example of courage and resilience and faith.
Of course, what makes this award truly special is that it’s named for Robin, who was a friend of mine and someone whose work we revered. We met aboard a campaign bus. Of course, we met aboard a campaign bus. It was 1987, shortly after both of us had arrived in Washington and we were covering Gary Hart on a swing through the South. At the time, he was a pretty solid frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. And I remember Robin wrote a really elegant piece that I admired and envied on how he was struggling to connect with African Americans. As it turns out, that was a lesson for both of us on how quickly things can change in politics. Her story ran on April 27th and exactly five days later, The Miami Herald ran a story with the headline “Miami Woman is Linked to Hart.” And, well, let’s just say connecting with black voters was no longer his biggest challenge.
Many of my favorite campaign memories are ones with Robin on the road. Her sense of humor never failed and that was really tested the time that the John Kerry bus pulled up in front of hotel in Dubuque where the campaign was putting us up for the night. It was a meth hotel. Any doubts that it was a meth hotel vanished when we checked in and realized the front desk was behind bullet-proof glass. And Robin had noticed there were some huge Dumpsters in the parking lot. “You see that?” she said. “That is where they’re gonna find our body parts in the morning.”
The fact is just being around Robin can make you a better journalist. And in 2007 she called me up and proposed that we travel to Iowa together to hear Barack Obama unveil his healthcare plan. Robin knew that this was going to be a moment where we could judge whether there was any substance to this guy’s high-flying rhetoric. I remember after his speech in Iowa City we were on our way to Cedar Rapids. It was in this souped-up Mustang that Avis gave us and we looked like a really nerdy version of Thelma and Louise. And Robin was driving and I was answering both of our phone calls and of course the inevitable calls from the other campaigns started coming in. So I handed her her phone – and Nora and Jake don’t ever do this – but I listened to her conduct an interview while she was driving 70 miles an hour. And I heard her tell one caller “Look, this is all very interesting, but if you’re not willing to let me use your name, I really don’t see any point in continuing this conversation.” I might add that the person she was talking to now works at the Obama White House in one of those positions you constantly see described as a Senior Administration Official. But the point is that Robin Toner never, ever took a cheap shot. And she never let the column inches of The New York Times take a cheap shot either. She believed that politics and policy were not two different things. She believed it was the job of the journalist to explain why they were the same thing. So that anyone believes that my work could measure up to the standards and the legacy that Robin Toner set, is both an honor and more importantly, a challenge. So thank you very much. (APPLAUSE)
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: Now that we’re coming to dessert, we actually have a very special dessert in one sense. We have another special guest, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. Now, Robin Toner covered his early steps toward an elected office when she reported for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And as you surely know, John Lewis is always, and always has been, a force to be reckoned with in politics and in civil rights. I have to get a little weepy here because when I was growing up in South Alabama, I saw the marches he led and I saw the incredibly brave reporters who followed those marches and told those stories. And John Lewis and one of those journalists are one of the reasons I wanted to go into journalism. He also has deep and warm connections to Syracuse University, Robin’s alma mater. In 2004, I was especially privileged to have Congressman Lewis come to Syracuse University for a symposium on civil rights and the press – a subject he knows quite a lot about. And in 2010, he began working with Syracuse University as a mainstay in a very special project for the Cold Case Initiative at SU’s College of Law, where Vice President Biden graduated. Needless to say, he is still a force to be reckoned with and it’s my very special pleasure to say: Congressman Lewis, will you come please and inspire us once again? Thank you.
JOHN LEWIS: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you very much for those kind words of introduction. I really must tell you I feel more than lucky, but very blessed to be here. Peter, I love your wife. Nora and Jacob, I love your mother. She was the best. I first met her in Atlanta and I had a little more of my hair and a few pounds lighter. I want to thank Syracuse University and the Kaiser Family Foundation for inviting me to say a few words about my dear friend Robin Toner. I think it is so fitting and so appropriate that you would develop an award for excellence in political reporting to remember and honor Robin Toner. She was the very best of the best in her field and that’s why she became the first woman The New York Times ever hired as its national political correspondent. In my years in politics, I’ve gotten to know many good, great and even legendary reporters. Not just from the South, but from all over America. There as not one that was as consistent, as persistent or as thorough as Robin Toner. I know some of you are going to get on me for saying that, but it’s okay – I believe in the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence. I came to know her when she was working for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She saw me win, she saw me lose. She would come back and interview me once and then she would come back and interview me again. She would ask follow-up questions and dig and dig until she understood the core of what was being communicated. She didn’t harass, or badger. But she was passionate in her quest to comprehend the fight and get the story right. That beautiful smile, you couldn’t say no. You just couldn’t say no to Robin Toner. (Applause) And if she thought a person wouldn’t be an accurate or open, she would say so. She would say “Oh, well, another source told me something different.”
She educated herself on the issues so she was never easily fooled or misled in her reporting. I loved to read her story or her byline in The New York Times and the AJC. Her writing was eloquent but her story was so informative. She never gave up. She never gave in. She kept her faith and she kept her eyes on the prize. I remember when I first came to Capitol Hill we used to meet at a little restaurant. And some of you who work at Capitol Hill, it’s on the corner of 3rd and Pennsylvania Southeast. It was a little hole in the wall. Some of you remember that? It had pies and cakes and you could go in there early in the morning and get coffee or tea. Well, we would go have breakfast or just to get some juice. We would talk about politics, taxes, welfare, Social Security, civil rights, whatever was on her mind. I remember once she told me her father said “Robin, you must love that guy, John Lewis, because you quote him all the time in some of your stories.”
I think we shared a love of newspapers. I told her on one occasion, when I was growing up in Alabama, outside of a little town called Troy, we were too poor to have a subscription to a newspaper. But my grandfather had one and each day we would finish reading his newspaper, we would get that newspaper and read it. And I don’t want to get in trouble here with some of you electronic journalism majors and reporters and all of that. But there’s something about a newspaper that’s so different. You can pick it up, lay it down, come back and read it again. So when I was growing up I had a teacher who said “Read my child, read.” I tried to read everything, anything I could get my hands on.
Robin, my friend. She was the best. She was the real deal. Thank you for remembering her tonight. I don’t know what she would think about political reporting today, really. She’s watching some of you tonight. You should be careful, very careful. She didn’t agree with gotcha journalism, or sensationalism. She knew that politics affected people from the cradle to the grave. And she knew that people were depending on her, that they needed information to be delivered to make important decisions in their lives. People read the news because they trust it. It gives them critical information they need. It helps them decide who to vote for. It describes trends that people in business and legislature need to know exist. But more important, it shares the stories of the people. It demonstrates to power brokers of public policy, business and politics in their lives. It informs us about each other and helps us keep a pulse on our democracy and on the world at large. A good political reporter helps represent the people they serve and Robin knew this most. We need reporters today like Robin Toner. More than ever before. We have access to so much information, but there’s no one to help us analyze what’s coming at us. There’s so few people who we can trust to check and double-check and make sure they have it right. So few reporters are well-educated about the hard, complex issues. Where are the investigative reporters that get out there and search and dig and never give up or give in like a Robin Toner? The cult of celebrity has overtaken the mandate that still remains at the heart of journalism, to give people the information they need to govern their lives effectively. That’s why this prize is so important. Karen, Jennifer, I want to congratulate you. I want to congratulate you for attempting to fill the shoes of Robin Toner. She set a high standard. A very high standard. It’s my hope that reporters for generations yet unborn will try to measure up to the standards set by Robin Toner. Thank you very much.
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: Thank you. If I could have your attention again please. Please enjoy your coffee and desserts. The chocolate is my choice so that’s why you have it. Thank you. And I want to remind everyone that we could not have this extraordinary celebration without some wonderful people. There is a very special person that needs some recognition too and that of course is Peter Gosselin. He doesn’t know about this.
PETER GOSSELIN: This was the year I was not going to speak because the kids have got to start getting it. They’re inheriting this thing, you know, and it’s just got to keep going. I won’t say very much. Just that you’ve been very patient, I mean we’re completely off the schedule that I wrote 15 times. I mean, I knew you weren’t going to get your entree until the vice president left because the Secret Service thought the catering kitchen was an immense threat. But I didn’t know everything was going to go on for so long. Just as you showed patience here tonight, I hope you’ll show patience in continuing to support this program. It’s a new thing, it’s small in the world of Washington and in the world of Syracuse. It needs your support. But if we make it work, it could be the premiere prize in political reporting. And I just say, Rob – even though she would have immense doubts of having a picture up and her name on it – she always had a gripe, which was that the investigative reporters, which always got the prizes and the political reporters did the work. And it galled her to no end and so this is an attempt to change the balance a little. Your support in coming tonight and in the coming years will be greatly appreciated by my family and I hope by political journalists of the coming generation. Thank you very much.
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: We also want to thank some wonderful people who made this possible by their generosity. We’ve already mentioned to you the Kaiser Family Foundation. And we want to thank especially our very generous sponsors who helped us with the bar bill and the food and they are, of course, Bloomberg, the Dewey Square Group, Hilltop Public Solutions, Google. I proposed naming a drink the Google Glass but that didn’t go anywhere. Lake Research Partners, the Tarrance Group and The Washington Post. Thanks again to all of them and to all of you for coming and for making this such a special occasion. Goodnight and have chocolate.


Keynote Speaker: Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services

Read the transcript

Toner Prize Celebration with Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services
March 28, 2013
Washington, D.C.

PROFESSOR CHARLOTTE GRIMES: Good evening, everyone. If you could please take your seats and feel free to start eating. I’m Charlotte Grimes, I’m the one that most of you have been getting those email messages from. So you now have a Southern accent and a short person to connect to those emails. I am the Knight Chair in Political Reporting at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University and it’s my special privilege to be the administrator of the Robin Toner Program.
All of you know Robin and know Peter Gosselin, and their children Nora and Jake, and you are here to celebrate the kind of journalism that Robin did. As a program, the Robin Toner Program at the Newhouse School, I’m going to ask Dean Lorraine Branham of the Newhouse School to give us a welcome. Thank you very much. (Applause)
DEAN LORRAINE BRANHAM: Thank you, Professor Grimes. This is my great pleasure to welcome you all here tonight. And I want to thank Professor Grimes for all her hard work and it’s just amazing that she arranged it so that we could all be here in Washington with you today at the same time that a certain school just happened to be having a basketball game. So it worked out perfectly as far as we’re concerned. But seriously, we are really delighted to be here and to be having our third anniversary of this event. We thought it would be nice to leave Syracuse and leave behind the snow and come to Washington, which was Robin’s home and a place where she did much of her work to celebrate and recognize the work that she was so noted for.
It’s nice to have so many of Robin’s friends and colleagues and family members here in the room. I especially would like to recognize Peter and the twins, Nora and Jake, who I cannot believe in the three years since getting to know them, how much they have grown. It’s great to see you guys. This is a very important piece of what we do at the Newhouse School. And it serves as a wonderful example for our students of the kind of work that we believe is important and that we hope they will aspire to and one day leave us to go off and do. And we also like to think that it keeps the focus on the importance of this kind of journalism, which some days seems to be in danger of being undermined or disappearing altogether. So whenever we have an opportunity to continue those who do this kind of work, we are happy to do so. We have some special guests here tonight who you will have an opportunity to meet and I think some of them have arrived. So I’m going to stop talking. Please continue to enjoy your salads and then your dinner. Thank you all for being here tonight and for your support of this program and for the Newhouse School and especially for the Robin Toner Program in Political Journalism. Long live this kind of reporting and let’s continue to support those who go out and do this kind of work. Thank you very much. (Applause)
PETER GOSSELIN: Our guest speaker is Secretary Sebelius and she’s going to have to leave, she’s on a tight schedule for another event so I’m going to introduce her and she’ll speak while we’re eating, and then the rest of the program will go on after that. I actually had the good luck to work for Secretary Sebelius for a period of time and for Secretary Geithner too. It’s hard to remember how bad things really were four years ago. You can get some sense of it from the story of Secretary Sebelius’ first day on the job. At the time, still Governor of Kansas, she was notified that a plane would be arriving to bring her to Washington even as the senate was still voting on her confirmation. She was taken straight to the White House to be briefed on a global swine flu pandemic. The Secretary rolled up her sleeves and went to work and a lot has improved in the intervening years. One thing that has not is the pace – hence her departure after her speech. The Secretary has had to deal with the fallout after an oil spill in the South, an earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Sandy, she’s leading the conversion to electronic health records, helping the First Lady tackle obesity, revamping our efforts on HIV/AIDS and smoking. Most importantly, she’s implementing historic legislation to overhaul both the way that America pays for its healthcare and the way that care is delivered. Robin’s twin journalistic passions were American politics and health policy. Secretary Sebelius represents the best of both, the daughter of an Ohio governor, a governor in her own right, leading the nation closer than it’s ever gotten to universal coverage – it’s my honor to introduce Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. (Applause)
SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Well good evening everybody, I’m delighted to have a chance to join you tonight. I did find myself having a little bit of PTSD when I saw all the orange color. Tonight I can say, go orange and I know many of you will be heading to that game. I want to recognize that it’s really very nice to be here. I did have the chance to work with peter and he came to the department at an absolutely historic time and did some of the heavy lifting as we began the early stages of this legal implementation which presidents for many years have been trying to get passed but no one had succeeded until President Obama, so he was there at a remarkable time. So it’s a great pleasure to meet Nora and Jake, which I did briefly outside and to recognize the fact that the woman you’re honoring tonight, Robin, was not only a superb journalist and the first woman to be named national political correspondent, but a wife, and a mom and a passionate healthcare advocate. So it’s my real pleasure to have a chance to share in not only her memory but also her legacy that she leaves.
I see Senator Rockefeller is here and I have that pleasure of working with the senator on a regular basis. I knew he was likely to be here also to pay respects to Robin’s memory but to honor her legacy. No question Robin was a trailblazer. Somebody’s whose life actually serves as a terrific inspiration not only for those of you in the room but lots of people around the country. Because her work remains the gold standard for political journalism. I think no one represents the highest ideals of the profession more than Robin. She was a reporter who never shied away from complexity and never forgot policies and politics have real consequences for people’s lives. Ted Kennedy summed up the feelings of many who knew her and knew her work when he called her a reporter’s reporter, who deeply cared about the people and the issues she covered. And so I want to start by thanking all of you who are here tonight not only to carry on her legacy but do this important work day in and day out.
The work that Robin did was much more than giving people something to read on their morning commute, it was about helping Americans with increasingly busy lives and limited free time follow and form opinions on policy debates. The policy debates that really shape our democracy. It was about shining a light on issues that really matter, about bringing facts to the forefront of our discourse. This work plays such a critical role in our democracy and doing it well has never been easy. It’s even more difficult today at a time of cuts and layoffs in newsrooms. But in the face of that uncertainty, American journalists continue to do incredible work. And that’s a very good and very important thing, because we now live in an age where people are inundated with information and misinformation. They’re getting it from all sources at faster speeds than ever before. So the need for thoughtful based journalism that can cut through the clutter is stronger than ever.
And it’s especially true when it comes to complex areas of policy, like health care, that can’t really be boiled down very frequently to a rapid-fire tweet. There’s long been a broad consensus in America about the need to transform our healthcare system. Little snapshot – We pay more than any country does for care and yet Americans live sicker and die younger than lots of our global neighbors. And because of the gaps in coverage in our system, tens of millions of our friends and neighbors live one accident or one illness away from going broke. So the idea that we can do better that we must do better isn’t a controversial one. But over the past few decades, our efforts to improve national health care have been fraught with confusion and certainly with misinformation. Now part of that is because the broken healthcare system isn’t broken for everyone. There are powerful interests that have always had a financial stake in existing change. The American healthcare system is also inherently complex. Over time, it’s evolved into a sprawling, public-private patchwork that makes up a sixth of our economy. And if you talk to healthcare providers, to the doctors and nurses that work day in and day out, they find often the system to be bewildering.
So even as the Affordable Care Act’s provisions have begun to make a difference in millions of people’s lives, the fact that there’s still so much confusion surrounding the law shouldn’t be that surprising, but it is concerning. When people don’t know how their health care law affects them, it doesn’t just make it harder for them to participate in the national debate, it can prevent them from actually taking advantage to critical protections and benefits that now are owed to them. It doesn’t just affect their views, it affects their health and it could affect the longevity of their lives. And that’s why I believe there’s never been a greater need for healthcare journalism than there is today. And tonight, I’m going to use my time here to mention just a few areas where your talents are desperately needed.
Now one of those areas is a thoughtful discussion about health care costs. For years, we’ve had national health care spending rising at unsustainable rates – placing a growing burden on families, businesses and on governments. Lately we have seen some incredibly positive developments. In each of the last three years since the healthcare law has been signed, health care spending has grown at a slower rate than in any year in the previous 50. In 2012, Medicare spending per beneficiary rose by less than half of one percent, while Medicaid spending – the state-level program – actually dropped by nearly two percent from 2011 to 2012. And yet a new poll, released by Kaiser Health this month showed that only four percent of Americans are aware that health spending growth is slowing down. 58 percent believe that, incorrectly ,costs are actually rising faster than usual. Now we can disagree over whether costs have dropped enough or whether we lowering spending in the right way, that’s a debate to have. And when it comes to understanding how to address health care costs going forward, the fact that health care spending has slowed to rates we haven’t seen in half a century seems pretty relevant, and we should be a part of the ongoing debate.
A second area is the reforms to care delivery that experts believe are driving much of the slow down on spending. Paying providers for the first time ever in the history of these programs, for quality, not the quantity of care, not the typical fee for service, is an idea that always looked great in theory and has been discussed a lot. The question was really whether or not you could make it work in practice. Whether or not there really was a payment strategy to carry that out. And that’s part of what Senator Rockefeller and his colleagues shaped in the Affordable Care Act. The early answer that we’re getting from some of these reforms in delivery and care is that yes, we can figure out a different, smarter, better payment scheme. One easy example to give you is hospital readmissions. For years, hospital readmission rates for patients were stuck at about 20 percent. What that meant was one out of every five Medicaid patients who left the hospital was back in 30 days. One out of five – total revolving door. Some of those were unavoidable – huge health crisis, a chronically ill patient – but a lot of them were totally avoidable. And there was no check-up by healthcare provider in the intervening days between the hospital departure. So what we started to do is pay for releases in a different way and people said it probably wouldn’t work. But thanks to some of the incentives put in the health care law, that number has now significantly dropped for the first time on record.
Now when the New York Times obituary of Robin was written, they quoted the words she used to describe her fellow journalist David Rosenbaum and his death. She said of him, he believed that behind every arcane tax provision or every line appropriation bill, there will real people getting something or getting something taken away. He believed that there was on most stories something approximating truth out there. If you were smart enough and hungry enough to find it. Those words I think were very apt to describe Robin Toner and the work that she did over her life. And they’re the ones that all of us, policymakers and journalists alike, should try to live by. So again, congratulations to tonight’s winners, I’m delighted to have a chance to join you today and to pay tribute to Robin Toner. Thank you very much. (Applause)
DEAN LORRAINE BRANHAM: Please continue to enjoy your dinner. We are a little behind schedule here because of that basketball game I talked about. I do want to give you an opportunity to hear from two people who had a very special relationship with Robin. One of those people knew her when she was in college at Syracuse University, where she was a dual major at the Newhouse School and in the Maxwell School studied political science. And the other person knew her as a colleague and a friend when they both were doing the business together. So first I’d like to introduce to you John Chapple, who is a graduate of Syracuse University, who is currently on our Board of Trustees as Trustee Emeritus. He’s also a member of the advisory board at the Maxwell School and he and Robin were good friends when she was there. She was a freshman, he was a sophomore. Rumor has it that it was because of Robin that John actually graduated, but I’ll let him tell you that story. But first let me tell you a little about John and I also have to mention that when Peter and I first started talking about how we might best honor Robin’s legacy and putting together something like this, John was the first person to step forward to say I will help make that happen. And so we are extremely grateful to you John, for what you started and where we are today. So thank you for believing that this was important and for helping to make it possible. John is the president of Hawkeye Investments, LLC, a privately owned equity firm, investing primarily in telecommunications and real estate ventures. He frequently works in conjunction with a company called Aurelius Capital, LLC. Prior to working at Hawkeye, John worked to create Nextel Partners – a provider of digital wireless services in mid-sized cities and smaller markets throughout the US. He became the president and chief executive officer of Nextel Partners and its subsidiaries in 1988. Nextel Partners went public in February 2000 and was traded on the NASDAQ exchange. In July 2008, the company was purchased by Sprint Communications for $9.5 billion including debt. From 1995 to 1997, John was president and chief operating officer for Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment in Vancouver, BC. During his tenure, Orca operated and owned Vancouver’s national basketball association and national hockey associations, in addition to the general motors retail and interests. In his spare time, John spends a lot of time helping his alma mater do great things such as we’re doing with this and he still has very fond memories of the time that he spent there and the times that he and Robin spent studying to help him pass tests so that he could – but I’ll let John tell you about that. John would you please come up and please give him a warm round of applause. And thank you again for all you have done to help make this event possible.
JOHN CHAPPLE: Thank you dean. Wow, great praise from the dean. Well, good evening, everyone. It’s truly heartening to look out and see all these folks here and to have you engaged in this wonderful endeavor. It speaks to the influence and love everybody has for Robin. You know, she was an inspiration to all of us. I’ll go back to school for a minute. She’d often study all night long into the daylight. Really. Of course some of us would drop by for insight in journalism or political science assignments and she’d always provide it. Sometimes you’d get the eye roll from her, but she’d always give you the answer. A typical meeting would be a bunch of us would be partying away and you’d hear ‘Hey, did you understand what Professor Johnson wanted in that poli sci research paper?’ And you know the answer were always like ‘I don’t have a clue, it went over my head.’ Not an idea ,man. Seven years of college down the drain. To quote Belushi. So I thought, OK, now what do we do. Let’s go out and ask Toner, she’ll know. Sure enough, she always did. It was almost a little annoying, actually. She always had a command of the facts and that certainly always carried forward. Now in class, let’s see, I’ll take constitutional law. And I had this professor who he’d ask a question on one of the amendments and so you’d see people across the auditorium slink down in their seats. And so the question goes out and because he had this nasty habit of cold calling. So it’s like, OK Larry, what’s the answer. So here we are like ‘Ah, don’t call on me’ and Robin’s hand would shoot up, you know. And she would take on the question, and say ‘Well, you know when the Second Amendment was being formed, and the right to bear arms,’ and she’d go on and on very articulately. So you know once again, we go ‘Phew, Robin to the rescue.’ I didn’t get called on, hooray. So there’s not a lot of people that raise their hand in that class, I can tell you that. We studied together frequently, but truth be told, I couldn’t keep up with her. She defined “work horse.” And I think, if my memory serves me correctly, she got one B in her entire SU career. And, man, was she hacked off. Foolish me, I go ‘Hey Robin, a B’s not so bad.’ (Laughter) And you know the smoke that was coming out of her eyes, ears, nose, her collar – I’m like ,oh boy, I guess I messed that one up. She got all A’s.
Another anecdote would be we were sitting around one day and she said ‘One day, I’m going to work at TIME Magazine,’ and she said ‘I’m going to be a political reporter for TIME Magazine.’ And nobody laughed, by the way. I think it’s fair to say, apologies if there’s anybody from TIME here, apologies to them, but I’d say she surpassed that goal. Back in Seattle where I live, we have the Times delivered to our doorstep – shameless plug there, Jill – and it was always so exciting to pick up the Times and there’s Robin’s name there on page one. And what was even more exciting was to read her dynamic articles, which if anyone wrote any better, I’ve never met them – him or her. I want to emphasize for a minute which is supported by the dean and, of course, Peter, and Chancellor Cantor and Vice-Chancellor Spina from day one, it’s a tribute to Robin. It’s also helping others. Students today, young alums, they’re seeing an example of how you can build a foundation for a very successful business career and I never met anyone more driven than Robin, but these students taking example of what she accomplished going forward, you know who knows maybe another SU alum will wind up on page one of The New York Times one day. I’m sure they’ll have been inspired by Robin. I’d like to reiterate the deepest thanks to the wonderful Toner family – Peter, dedicated husband, and Jake and Nora who, are anxious to get up here to the podium. And her sisters and brothers who are here and the nieces and nephews – anyway, the whole family. You know, as much as she excelled in her career and was just totally dedicated to her career, it’s her family that she loved the most. And it says a lot about her career. So I’ll just wrap up by saying thanks again for everyone being here and god bless you all. Thanks. (Applause)
DEAN LORRAINE BRANHAM: Thank you John. And now I’d like to invite one other person up to talk about Robin, the political reporter, Robin the journalist. This is Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times. Jill and Robin worked together for many years and I’m sure she has some interesting stories to tell about Robin the reporter and the times that they worked together. If you don’t know, and there are probably very few people in this room who don’t know, that Jill is the executive editor of The New York Times and has been since September of 2011. And she serves in the highest position of the Times newsroom and oversees the Times’ news report in all its various forms. And I personally was just absolutely thrilled the day that I had heard she’d become the executive editor and it’s wonderful to have her in that position and I know Robin was looking down and thinking ‘Way to go, Jill.’ Prior to being named executive editor, Ms. Abramson was the managing editor of the Times from August of 2003 until 2011. As managing editor, she helped guide the newsroom through a particularly turbulent time, supervising the coverage of two wars, four elections, a hurricane and an oil spill. She was also deeply engaged in the newsroom’s effort to change its ways in the dissemination of news to expand to new and very digital and mobile platforms. All of us in journalism and in journalism education know the challenges that newsrooms face as they try to adapt to our rapidly transforming environment. And so I applaud the work that she’s doing and I welcome her to the podium to talk about Robin the journalist that many people knew and loved. Jill.
JILL ABRAMSON: Thank you, Lorraine. I’m thrilled to be here to talk about Robin and her very amazing career in journalism. And I’m so happy to be here with many members of my New York Times family, the Washington reporting family. We have some lions of both politics and political reporting here tonight, which would please Robin to no end. Senator Rockefeller, it’s great to see you. Bill Kovach, who Robin idolized is here. And Adam Clymer, who was Robin’s sort of partner in crime, sitting in the back of the Washington bureau. I think the two of them probably know more about congressional politics – I always felt anything you needed to know, all you had to do was head towards the back where the two of them sat. But the thing that really strikes me just in seeing who’s at this dinner is that what made Robin such a singular reporter is that she occupied a place that was at the crossroads of politics and the substance of policy and she never ever divorced one from the other. She represented the absolute, most serious but also most interesting kind of reporting. When I looked around the room, I thought, wow, Judy Woodruff is here, Andrea Mitchell is here, I had the pleasure of working with them when I was really a young, nobody researcher at NBC. Janet Hook, who was a colleague of Robin’s up on the Hill covering politics. Ms. Elaine Povich, who I have not seen since the days when we were few and far between women trying to jockey for a position in the Senate Press Gallery. And Jackie Calmes. What’s very interesting about this group of women is that very much like Robin, they also political animals, you know political junkies to their core, but never apart from the substance of policy and how the politics affect real people. Robin just was really such a shining example of that kind of reporting. You know, I miss Robin all the time because I used to constantly seek her counsel on a matter. Both in Washington and after I went up to New York to be managing editor. It was very hard to finish out the election in 2008. I had my heart set on Robin writing our news analysis piece, which is usually along with the main lead all piece, the shining star of the election paper. And she’d written so many great pieces in 2008, but she just wasn’t feeling well enough, which I completely understood.
But since Obama has taken office, there have just been so many moments where I’ve been dying to know what Robin would make of something. And, you know, as recently as a month ago, I literally almost picked up the phone because I thought I’d call her, I’d thought you know she’s the only person I’d want to talk about Steve Brills giant heave about health care costs in TIME Magazine. Because you know Robin would be the ultimate judge of whether that was great health care journalism or not. And mainly lately, I’ve been so dying to talk to her about the whole Sheryl Sandberg “Lean In” thing and the Anne Marie Slaughter thing. It’s kind of a topic that Robin would be hilarious about, let alone brilliant. Something that occurred to me today is that I was thinking about the pleasure of seeing Nora and Jake and that Robin just sort of as she cemented politics and policy so perfectly, she figured out, she would I think the whole idea of Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Marie Slaughter being at odds with each other was ridiculous.
Because she had so figured out and never wavered how to have the greatest kind of journalism career and how to also have the fullest kind of family life. And she really didn’t make a big to-do about it ever. She always knew exactly what she needed to do to have both of those things. And when I was Washington bureau chief, I begged Robin to be the Washington editor and the number two position in the bureau. And she didn’t think for a second about it. I mean here was a person who when I joined the Times in 1997 was already an editor on the national desk. She was a really big deal. And then she came back to Washington and miracle of miracles, she and Peter met each other and fell in love, got married and then the children came. She didn’t think about this for a minute, she just said there is no way I’m going to be interested in doing that. She just was completely clear-eyed that this was going to mess up this perfect symmetry she had between having a full, being one of the absolute top political and health care policy reporters in the country, but also being home for Jake and Nora and participating in every part of their lives. And I think of all the things I admire about Robin, that’s perhaps the biggest thing I admire. This afternoon, I ducked into the Washington bureau to say hi and the main thing I missed about Robin not being there is I had to speak at a luncheon today and actually played hookie for about five hours after the luncheon and I did this scariest thing that any woman ever has to do. I shopped for a bathing suit. (Laughter) You know, I got to the bureau, and Robin and I would have had the best conversation about the terrors and humiliation of bathing suit shopping. So from the most serious political issue to that, I’ll miss Robin forever. But just looking out at who’s here tonight to celebrate her legacy, I know it’s in very good hands and people who do the very best work are going to carry on doing just the kind of work that Robin championed. So thanks a lot.
PROFESSOR CHARLOTTE GRIMES: There is someone else who has been completely essential to the Robin Toner Program as it has grown. That is someone who is a colleague of Robin’s, someone who aside her husband, I always called to say ‘What would Robin think we should be doing about this?’ He has been a three-time judge for the Toner Prize, so he is our institutional memory as well as often our back bone and thick skin and keen wit. So we’re going to bring up now Adam Clymer, to tell you a little about this year’s competition and where we go from here. So help me thank this man who means a great deal to all of us.
ADAM CLYMER: I’m going to cheat for a second and tell a Robin Toner story. It’s not my job here, but why not. It was in the summer of 1994 and Robin and I and Robert Pear were covering the health care story which Senator Rockefeller knows well from that year. And she was working late, maybe about 10:30 they finished whatever they had to do in satisfying New York with their reporting. They went down to have a drink at the Bombay Club and they discovered a bunch of apparently healthy young men wearing hearing aids and drinking clear liquids in the bar. The Secret Service was there so that suggested that the President was there. He was. He came out and he greeted her, ‘Hey Robin, isn’t the food here great?’ Her reply was ‘Mr. President, we come here to drink.’ (Laughter) More seriously, well that was serious too, but more seriously, Robin Toner was involved in covering presidential elections from 1980 to 2008. In 1980, she worked in West Virginia covering the Virginia primary, but she also was the Times stringer and I was the Times political reporter. She assured me that Kennedy had the state wrapped up, so I didn’t bother to go to West Virginia – I took her word for it – and she was right. As she usually was.
But I’ve been honored to serve as a judge in this competition for the last three years. It’s always been a pleasure to read some brilliant reporting and thoughtful stuff on all sorts of aspects of politics. This year was easily the best set of entries we’ve ever had. There were unfortunately, we only give out one award and a couple of honorable mentions. We could easily have given out several. There were many pieces that won’t be mentioned tonight that were terrific. But we have the resources to pick one and a couple honorable mentions. To do that job, let me introduce Jake and Nora Gosselin, who will present the prizes. (Applause)
JAKE GOSSELIN: Hi. First, I would just like to say what a great honor this program and prize is. Both for myself and for my family, but more importantly to the memory of my mother. When I was very young, I once asked my mother why she decided to be a journalist. She said that when she was my age she had told my father she told her father she wanted to become a writer. He said that if she really wanted to be one, she should become a journalist, because that way she could do something useful through her writing. That became my mom’s goal. She went to work every day not only loving what she did, but also that she knew she was doing something important and necessary. She believed that in order for a story to be good it not only had to be well written, it also had to in some way it had to make a difference in people’s lives. And that’s why I’m she certain she’d love this year’s honorable mentions.
The first honorable mention goes to a series of stories focused on anonymous donations to so-called public service organizations. This series showed the effects of dark money donations throughout the country. This kind of journalism, which is both well-written but also pushes back against the forces that can corrupt our political system, is exactly the kind that my mom would’ve loved. For these reasons, I am proud to award the ProPublica team the Toner Prize Honorable Mention for their series, Dark Money. I invite a representative to the stage. (Applause)
PROPUBLICA REPORTER: Thank you. I’m honored to accept the award on behalf of my colleagues and I wanted to just say a brief couple words about Robin, I worked at The New York Times with her. I obviously concur with all the true things that have been said about her and how she stood out among her colleagues and I want to add one other facet about her that people probably don’t know, which is that unlike most of the other reporters she was incredibly generous with sharing her sources and helping her colleagues. She stood out among all the people at the Washington bureau and I think that’s a testimony to the kind of reporter she was. Thank you again.
JAKE GOSSELIN: The second honorable mention is another series of stories. This one focused on the 2012 presidential election. In this series, the reporters stepped off the campaign trail and focused on three key counties and three swing states. They took the readers on a personal stroll through the counties and chronicled the forces that shaped this election, producing in one judge’s words, ‘This year’s best example of door to door political reporting.’ Reminding the world that politics is not just about politicians and statistics, but also about the hopes and fears of the voter, was what my mom considered one of the goals of great political reporting. Therefor I am proud to award the second honorable mention to the Wall Street Journal political reporting team for their series Swing Nation. (Applause)
WALL STREET JOURNAL REPORTER: To be honorably mentioned in any prize with the name Robin Toner is a true honor. My colleague Colleen. We have the fortune to be out and about for several months during the campaign in three counties. I had Cincinatti. I ate a lot of – Hamilton County – a lot of chili. She went to my home state of Colorado and Arepo County. Anyway, I honor all travel that we did off the bus, out and about, true reporting, kind of person to person. That’s one of many, many things that Robin did. It’s an honor to receive this, and I appreciate it. Thank you very much. (Applause)
JAKE GOSSELIN: I turn over to my sister to present the Toner Prize. Thanks.
NORA GOSSELIN: I remember the first time Jake and I stood up to award the first of these prizes several years ago. We were excited, nervous. The speeches had been written for us and we had practiced them again and again. We were to be on very briefly and there was really nothing that could go wrong. But I was terrified. So I remember standing up there. 12 years old, looking out into the audience, at family, friends, strangers, students and at my dad. I remember, just before I began to speak, thinking that my mom would’ve been so proud. People were coming together, breaking stories, exposing scams, bridging gaps. It’s exactly what she would’ve wanted, exactly what she loved – for her work and her legacy to live on, to inspire people today, means so much to me and my family. Seeing her and all of you, gave me the courage to speak several years ago, and it does so today.
Today we are honoring great reporters whose pieces show the same insight, the same passion that my mom’s did. Of the 118 entries from across the country, the judges narrowed it down and finally selected one reporter whose pieces showed great nuance and insight. In covering the 2012 presidential campaign, this writer distinguished herself in asking original questions, getting to the heart of the matter and persistently developing sources. The judges agreed she rocked, and so it is my honor to award this year’s Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting to Molly Ball of the Atlantic Magazine. (Applause)
MOLLY BALL: Unlike so many people in this room, I was lucky enough to ever meet Robin Toner. I knew her through her work and that was more than enough to know what an incredible honor this is today. As a reporter, as a woman, as a raiser of hands in class, as a cancer survivor and as a mother of a little boy and a little girl, this is an incredibly honor to me. Thank you so much.
PROFESSOR CHARLOTTE GRIMES: I have to tell you that when I first invited Molly to this dinner, we didn’t know she was going to be the winner. She emailed me back and said thank you so much for the invitation, but I’m not at all sure I’m going to be able to come because if things go as planned, just before this award, I’m going to be giving birth. And I hope this doesn’t hurt my eligibility for the Toner Prize. I consider it my own personal tribute to Robin in balancing career and family. So it was a special delight to be able to say later it didn’t hurt you, and would you please come and as it turned out her parents are here to take care of Mary, so she and her husband David are able to join us. I’m going to stop very shortly here and have Peter come up to say some final words. I would just like all of you to know that you mean so much to the Robin Toner Program and to everything that it can possibly do. I teach political reporting and I am forever telling my students something from a little book called “The Elements of Journalism,” written by the man right over here, Bill Kovach. It’s required reading in every course I teach and it’s gospel at the Newhouse School. That particular line goes something like this: “The purpose of journalism is to give people the information they need to be free and self-governing.” There is no better job and there is no more fun and there is no greater cause. Thank you for being here to celebrate this. I hope you might join us next year. Peter will tell you goodbye and we’ll have dessert on your way. Don’t leave for the ball game just yet. (Laughter and Applause)
PETER GOSSELIN: You’ve been patient, so I’ll be short. First to the journalists here. These last four years have been hard ones. Outlets have cut back, many of your colleagues have left. Some of us have just excused ourselves from the room to try and find other ways of making a living. But you’ve held firm in the faith that what you do is important. I hope that you’ve found in this evening some company and some confirmation that you’re right to do so. Next to both the journalists and non-journalists in this room, this prize and the Toner Program are very new and still very much works in progress. We have high ambitions but remain far too low in funds. You’ll have seen pledge cards in the material that was on your seats. Please, fill them out. Send them in. Be generous. Finally, from Nora and Jake and me and our broader family here, our thanks for keeping Robin in your hearts and for recognizing tonight’s awardees who carry on a tradition of quality journalism of which she was so much a part and which she so loved. Thank you and a good night.
PROFESSOR CHARLOTTE GRIMES: As a Southerner, I can’t bear to be impolite. In particular I want to thank Chancellor Nancy Cantor, who has given us so much support and whose money we’re spending tonight. Thank you, Chancellor Cantor. I also have to tell you that none of this could’ve happened without two other essential people. Luke Miller, who is our event coordinator here and also works with Peter at Bloomberg, and a very special person at the Newhouse School, Audrey Burian. Please help me thank them for making everything possible. Goodnight and Go Orange.


Panel: Jane Mayer, The New Yorker; Peggy Simpson, Women’s Media Center; Lynette Clemetson, NPR; Kristin Carlson ’99, WCAX-TV

Read the transcript

Charlotte Grimes: Good evening, everyone. I’m Charlotte Grimes and I’m the Knight Chair in Political Reporting here at the Newhouse School. And it’s my privilege to administer the Robin Toner Program in Political Reporting, which is what we’re all here tonight about.
And I’m delighted to welcome you to this tribute and this celebration to great journalism and to an outstanding journalist, Robin Toner, who is also an extraordinary alumna of the Newhouse School and the Maxwell School.
Before we go into the program tonight, I would like to recognize some special guests, so please bear with me if this is a little bit like the Oscars. They are Provost Eric Spina and Dean Lorraine Branham; Adam Clymer, who is one of Robin’s former colleagues at The New York Times and one of the finalist judges who helped to chose our winner; Robin’s husband, Peter Gosselin, and their children Nora and Jake Gosselin who will be playing an important part in this program in just a few minutes. And this year we’re also particularly delighted to have several members of Robin’s family here with us; her sister Gretchen Toner, her sister Jane McConnell and her husband Terry; her niece Bridget McCall and her husband Patrick McCall. I’m sorry to report that Chancellor Nancy Cantor couldn’t be with us now because she had to be at her own event to give out her own awards, but she has been a tremendously strong supporter of the Robin Toner Program and I’d like to be sure to give her special thanks for this. Among our other strong supporters are Robin’s classmate ,John Chapple, and the Newhouse family. We’re extremely grateful to all of them. Will you please help me thank them and welcome them for all of their support for this program?
This is our second year of awarding the Toner Prize for excellence in political reporting. We’ve only done this twice. And I’m going to ask now for Robin’s children Nora and Jake Gosselin to please join me here to award the Toner Prize and to celebrate these outstanding journalists.
First, I’m going to ask Nora if you would please tell everyone about the journalists who are being recognized for the honorable mention for the Toner Prize.
NORA GOSSELIN: My mom taught me a lot of things, things that stay with me today. She taught me how to study, how to treat others, how to dress – well she tried to. But most of all, she taught me how to be passionate about what I love. And she loved writing and reporting. She taught me how unique journalism is and how it bridges gaps, connecting Americans with big-wig politicians, getting to the gritty heart of the matter with a few words. And I believe she loved that most of all – that human connection with writing. Yes, in a large sense, that’s the foundation on which our country was built. But on a personal level, it’s also how family and friends work, how you meet new people, it’s what unites us here today.
My mom also taught me that this bond is fragile – that it can and may be broken. She would be proud of the work of ProPublica and Bloomberg News recognized here today. Olga Pierce, Jeff Larson and Lois Beckett used a combination of computer mapping and regular reporting to draw an alarming picture of how powerful forces are shaping the voting districts of states across the country.  Jonathan Salant, who started at The Post-Standard here in Syracuse, John Crewdson, Charles Babcock, and Alison Fitzgerald of Bloomberg News tracked millions of dollars for political attack ads that helped the Republican party gain control of the House and nearly the Senate in the 2010 elections. These reporters protected the human connection in writing and the bond that holds us together. My mom would be, and I am, forever grateful.
JAKE GOSSELIN: Like my sister said, my mother taught us the joy of words and the connections they could form. She taught us something else as well – she taught us about justice. She, my father, and the many journalists we have met throughout our lives have showed us the joy of revealing injustices. Many people, myself included, do not believe that they have the right to decide what is right and wrong. But when we see something wrong, we know it in our guts. My mother showed us the pleasure she got from making her readers feel this way. Just as important to her as the connections formed by her writing was the gift that she was given to be able to write for a paper where her voice could make a difference about things she saw that were wrong around her. Our family could tell when she had written a piece she was proud of, about something she knew was wrong. She would come home glowing, pour herself a big glass of wine and recount to us how she had spent months interviewing and finding all the facts before she would write a piece that would make a difference.
This is exactly what Jane Mayer did in “State for Sale,” a piece that looks at the effects of Citizens United, a Supreme Court ruling on North Carolina and how it allowed one business man Art Pope gain huge amounts of political power and change the state’s legislature from Democratic to Republican for the first time in a century. This is the exact kind of journalism my mother would have loved. Therefore, I am proud to present the Toner Prize to Jane Mayer.
JANE MAYER: Jake, Nora, thank you so much. I am really honored to get this prize in the name of your mother, who I hope you know set the gold standard for political reporting. I met her a little bit and she was a delight, she was serious and she was so respected. And I feel a little more respected just to have a prize in her name. So thank you very much.
I also want to thank Peter Gosselin so much for deciding to give an award for serious political reporting. It’s a kind of reporting that’s a little bit imperiled as we all know right now and the Internet makes it hard sometimes to really dig deep and I just really think it’s wonderful that by rewarding this kind of work I really think you’ll encourage more of it. So thank you so much.
I was thinking that this year, 2012, is the first presidential election that you won’t see Robin’s byline in since 1976 as Adam Clymer pointed out and it is really missed out there, but I am really glad to be able to sort of have a piece of her name as I am sort of covering this race.
I wanted to thank the judges, for their fabulous wisdom. Especially Adam Clymer who is – we don’t need to go into all the details but he’s known among the press core as “Big Time” as he was dubbed by Vice President Cheney. And I’d like to thank Charlotte Grimes who I’ve mostly gotten to know by the Internet but she has just been a wonderful administrator of this and everything has run so smoothly. I want to thank Nancy Cantor and also the Newhouse School Dean Lorraine Branham for this.
Finally, I guess I ought to thank my editors too for giving me the leeway to write this kind of story. At The New Yorker, they give us resources, they give us time, they give us great fact-checkers and they even give us lawyers when we’re in trouble. So anyway – and they give us a lot of encouragement.
So thank you all very much.
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: We are really privileged to have this caliber of journalism to award our prize to. And this is inspiring to our students because this is the kind of journalism that makes democracy possible and keeps democracy going.
As you know, Robin Toner was the first woman to be national political correspondent for The New York Times. And this year, as part of our program, the Toner Symposium, we’re taking advantage of women’s history month. You might have noticed that there are a bunch of women up here.
Another pioneer was the late Kaye Mills, who wrote a book about women’s history in journalism call “A Place in the News.” So tonight we’re sort of remembering Kaye too, and taking a little bit of her title and calling our symposium “Keep” and our panelists represent different eras, different challenges and different opportunities in that struggle. And they’re going to talk about their experiences and their insights and particularly their opportunities in the digital age.
Our moderator is especially well equipped for this particular chore. She is Kristi Andersen, the Chapple Family Professor of Citizenship and Democracy in the department of political science in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. Kristi has been a member of the Maxwell School family since some of us – well not me – but some of us were born, 1984. Her books include “After Suffrage: Women and Electoral Politics before the New Deal” and “The Creation of a Democratic Majority: 1928 to 1936.” Her research has produced articles on such topics as the gender gap, voting for male and female candidates, the effects of entering the workforce on women’s political participation and the prospects for getting more women in Congress. Kristi also practices what she teaches. She is a member of the town board in Cazenovia. She was elected first in 2005 and re-elected in 2009 and she is a local celebrity in her own right, as a panelist since 2002 on the local WCNY-TV’s very popular “Ivory Tower Half Hour.” So Kristi is going to be our moderator and Kristi I’ll turn the program over to you now. Thank you very much.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: So I’ll start by very briefly introducing the panelists. You have their bios I think in the program. We are extremely lucky to have with us women journalists who come from a variety of different generations, who as Charlotte said, have a variety of different kinds of experiences, different sorts of media, have worked for different kinds of media organizations, so I think this will be a very interesting discussion on them of keeping a place in the news.
Jane Mayer, who you’ve already heard from, was the first woman White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. She’s covered the Persian Gulf War, written about politics all the way from Clarence Thomas to the war on terror. She writes, obviously for The New Yorker, and has won numerous prices including tonight’s prize for “State for Sale,” a fascinating story about the man who now seems to control North Carolina politics.
Peggy Simpson, sitting next to Jane, now reports for the Women’s Media Center. But Peggy worked for many years for the Associated Press, was really a pioneer woman journalist. She covered, for example, the Kennedy assassination, the 1970s women’s movement, she’s held a Neiman Foundation [fellowship] at Harvard, opened a Washington bureau for Ms. magazine and has taught at Indiana University as well as a number of other places.
Next to her is Lynette Clemetson. Lynette has been an Asia correspondent for Newsweek and in fact was on the spot for Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule. She’s been a correspondent for The New York Times, she helped found She’s currently director for NPR’s StateImpact, which focuses on how state policy affects people’s lives.
And finally we have a Newhouse graduate, Kristin Carlson, sitting on the end, who is a television journalist in Vermont. She was the first woman, the youngest television reporter in the state capital. She has won awards for reporting on the role of illegal immigrants in the agricultural industry in Vermont and on sexual harassment of women employees in state government.
So as you can see we have an illustrious panel and one which represents a lot of different interests, a lot of different expertise and as I said a lot of different generations. So I will sit down and see if I can work this big mic here.
Is this thing on?
I’d like the panelists to begin by sharing with us briefly their experiences as women in journalism, whether that was sort of a non-issue for them or for some of them, like Peggy, I think it did present challenges. And just give us some observations rooted in your own experiences. So Jane we’ll start with you.
JANE MAYER: Well, I would say that there were pros and cons by the time I entered journalism.
I, as you mentioned, became the Wall Street Journal’s White House correspondent in 1984, at which point I think I was given the job because they wanted to have a first woman in the White House. I was just a couple of years out of college and didn’t have that much experience covering politics. So I think that was the pro from my standpoint.
The con was, among other things, they didn’t think that women could cover arms control. Even though I was the White House correspondent, they thought that women couldn’t do throw-weight, as they called it. So when President Reagan went off to an arms control summit with Gorbachev, I was asked to stay home and asked to maybe think about doing a piece about Nancy Reagan’s favorite dress designers.
So there were some double standards. I remember when President Reagan first called on me. I had written a piece about how he liked to call on women in red and my bureau chief absolutely insisted I wear a red dress. So I put on a red dress and Reagan sort of pointed to me and said “There’s the little girl in red!” So you were still a little girl at that point. But you know it was an opening. And you could run with it and that’s kind of what I remember doing and having a lot of fun with it. So, I tried not to take offense. I just tried to take over the front page.
PEGGY SIMPSON: Well I didn’t know there was any limit to what you could do as a reporter. I just grew up listening to Pauline Frederick on NBC Nightly News and I was probably 10 years old and my parents were divorced and my mom and sister and I moved to San Antonio and she listened to a soap opera every evening and I listened to NBC Nightly News and Pauline Frederick was reporting for the United Nations and I figured that if she could do that I could do that.
And so when I began deciding to be a reporter after college, I had never met a real reporter until I became one. My professors I didn’t consider real reporters. They were good professors but I just sort of went about shaping what I wanted. I edited a weekly newspaper. I was stringer for the AP and for UPI and when I went to the AP I did anything and everything and I wanted to make sure that nobody did me any favors. I had an AP professor when I was in school who said “Heaven forbid if you are stupid enough to work for a wire service don’t work for the AP because if you’re a woman they’ll make you work as hard as the men.” And later, I came to think, well that’s fine with me. I don’t want to have anyone doing me any favors.
I found out that the AP did have its own mindset about what women could and could not do. And that included that you could not aspire to be a bureau chief or a foreign correspondent or things like that because those things were “what men did.” And my bureau chief in Texas told me after I covered the Kennedy assassination, and took him out and said you know I love being a reporter and I do want to go to Washington like I’ve been telling you all on the personnel surveys. But if I wanted to have a job like yours as a bureau chief what kinds of things should I be doing right now at the age of 24. And he said you know and he laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed. And I thought, I’m not sure what that’s about. But basically he said women can’t do this job because to do the job of a bureau chief you first have to sell the AP services. And to sell the AP services you have to get the editors of the paper drunk or the managers of the radio/TV stations drunk or else they won’t buy anything. And we couldn’t send a woman to do that because their wives wouldn’t like it.
And I thought I never realized I had to compete against the wives also.
But he said you know you’re a great reporter and I’ll send you to Washington. And he did.
Ten years later, when there was an AP lawsuit that somebody else filed at the United Nations wanting to be a foreign correspondent and I signed on in the second wave of that it was partly that former conversation that I went back and told. Because my bureau chief was actually very supportive of me individually. He recognized that I was energetic and worked overnights and everything else. He made speeches about me. But his attitudes reflected the AP’s attitudes about the limits on what women could do.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: We’re glad we’re beyond that, perhaps.
LYNETTE CLEMETSON: Well I think by the time I decided to go into journalism in the early ‘90s I was very aware that I was a beneficiary of the women in Peggy’s generation. And I didn’t have to face those sorts of misperceptions or limitations on what I could be. I will say that what I did face though was, in very well-meaning ways, people who tried to protect me from my interest in going to Asia. Because people would tell me, “you know, they’re prejudiced over there.” To which I would say, “Compared to where?”
And because I’m not a very good listener, I decided to pursue Mandarin anyway and follow my dream to become a foreign correspondent.
And by the time I got to Hong Kong, I was very lucky that the Hong Kong bureau chief of Newsweek was a woman, Dorinda Elliott. Her father Oz Elliott had been one of the Wallendas at Newsweek. So I had very strong role models.
When I came back to Washington to join the Newsweek Washington bureau, there was a female bureau chief, Ann McDaniel, who was and remains a mentor of mine. And I would remember hearing in the Washington bureau from people like Eleanor Clift, who paved the way for people like me to come into the bureau with high aspirations. And they would tell stories about the day when the woman who was then office manager would roll a drinks cart around the Washington bureau on closing night on Friday for all the boys. What really struck me was that it really wasn’t that long ago. And I was very struck that I could come into the bureau and aspire to any job I wanted to have at Newsweek. And was hired then to go to The New York Times by Jill Abrahamson. So I’ve really been very fortunate to have trailblazers all around me. And so now that I’ve moved over to the digital side in 2007. And in some ways, I feel that this is my path as a trailblazer, in digital, where I think women in management and on the news innovation end of things, I think we’re starting to move into that boys’ space of being the entrepreneurs, and starting ventures and seeking venture capital for start-ups and I think this is a new wave where women are making a difference.
KRISTIN CARLSON: Well I graduated from Newhouse in ‘99, and started working soon after that, was hired full time at the station where I work in 2000 and it had never entered into my mind that it mattered whether I was a woman or a man.
I was raised very much with the belief that I could do anything and be anything I believed. When I started at the station, I became interested in politics very soon after and was pursuing to become the Montpelier bureau chief covering the state capital. And I got that when I was 24 years old, and I didn’t make note of it but my news director said, “You know you’re the first woman who’s got this job and you know you’re about 15 years younger than anyone who’s held this job?”
And when I was covering the statehouse I did feel Vermont is a more rural state and a lot of the makeup in the legislature – even though we have the second most number of women who serve in the state legislature – it is in some ways still an old boys club.
And I remember there was an older male colleague who was underneath me who I was sort of in charge of in this bureau. And I would see that some legislators, some lawmakers would treat him differently than they would treat me. And at the time, it pissed me off. But then I realized that it was an asset because they saw me: I was young, I had blonde hair, curly hair, and they would underestimate me time and time again. And that turned out to be a real asset. And at this point they know my reputation and I’ve proven myself as a solid journalist who will catch you if you tell me something that’s not right. And at the time, in a way, being underestimated helped sometimes to get someone to tell me something, tell me something that they might not tell someone else.
But as far as management and co-workers, I’ve never felt held back by being a woman. And I think it really is a testament – I was at a workshop earlier, and Peggy was a trailblazer and I’m on the trail. And I’m very appreciative.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: I think points out how quickly everything has changed. I think it’s really interesting to see some of the challenges that you’ve faced Peggy and to some extent the things that were said to you (Jane) and Lynette’s comment that you realized how short a time it had been since those drinks had been passed around to the boys, but now you were in a situation where you had female bosses, mentors and so forth. And that brings up something that I wanted to talk about. There’s a recent article, that I think Charlotte sent around to us, about NPR and the extent to which women comprise a significant portion of the on-air people on NPR and the producers and managers as well. And in the article at least this is attributed to some extent to what they, people there refer to as the founding mothers, that is Susan Stanberg, Cokie Roberts, Linda Wertheimer and Nina Totenberg. And these women were able to be supporters and mentors of other younger women, and at least in part that may account for the situation of NPR right now in terms of women’s role and position. And I’m wondering now, Lynette you mentioned particularly that women – the person who was the head of the Newsweek bureau in Hong Kong – but other people, too, had acted as mentors to you. And I’m wondering whether the others of you have had this experience or not and what your thoughts are about the necessity of other women as mentors. And something that I think political scientists research, sort of the notion of critical mass. It’s sort of the notion that if you have a critical mass of women in a certain organization, and people have done research on the impact on legislatures of a critical mass, say 33 percent of women, whether that changes things in the organization, whether having a certain number of women – rather than just a few tokens – makes things different. I think we can be a little more informal and people can sort of jump in here and there, too.
JANE MAYER: I have to say I think on the NPR front, one of the things – and they do have amazing women who are doing just fantastic work over there – but I have to wonder maybe if part of the reason they have so many women is that you don’t see them; you only hear them. I know that sounds cynical, but I think the hardest thing still for women in journalism, particularly for TV women, to get old when they’re on the air. There’s an eye candy aspect of it that’s hard to keep passing that luster when you’re in your 60s.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: So, we’re not looking at Nina Totenberg.
JANE MAYER: And when you’re listening, you hear how smart she is. You don’t have to see her that much.
PEGGY SIMPSON: I think that’s part of the phenomenal contribution of NPR and amount of money they got in an endowment and the way they were able to deepen and expand their coverage. And to new reporters as well. But I think those – I used to cover congressional things with Linda – mean with Nina, and she wasn’t a big shot or a feeling of a founding mother. She was someone who was slogging there in the hallways of Congress. And I think she just happened to put in her time and get in there and use their smarts to stay there. I think that NPR is just incredibly wealthy because of that. But I think there’s a lot of other people who have come along.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: Kristin, I’m interested in your response to Peggy’s point but also to Jane’s point about the difference between radio, print newscasters and television newscasters, since that’s what you are.
KRISTIN CARLSON: Yeah, well when I came to Newhouse I picked TV because I liked moving pictures and I think they’re powerful and I think they can say things that other mediums maybe can’t. And I think that every medium has a place. But to the kind of appearance matters and people have to look at you. I was saying to someone earlier that if I have a piece of hair like this, or if I have spinach in my teeth, no one hears what I say because they’re too busy saying “Look, honey, you have something in your teeth.” So you know, appearance matters. One of the reasons that I work at the station that I work and that I’ve stayed at the station that I started my career at, is because as long as you’re professional, they don’t care about your appearance. And it’s a real anomaly in the TV world. You maybe have seen the station and can attest to that.
KRISTIN CARLSON: WCAX. They more care about your writing. I’ve been there again since 1999 and I’ve never had anyone comment once about my appearance at all. Whereas I’ve had friends who’ve worked at other markets where they show up at a new market and they’ve been told, can you cut your hair? Could you dye your hair? We really think this is a good color or that’s a good color. And I really couldn’t deal with that crap. Which is why I’ve stayed at the station where I am. And I think at a certain point, when you reach a certain level, maybe you don’t have to deal with that, but I think in a lot of smaller markets you do. Fortunately I haven’t dealt with that, but I do think it’s a reality. At my station, we have women who are in their mid 50s and are still reporting and they’re amazing and it’s not an issue, which is why I like the station where I work. But you see it on the national level and you see all the main anchors who are women have had so much face surgery that it’s alarming when you see them in person.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: Have the men had face surgery?
KRISTIN CARLSON: I don’t know.
JANE MAYER: I know one or two.
JANE MAYER: On national networks who have. But I don’t think as much as the women do. This is one good thing about the magazine world. They don’t see us.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: Particularly at The New Yorker. In some of the other magazines, they put the photo of the authors in there. In The New Yorker we never see your photo.
JANE MAYER: It’s great.
LYNETTE CLEMETSON: I think that what Jane says about radio being a protected medium in some ways is true, when you compare radio to television, but it doesn’t let newspapers off the hook. I think that we’re at an interesting time in the business with the metabolism of reporting jobs changing so much. And while see that you know, I think we represent generations of ascent, where there we fewer and fewer barriers for us, but now I think we’re at an interesting point where I think I’m starting to see a pipeline problem, both with women going into politics and some of the more rigorous beats, and with journalists of color as well.
I think that with political reporting, I think the metabolism created by the web – and I’m somebody who has managed websites and has some of these reporters working for me now – the good old days where you have all day to write a story are gone. In my own career I thought that surely I would go back to Asia at some point and be a bureau chief. And now I’m at a point where I have small kids and I haven’t written at all. But I do know that the reality of those jobs are far different. And if you are a New York Times correspondent in Asia now, you are filing for the newspaper, you are filing for the IHT and you are filing for the web multiple times a day. You’re covering all the same countries that you would be covering on the old beats and you’re expected to file all day long from everything.
And I think it’s – there’s a problem with burnout rates. I think people are burning out faster. I think it’s a problem for men and women, but I have been paying attention to it because I wonder what the pipeline will look like for women going into the political jobs because political jobs are the most competitive.
If you are at a newspaper and you’re filing all day long. And you’re at a newspaper and you’re competing with Politico and all of the other online forces that really have a very high metabolism, I think that people get to the point where you see people trying to weigh whether or not it’s worth it to stay in. And I think it’s something that we should all be paying attention to. And I think that when we all see people with talent that we are mentoring them and making a way for them. And when the metabolism gets too high, helping people to know where they can take breaks in their career and finding ways for those of us who are in editorial roles to create opportunities for people when they can ramp down and catch their breath – and then ramp up and move to a new beat.
I think that it really takes some effort and you have to be conscious about it now as an editor and very intentional. And if we’re going to be serious about keeping women in these jobs, it’s going to be something we have to be very attentive to.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: So you actually kind of talk about one of the questions I was interested in answering. You have a good name for it: metabolism, calling it a higher metabolism. How I would have put it was in the 24/7 news cycle where you have to be tweeting and blogging from everywhere. That does put demands on you as a reporter. I see this just as a reader, or listener or consumer of media that people I follow or I’m interested in are all the time – in the middle of the night – are telling me things, which is terrific from my point of view. But maybe not from their point of view. It’s telling me that those sorts of demands, career demands on somebody, are particularly problematic for women, particularly for women who may have more household responsibilities, childcare responsibilities, than their male compatriots. Statistically, maybe not for everyone. But your solutions, are they realistic? Can you really solve those problems by just kind of telling people when to take a break? Or is it something that’s just going to keep ramping up and ramping up and accelerating and it’s going to just cause more and more burnout and as you say a narrower pipeline because women are going to opt out of those jobs that have that constant …
PEGGY SIMPSON: That’s a stereotype I think. It’s something that all women in some ways have had to fight. You know that “You’re not going to be there in the long term, therefore why should we hire you?” Or, “You’re not going to be there for the long term, because you’re not going to be able to take the pressure.” Or, “We’ll hire you but we won’t put you in a job that has legs, or we won’t put you in a job that you can get a promotion, even though you sort of say you want to do that. Because we know that probably you really won’t be able to do that because especially if you have kids, you’re going to be the one dealing with them, not your husband.”
And there are never those expectations about burnout or about overload that are made of men. And I think that one of the realities of the last 20 or 30 years is that we don’t really know about what kind of stuff that makes a national political reporter, or a national economic reporter or a White House reporter – the kinds of intangibles that go into that. We don’t know what number of those have wives that are 100 percent supportive of them. But we do know that most of the women in those don’t have 100 percent supporters of them. They’re more likely to be single women than not. And the women who are not single are really considered to be – not outliers – but very spectacular, not ordinary reporters, not ordinary women.
That’s in society. Not just journalism.
If you look at leadership, or the people who are in leadership. In terms of mentors, I don’t think I had any. You know, Pauline Frederick, was my mentor in absentia. And I actually met her once and that was in Mexico City at the international women’s year conference in Mexico City in 1975. And there she was sitting right in front of me and I introduced myself and I said, “You know I listened to you from the 6th grade on,” and she looked at me like “what?” It was that important.
Yeah, you know I couldn’t tell her how important it was. It was fabulously important. But I didn’t have in my professors, or I was the youngest woman by 20 years when I transferred into the Washington bureau.
I think in the last 20 years that one of the organizations that some of us founded, which was Journalism And Women Symposium. And we became mentors to ourselves. The lawsuits had already been solved. The lawsuits had already been resolved. There weren’t any glass ceilings, “technically” but of course they were still there in reality and in people’s minds. But this was an organization that was formed specifically for mentoring and for finding – mentoring each other – and for finding ways around those glass ceilings. Still does it. Right now it’s doing it especially on multiplatform, technology issues. Because there’s so many younger women who are doing all of these quadruple things at once in five minutes. And they are mentoring the rest of us. And they are doing this in workshops and they are doing this online with this very active Google group’s listserv. And it’s amazing that there are people who have found out how to do this easily and it’s not eating them alive. And they’re helping. I still don’t know if I can do those four things at once, I’m sure you can.
But I think it’s a challenge for those of us who came in with just print for instance. I mean I did AP radio for 10 years when it was invented. And I did that overseas as well, but that’s not the whole cow. It’s not the whole hog with Twitter and Facebook and the 5,000 things you’re supposed to do.
JANE MAYER: I was just out on the presidential campaign trail and I was heartened to see how many young women were out there carrying the load. But what I noticed was both men and women out there – most people are not married. It’s a singles business now. And I think it’s an issue for both men and women to try to get humane working hours so that they can manage to have something else in their lives besides that.
But I think that if you look back over time, that people who have covered presidential campaigns have given up their lives a lot to do it, and it’s a lot of fun. But it’s hard for both men and women to have any kind of family or at least see a family if you have one.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: Right. And that’s what we’ve always read about presidential campaigns from the boys on the bus to the girls in the van. But I think this is …
JANE MAYER: It’s harder now.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: It is harder now because the demand is on you time-wise for being constantly plugged in and for as Peggy says the doing four different things. The tweeting and blogging and everything else. And those demands are on men and on women and I agree with Peggy that no one should assume that a particular man or a particular woman should have certain obligations. Nonetheless, we do know statistically, that women will tend to have more of the childcare responsibilities. And not only that, but women express themselves – and women in various occupations – as being more concerned about balancing family and your responsibilities.
So I think that this change in the nature of journalism will be perhaps a particular challenge to women and to the women who are coming into this industry as it’s now morphing.
JANE MAYER: You know, one thing I wanted to say was it’s not as far as I’m concerned, the importance isn’t just a matter of numbers, in terms of making sure there’s kind of equality and those things are important. But I really think that it’s important in terms of having women’s perspective on the issues that are out there. Especially when you look at this year and when you look at the issues of contraception, and Sandra Fluke and whatever else. There have been so many issues where if it was just an all-male press core you’d be missing important points of view, I think. So I hope it matters for the quality of the journalism to have that diversity of the viewpoints.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: I’d like to get some other perspectives on precisely that point. We’ve been talking as if we’re only talking about it’s important to have women in numbers and to have women who want to take advantage of these opportunities able to take advantage and not have the glass ceiling, not have the barriers. But I think Jane raises an important point that it’s important to the quality of journalism in a democracy to have viewpoints of a lot of different people and have particularly women’s viewpoints, particularly viewpoints from a diversity of ethic and racial groups, a diversity of backgrounds. What’s your thinking about how you as women represent women, women’s issues in your reporting?
LYNETTE CLEMETSON: I don’t know that I think about it actively. I think again, I think about the mentoring part very actively and it’s something I’m very intentional about. In terms of my sensibility around stories, both as a reporter and editor, I think it’s because I’m sort of determined to bring my full self to work all of the time and feel free to do that. And so if – having had reporters around me who did that – when I raise an issue, it’s my particular window into a story and it’s informed by my experiences which may be from my perspective of being a woman.
I remember Newsweek was doing a big – one of the old-style news magazines used to do one every issue and they were taking on race – and asked me to do a story on mixed marriages. And of course what the editor wanted was a story on black-white marriages, which I found boring. And I was into at the time looking at the census and I did a story on a Taiwanese-American marrying a Japanese-Canadian. And I took a look at how these inter-ethnic marriages were changing the face of mixed marriages in the United States. And how pan-Asian marriage and pan-Latino marriage was changing the way we saw each other as a society. And again I felt that that was informed by my full self. And feeling like I was in a place in a newsroom where I could say to an editor, “I think your idea about that story is very boring and I feel like I’ve read that 50 times. Can I try something different here? By the way it’s not just an idea. The census shows me I have numbers to back this up. Why don’t we do something more interesting?”
So I don’t know what part of myself was informing that story choice, but I know it’s something about me feeling free to be a thinker at work. And I’m sure that there are times when I have informed story choice or story angles because of something I brought to the table as a woman. But it’s never felt forced to me. I just think it’s something that’s become a natural process.
KRISTIN CARLSON: I would just echo that. It seems natural. I am who I am. I’ve never – in the news room where I work, there are a lot of female reporters. There’s actually more female reporters than male reporters, on the both the new and the experienced side. So I think many perspectives are represented. So I’ve never come at something and said well we have to make sure we get this female voice. I think that we all have different perspectives and I think the more rich and diverse your newsroom is, in all sorts of ways, makes it better.
I know that in some ways being who I am helps me get stories. You know, one story I did that had to do with – you referenced it – rampant sexual harassment at the state transportation agency, I did, and there was this woman who – the reason I learned about it was because I knew the lawyer who had worked on the case and he said, “There’s a settlement that’s been out but the transportation officials have buried it. They don’t want to deal with it. They don’t want to address it and I think you should do something on it. Here’s my client’s name and number. I don’t think she’s going to want to talk about it but why don’t you just try?” So I said, “I’m going to try.”
And so I spoke with this woman for a long time, and eventually she decided to talk to me about it, and talk about the experience she had – which was backed up by this report, which I was able to obtain a copy of, and use this report. And I do think the fact that I was a woman made her more comfortable in talking to me. So a lot of the times when I approach reporting, to me I see being who I am, being a woman, as an asset.
LYNETTE CLEMETSON: And I don’t think it’s to say that we feel like we bring those ideas naturally is not to suggest that there are not problems. I mean any time you turn on the Sunday shows, it is very clear that whoever is booking shows still has a very limited rolodex of go-tos, for who we access on Sunday mornings for major viewpoints on the world. And I think that even at NPR, I’m sure that there are challenges because there are times when I turn on the radio and I think, “I love EJ Dion and I love David Brooks but I would really like to hear somebody else.” And so there’s – and I don’t – I would say that’s just about the sort of habit-forming nature of sources.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: The networks that are already in place that are hard to change.
LYNETTE CLEMETSON: The networks and the people – they’re hard to form and when they codify, you know they are people who you have established relationships with. You know when you call them they are going to say yes because they have a history of saying yes and being available.
Robin used to joke at the NYT all the time about Chuck Schumer. “Really did he answer the phone?” Of course he answered the phone – he’s Chuck Schumer. So you know there are people who you know who are easy to go to, so you go to them. And it actually takes energy to develop a deeper rolodex, and to form the relationships with people to come on your shows, to get them to be in your stories, and you have to – it takes work. I think that it’s easy to turn on the radio or turn on the TV or open up the NYT everyday and realize that there’s still work to be done in that area.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: And that’s a good argument for more women at various levels – both the people who are calling and the people who you call. Because presumably, if you had, if whoever’s setting up those Sunday shows was a woman –
JANE MAYER: There are women who are setting them up.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: Then what’s their problem?
JANE MAYER: Well, there’s a clubbiness particularly about covering politics, I think. And while I’ve seen more and more women in journalism, where I still don’t see a lot of women is kind of in the back rooms of politics where a lot of the money is made – the pollsters, the consultants, the advisers to the candidates – that’s still pretty male-bastioned. There’s Mandy Grunwald, who’s a female pollster. That’s make it easier – I mean it’s a little harder for women to kind of, you know, meet them at the next booth over in the bathroom and talk to them. There’s not that kind of clubbiness.
Though I have to say I had fun recently doing a morning exercise walk with Nancy Pelosi that felt like being the kind boys get when they bump up into each other at the gym. The two of us were doing our morning exercise walk and I was trying to make her tell me something that she shouldn’t. And I didn’t succeed very well but I had a lot of fun. It felt good to be a political reporter with important female politicians to interview.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: Yeah, that sounds exciting. What did she not tell you?
JANE MAYER: I was trying to just get a few inside stories about her relationship with Obama. She is very disciplined and pretty much will not spill the dirt even though I think there’s been a lot of friction there over time. She did confess though that the exercise routine was actually a rare thing in her life. And that she had also had an exercise bike in her apartment which she was caught on by her daughter. She was eating chocolate ice cream at the same time she was on her exercycle. And her daughter said, “Mother, that’s not the point.” At which point she realized she just might as well give up on the exercise bike and now she uses it to hang her hand bags on. So, I can relate to that.
LYNETTE CLEMETSON: That’s a nice story.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: I wanted to ask a little bit about the notion that there are specific – and some of you have alluded to this already – Jane and Peggy in particular – when you talked about your early experiences where you were told either implicitly or explicitly that women didn’t do certain things. Women weren’t interested in certain things or couldn’t cover certain things. You know, in politics, certainly, when women were first elected to office, there was a real notion, and I think it still exists to some extent, that women are interested in certain issues. That when women get to legislatures, will be interested in education and social welfare issues – and either aren’t interested in or possibly aren’t going to be competent at – you know, women really have to work to demonstrate their competence at foreign policy or at military-related issues, which is something that you kind of said as well.
I wonder if there are those implicit assumptions about women coming into journalism that they will be interested in women’s issues of sorts, or if they’ll be less interested in stereotypically masculine or male issues or other sorts of things.
PEGGY SIMPSON: I don’t see how you divide those up any more.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: I don’t think I divide them up, but I think —
PEGGY SIMPSON: Well, there’s not a women’s beat, I don’t think, anymore. And there’s not really women’s issues that are divided into a beat as women’s issues. You see the contraception issue flaring up out of – at the political spectrum this time. But it’s not necessarily predictable in terms of who wants to talk about it, or who wants to cover it, or who wants to pursue it in terms of an issue. I think that I don’t know what I would consider a male beat today, except possibly the military. But there are a lot of women who are overseas and on front lines issues as we know.
Somebody – I can’t remember what job, junction I was at – but there was somebody who was a CBS guru and he said, “For heaven’s sakes, don’t even think about going to – or taking this job that I was considering that would be covering the defense department. “You would never get anybody to talk to you. Women don’t do that. Women can’t do that. It’s not that you might not be smart enough to understand tanks or throw-weights but don’t do that. No one at the Pentagon will talk to you.” I didn’t take the job. I never found out but I don’t think that would have been true. I think you can find your sources and talk your way through.
I think there’s certain hostile people who will never think that women are equal in fighting strength. Or that should be next to men who are fighting. Because I think that there are some people who still do believe that if you put women and men together, that’s too much of a temptation. There’s nothing going to be – rampant sex on the ground in Afghanistan. I really think – that was such a huge issues 25 years ago. And I think the reality has been entirely the opposite. And there are very few people today that would make that argument today or that would believe that today. It’s not that there aren’t sex scandals but they’re not always the same way that they thought they would be 20-30 years ago.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: So you probably have the best perspective on this, Peggy. And you’re basically arguing that those stereotypes that shape what women are assigned to or women are assumed to be interested in are pretty much gone by the way side. That in journalism, it’s not the case, typically, that women are assumed to have particular specializations, interests, or not to be able to specialize or be interested in or report on other things.
PEGGY SIMPSON: I probably shouldn’t be answering the question because I’m not in the position of hiring people and making those – doing those vetting kinds of interviews. But that’s my thinking on it.
KRISTIN CARLSON: In our news room, it sort of varies. We use a beat system and, you know, the political reporter is a woman. The education reporter is a man. The crime/court beat is a woman. So I think, I don’t see that stereotype on the local level, but I’m not sure on the national level.
LYNETTE CLEMETSON: I would say that I think my experience bears this out in traditional media. I think there have been some studies when you look at the digital world showing who’s getting venture funds for start-ups. Who’s getting money to build new things is overwhelmingly white – young, white and male. And so I think that would be an area where – I don’t know whether it’s a perception problem or whether it’s a kind of first to the gate problem.
PEGGY SIMPSON: Whether women are applying – that’s seven other issues.
LYNETTE CLEMETSON: Right, It’s whether it’s people entering the process to create start-ups in their dorm rooms. I don’t know but certainly the numbers would suggest that in the digital arena there’s now some imbalance.
JANE MAYER: Well, I was going to say, I think it’s – one place it’s still somewhat difficult or being worked out in when the women are the bosses. I think there’s still a tendency to call women bosses bossy. Whereas you don’t hear that so often about men. And you see the question of how tough to be and how tough not to be is still an issue for women who are in command.
I have to say since I’ve never been in command or wanted to be in command. I’ve avoided that entirely because it’s much better from my standpoint to be out there being a reporter. But I do think, from what I see out there, it’s a subject that gets a lot of attention and people talk about behind the scenes a lot.
PEGGY SIMPSON: I also think that 30 years ago anyone out there running as a woman in politics. I think it was several of my Texas colleagues, Sissy Farenthold, but also I didn’t cover Ann Richards.
But you couldn’t do anything without anyone asking you about your hair. And Hillary got some of that, too. Who gives a damn about men’s hair. It is just not an issue.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: Rod Blagojevich?
PEGGY SIMPSON: That’s a real … well, John Edwards because he abused it with $300 haircuts. But I don’t think anybody worried when his hair was mussed up, until afterwards when they wondered who’d mussed it up, possibly. But I just don’t – I think there’s still standards that people, women who are on camera or in politics are held to – gotta be a certain weight, gotta be a certain glamour, gotta be a certain this, gotta be a certain that. And I just don’t think they care that much in terms of men.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: This gets us a little bit to the subject of women in politics, and I just want to ask one final question and then maybe throw it open to some audience questions. There was an article that Karen Tumulty wrote in The Washington Post yesterday about 20 years on from the year of the woman in 1922, which saw then a big surge in women running for the House and Senate and state legislatures. And she pointed out that that’s really leveled off and unlike the projections at the time, which saw this you know – it’ll keep increasing until there’s parity – 50/50 maybe – we only have 17 percent of the Congress women, and roughly 24-25 percent of the state legislatures. And she offered a number of reasons citing some political science research. For example, being less willing to tolerate some of the aspects of modern campaigns – the invasion of privacy and the negativeness of campaigns and so forth. And also that women don’t get asked to run as often as men do, so it’s a recruitment problem.
I wonder what your take is on the question of why there aren’t more women in politics. Particularly if we went back 20 years, perhaps we would have been more optimistic about where we would be in 2012 in terms of just the numbers of women being in elected office.
PEGGY SIMPSON: Well, I think you have a lot of that goes into the psyche of who runs and what goes into making a candidate. One of the things that the Center on Women in American Politics is dissecting is the discrimination as it affects attitudes about women, attitudes about women exercising power. And then they have put that back in the laps of women who are running or are going to run or are already there, saying you gotta deal with this. And they are dealing with it. But I think there is still a sense by a number of people that they wait to be asked. And you know, a lot of people don’t. If you have a fire in the belly to run for office, you don’t necessarily wait to be asked. You don’t get anywhere by waiting to be asked. I don’t think a lot of men wait to be asked. I think they put together a team and put together a bunch of supporters and they may think they’re God’s gift to the world but they go out there and do it.
But I think that if women are still holding back for any number of reasons, they’re not going to be asked necessarily. I think also that it – when you have a disproportionate number of women who are running who are Democrats, then there’s a Democratic landslide against. A Republican taking a beating – just huge defeats – as in 2010, I mean you lose, you lose ground. You lose your seat and you’re not going to necessarily recuperate from that. There are a lot of women running this year. The last time I checked there were 29 states that had filing deadlines that hadn’t passed and there’s still gonna be more candidates. Whether they win or not, it’s not just the number of candidates. It’s whether they’re going to win or not. And they have two of the three components are the same as 1992 – the year that [Kristi] was talking about. It’s a presidential election. It’s the election after – first election right after redistricting so there are huge numbers of open seats. What 1992 also had, however, was a Clarence Thomas nomination and the Anita Hill testimony against him – which roiled the waters big time. And that came early in the political cycle and a lot of people said that’s ridiculous. I’m going to run.
Whether or not this whole furor over contraception right now – I think one of people’s ideas is what happens next about that – whether that rises to the level of something that’s going to have staying power of something that’s going to have staying power when you get to November. I don’t think anybody knows.
JANE MAYER: Peggy, you know it reminds me of a story that Pelosi did tell. An apropos of how women can’t wait and they have to take it if they want to get power. Because people who get power – they don’t just willingly hand it over. It’s a prize.
PEGGY SIMPSON: Nobody gives up power.
JANE MAYER: And that’s what – she was recounting an evening when she went out to dinner with a bunch of male colleagues – she and a bunch of women did. And these colleagues were her friends and the subject turned to childbirth. And the men held forth one by one about each of their babies. And boy that was hard – I could hardly get the camera in. And one by one they talked about it like they were experts. And Nancy Pelosi was thinking “I’ve had four babies in five years myself, and not one of these men has even turned to me to ask what it was like.” And she said that moment it dawned on her – they’re not going to ask my opinion. I’m going to have to just butt in if I want to get anything. At that point she realized, you’re going to have to, like, take it.
And I don’t know if women are reluctant to do that. I like to think that they are perfectly capable of getting into the mix, but I will say that when I was at the Wall Street Journal many years ago, the women in my group used to have a chant which was “Nice is a vice. Nice is a vice.” And we’d all been taught to be really nice and really polite and we realized that every now and then you have to be not so nice if you really want to like do something.
LYNETTE CLEMETSON: I also think that one of the things that might be interesting about the current controversy around contraception is that it reminds women that there are things that can get done. Because I think one of the deterrents right now for anybody who might want to get into politics is that whether or not you can actually get anything done. And the quagmire in Congress right now – sometimes I wonder who would want to get into that. Who would want to do that? And so when you have people like Olympia Snow saying this isn’t what I got into it for. Enough already. If this is going to be what’s it’s like, you can have it.
And I think we might be at a moment where some of these issues remind people that there are things where their voices can make a difference and there are rooms that they can be in where no, nobody’s going to ask you actually what a transvaginal ultrasound might be like, but you might be able to assert your opinion. And there are rooms where you might have something to say and it might open things up.
KRISTIN CARLSON: It’s interesting that in Vermont, where it’s a very progressive liberal state, and yet you know you look at the numbers and I remember I did something on this. In the 50s, we had the first female lieutenant governor. That was very ground-breaking at the time. In the 80s we had a female governor, Gov. Madeleine Kunin. She wasn’t the first female governor but it was very groundbreaking and I recently circled around and talked to her – Gov. Kunin – and what, we look now – we haven’t had a female governor since the 80s. Our Congressman and two Senators are men. We’ve never sent a woman to Washington. And she was sort of shocked that the state hadn’t made more progress. And she’s looked and I said well, why do you think this is? And she touched on that point that a lot of women wait to be asked to run. Whereas, she said, men look in the mirror and say “Yeah! I’ll be President. I could do that.” And for some reason, women feel like they have to be asked. And for such a liberal, progressive state, it is astonishing that there aren’t more women in power. We only have one statewide elected official – and she was appointed. She’s the treasurer. In the legislature, we have great numbers of women in the legislature, but again, compared to what – we’re not at the 50/50 mark by any means.
But the question of why is really interesting and I’ve tried to flesh out with different women through interviews and stories and it’s a question that I still don’t have an answer to.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: Let me give you one statistic. And I can’t remember the actual numbers but Karn Tumulty’s article referenced a report by two political scientists, Jennifer Lawless who’s at Brown and Richard Fox. And they’ve done a very interesting study – a really interesting study – on why there aren’t more women in politics. And what they did was to sample a lot of people from whom political officials come – groups from which political officials come. So local lawyers, activists, educators, et cetera, who are plausible political candidates. So here’s one thing from this: They ask people – these men and women – whether they believed they were qualified to run for statewide or some kind of elected office. And more men than women said yes. But even if they just looked at people who said they were unqualified – they said no, I’m not qualified to run for office, men or women, but then said have you ever thought about running for office, even if you don’t think you are qualified? Well, 55 percent of those men who said they were unqualified thought about running for office. Only 35 percent of the women had. Now, you could argue that the women were just much more realistic somehow. But nonetheless, I thought that was really striking. That somehow men grow up with – or more men are more likely to grow up with the notion that this is something they could do or should think about doing or somebody might ask them to do it, more than women do.
KRISTIN CARLSON: I worry it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because when you go into the statehouse of Montpelier, there are all the portraits of the governors – you remember this. Jane actually covered the state very briefly. You go in there and there’s portraits of men everywhere. And then there’s a portrait of Gov. Kunin. And that’s it. And school groups – the statehouse is one of our most visited tourist destinations. It’s where all the school groups go, where all the kids go, and you think well, who do they have to look up to? Whereas men walk into the statehouse and it’s like “yup, yup, yup.” And then you have 16-year-old girls walk in and they go “huh?” and that has to – I wonder if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
LYNETTE CLEMETSON: Well, there’s a difference there. I think that that’s true, and then there’s a generation that’s behind us that looks at those pictures and goes “What is wrong with that picture?” I have a seven year old daughter and I don’t know if any of you – there’s a book that came out in 2007 called “Grace for President” and it’s a children’s book. It’s a great children’s book. But it’s about a class election and a little girl in history class and all the presidents are on the wall and Grace raises her hand and asks “Why aren’t there any girls?” And the teacher explains why so Grace decides she’s going to run and she’s going to be president. And she’s running against a boy from another class who has a slogan “He’s the man for the job” and he’s putting it all around the school and the book talks about the electoral system and it’s just a fabulous book.
And my daughter walks around thinking she is going to be president. On two fronts. I mean she looks and sees Barack Obama and she has never known anyone other than him as president. And she has “Grace for President” and she knows the person who ran against Barack Obama was a woman and why wouldn’t she think she could be president?
Peter knows that she thought she was going to be President since she was two. But she probably will be, but I think that there’s a … I’m sort of conscious of that but also conscious that at the same time you make those steps forward, you can also lose ground. And so to keep that sense in her alive and keep the things that she sees that create possibility for her, very visible for her. But I think there are definitely people who would look at that wall and think “what were those people thinking?”
KRISTI ANDERSEN: Well, on that very wise and optimistic note, in thinking about Lynette’s daughter, I would like to see if people from the audience have questions and I can’t see a thing, so somebody else – way, way up in the top – yes – try to speak so that we can all hear you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, thank you for coming. I know we talked a lot about female journalists’ role in political reporting, but I was wondering what you guys have to say about women’s role in conflict journalism, especially with Marie Culvin’s death in Syria – and this is something that I’m very interested in getting into and whether you think women are underrepresented in the field. Thanks.
JANE MAYER: Well, it’s been a while since I’ve been in a war zone. But when I was last in one it was largely male, but I think that was by habit, not because anybody was barring anything. I really think that the barriers are pretty down. I think that the only place that might be complicated would be covering parts of the world that are really sexist – the Arab world – it’s complicated then.
LYNETTE CLEMETSON: And even there, I think, one of the things – I’m going back tomorrow to a reception for NPR’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro who’s getting the Murrow Award this year for her coverage of the Arab Spring. So I think that there – the challenges to the extent that they exist may be more challenges of retrenchment in foreign positions by news organizations who can’t afford to keep as many people in foreign bureaus as they used to. But I think that I haven’t seen a great reluctance to have women in conflict journalism positions.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: Good, so go for it.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: Other questions, in the back?
ADAM CLYMER: You made a good point about changing expectations and Madeleine Albright tells a story recently about a granddaughter of hers who asked “Why was it such a big deal that gram got to be secretary of state? Aren’t women always secretary of state?”
KRISTI ANDERSEN: Yeah, absolutely.
AILEEN GALLAGHER: I want to touch on something that Lynette kind of mentioned about the rise in the entrepreneurial space that it’s predominantly white males who are running that show for now. And is there any – and I’m looking at this from a very cynical viewpoint, as my journalistic training tells me to – however, is there a sense that men have kind of moved on from journalism, somewhat? That journalism has lost a little bit of its power and that’s what leaves room for women to take leadership roles? Same thing in higher education?
LYNETTE CLEMETSON: Wow, that is cynical.
JANE MAYER: I have heard that said about why Katie Couric is finally the first female network anchorwoman – it’s because the ratings have finally dropped low enough to make the world safe for women. But I don’t know. I was just out in Stanford last week and there are number of incredibly smart, young women who are getting into Silicon Valley, so I don’t know. But again, it’s clubby. And a lot of these things work by networks so you never really know.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: Lynette, what do you think about that since you sort of raised that?
LYNETTE CLEMETSON: Yeah, I don’t think – I wouldn’t say that journalism has opened up because men have moved on from it. There’s still sort of – at the big institutions certainly, there’s a clubbiness to who runs things, but there’s more room because people have been doing really interesting things – in journalism too. Of the three journalism fellowships, the Knight Fellowship has changed completely. It’s very driven to be this kind of incubator fellowship. And the numbers of women applying for that and getting the fellowship and getting it and going into it knowing they’re going to move into news innovation are rising. I think that when it comes to the funding angle, it’s access to the people who are angel investors and venture capitalists so the people with that kind of access and we can be talking about diversity of any sort here – are narrower and you have to start creating space and start knocking down doors – knocking on doors or knocking down doors, whichever one it takes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: First I wanted to say thank you for bringing up the founding mothers of NPR because they are the reason I’m journalism student. I love Nina Totenberg. She was like my first hero ever. But I wanted to ask – this isn’t specifically with women in the media – but sometimes I feel like in journalism we’re shooting ourselves in the foot because we keep feeling like we need to produce more and have more information on a 24-hour news cycle and I was wondering if there was a way for instead of us working harder and longer hours for us to work smarter and more efficiently and maybe create content that’s deeper instead.
JANE MAYER: Come to The New Yorker. I’d like to think there’s still space for deeper journalism that takes longer. I actually think there’s more need for it because what happens on the Internet is the public gets little tiny fragments of information but it’s fractured. And I found this when I was writing about the War on Terror and the Bush Administration’s interrogation program. People would get – they’d see a picture of something like Abu-Ghraib, but they wouldn’t really understand where did this fit into and was this as the administration was saying, a few rotten apples doing the wrong thing or was there a policy there. It turned out there was a policy. But it took a lot to piece all of those pieces of the puzzle together. And I think the public’s getting a lot of pieces right now so I think there’s a real need for that kind of journalism.
PEGGY SIMPSON: I actually think that’s what NPR’s doing. I think that compared to cable news or even network news, it’s different there, but the depth of reporting, the time that’s spent on specific subjects and the amount of time fleshing it out in ways that really weren’t there even 10 years ago. It’s really not so much explainers but it’s really tackling topics that aren’t at the top of the news, at the top of anybody’s AP news digest. They’ve really looked at issues that are going to be formative in the next six months or in the next nine months or that have been formative in the last six months and nobody gave them credence.
And I think – I think that’s just very different and very valuable journalism.
LYNETTE CLEMETSON: I don’t think – I think we are passed the point in the web where everything is bite-sized simply because it’s on the web. I mean you have places like ProPublica who have been if not necessarily from a business model yet, at least from an editorial model, very successful in creating long-form journalism and partnerships and I think the more successful digital strategies are strategies that recognize that you produce bite-sized bits of information to build your audience and you do that while you’re also creating the longer form journalism that will keep them coming back for more.
And often times what you find is – and this is certainly true when you look at The New York Times – is that when you look at the most emailed lists, you’ve got the columnists who are always the most emailed and then the longer stories. And so I never bought into and when we were starting The Root the idea that web content could only be 600 words or less. And I think that you get into trouble when you – when you’re not producing those shorter pieces because you need to meet people where they are on a device that they are arriving on and you have to be cognizant of the fact that when you are reading on your phone, a 10,000 word story is pretty gnarly on your phone. And you’ve got to create some shorter content, but that you can do longer form pieces delivered in a way and on a in a rhythm that allows people to come to you.
At The Root, which was not traditional reporting. It was a commentary site which was meant to increase the level of voices around politics in a political year. When we were very deep into the part in the 2008 election where feminism and race were really just head to head and people couldn’t decide what to say or what to think, Alice Walker sent me a story. And it was about 1600 words and I read it and if I were at The New York Times, it would have gotten a pretty heavy edit because it read like Alice Walker, you know? But it read like Alice Walker. And it was an open letter and it was the web, and I put the letter up. I didn’t touch a word. And it was titled “An Open Letter to My Sisters Who Are Brave” and it was just a gift from Alice Walker and you couldn’t have put that in a newspaper. You would have had to have done something to it. So actually being able to put that online created this space and this conversation and this community about it that I think when used wisely and consciously, the digital space gives you freedom that you don’t have when you are confined to inches and columns and pages.
KRISTI ANDERSEN: I’m not sure where this conversation started but I like where it ended. We can take one more question or we can all go out and have dessert, is that right Charlotte? OK we have … OK.
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: You beat me to the punch with a great thank you for our panelists and our moderator. We have had a marvelous discussion and I hope we continue it out. Before we move out, I’ve asked Peter Gosselin to just say a few brief things, so Peter if you would come up, and after you get through I’ll bring things to a close so I’ll just hang right here. Thank you.
PETER GOSSELIN: Loss teaches lessons. I can say to a certainty that Nora, Jake and I were have just as soon not learned them for many decades to come, but we’ve learned them and one of them is not to take anything for granted. And so we’re immensely grateful to our wonderful honoree Jane Mayer, to our symposium members Peg Simpson and Lynette Clemetson, and Kristin Carlson, and to you Kristi Andersen for moderating. And to supporters like Adam Clymer and Larry Kramer, to Dean Cantor – Chancellor Cantor, who joined us and Dean Eric Spina, for coming out and making this program, moving it ever more.
One of the other lessons is that it turns out that good doesn’t just win. Truth and justice don’t just out. Those things happen because good people do good things, make good things happen. There’s a good thing happening with the Toner Program. Lorraine Branham, your dean, has been a huge force for that good and so has a dynamic duo – I noticed only half of which is here: Charlotte Grimes and Audrey Burian. I can’t tell you with what grace and what grit Charlotte has just kept nudging this thing forward. And it’s really a tribute to her that this is the third symposium and the second time the Toner Award has been given out. And while I’m just as certain that Jake and I didn’t want to learn the lessons of loss, I’m as certain that Robin would be utterly mortified to have her name all over this thing, she would have loved to see your performance.
I’m grateful to all of you. Thank you for coming.
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: Thank you. I asked Peter not to make me cry. He clearly didn’t listen. And I really appreciate all of your coming to this and all of your support and Nora, not to leave you out too. Another woman here. And thank you very much Peter, Jake and Nora and to everyone who’s been a part of this. We have some coffee and some dessert in the lobby so if you would please join us for some more conversation before we call it a night and raise a toast to Robin and to damn good journalism!
Thank you very much.


Marilyn Serafini
Kaiser Family Foundation

Read the transcript

CHARLOTTE GRIMES: I’m Charlotte Grimes; I’m the Knight Chair in Political Reporting, and I’m lucky enough to be administrator of Toner Program for Excellence in Political Reporting. I’m delighted to welcome you here tonight to this celebration of the kind of journalism that makes democracy possible, and for this as Robin Toner, a superb political reporter and an outstanding alumna of both Newhouse and Maxwell schools.
Before we go into the program, we have some special guests here; please wait until I introduce them all, and then join me in thanking them with a round of applause.
Chancellor Nancy Cantor and her husband;
Mike Wasylenko, the interim dean of the Maxwell School;
Lorainne Branham, dean of the Newhouse School;
And Adam Clymer, a generous supporter of Toner Program, a colleague and friend of Robin, and one of judges for the prize.
We also have with us Robin’s husband Peter and children, Nora and Jake; we’ll hear something from all of them very shortly.
Please help welcome them to this event, thank you very much.
(I don’t know if you can see me, but I can see you. The podium is tall and I’m so short.)
If you don’t know who Robin Toner was, your education is sadly lacking in many ways. We do our best at the Newhouse School and I hope at the Maxwell School to remedy that lack. Robin Toner set very high standards for political reporting, she was the first woman to become a national political correspondent for The New York Times. Those of you who are under the age of 30 have no idea what an accomplishment that was; those of us older than that appreciate it more than we can tell you. She was so good at that work that even politicians acknowledged her extraordinary talent. Senator Edward Kennedy called her “a reporter’s reporter,” those of us in journalism know that’s the highest compliment you can ever get — sorry editors.
To honor the life and the work of Robin, and to encourage the kind of work she did, her family, her friends, classmates, and Syracuse University have created the Robin Toner Program in Political Reporting.
In addition to friends, generous supporters include Chaplain, Adam Clymer, the board of trustees, and the Newhouse family.
We’re very grateful for all of that support. With it we hope to raise a $1 million endowment to sustain the program in the future, and every year we will award a prize for excellence in political reporting, which as Peter Gosselin said, will become the Pulitzer Prize of political reporting, the equivalent of that. And we will have a discussion called the Toner Symposium about the issues, challenges, and opportunities for American political reporting and American politics.
To present the first Toner Prize, we’ll ask for some help from some special people with us, Nora and Jacob. If they will come up here with us, and I’ll ask the recipients to come join us — Craig, Marcus, Sebastian, will you please come up here?
JAKE GOSSELIN: The judges were very impressed with the quality of 103 entries in the contest. Only one winner of the top prize, but judges also wanted to recognize other outstanding political reporting. Three journalists are awarded with honorable mentions for their work.
One of these three journalists with honorable mentions is Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker. Unfortunately he couldn’t be with us. Judges praised his narrative, “As The World Burns,” for telling the important story it told of climate change legislation.
With us tonight are two other recipients with honorable mentions: Sebastian Jones and Marcus Stern, reporters for the online news organization, ProPublica. Their stories showed the way money influences politics and the electoral process, such as local fundraisers at the Super Bowl and a Bruce Springsteen concert. Congratulations to both of them.
NORA GOSSELIN: The Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting is meant to keep alive the flame of quality, fact-based political journalism that was the hallmark of my mother’s career. This is the first time the prize will be awarded. The national contest drew 103 entries from large news organizations like The New York Times and PBS; and some small ones, the Fairmount West Virginia Times.
The winner is Craig Harris, of the Arizona Republic. Mr. Harris for an eight-part series of broken and expensive pension plan. Because of his series, which cost taxpayers $1.4 billion this year, state lawmakers and mayors began change to the pension system and to correct the abuses. My Mom would be proud of this journalism.
As winner of the prize, Mr. Harris receives $5,000 and a crystal flame. Congratulations Mr. Harris.
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: Thank you Nora and Jacob, we’ll ask our award winner if they’d like to say a few words before move onto program.
CRAIG HARRIS: Thank you very much; I am so honored to be here. (To Nora and Jacob) And thank you very much, that was so kind. One thing that I was so impressed by reading about your mom is the amazing tenacity she had for action. Not only a wonderful writer … I was so impressed over her career, and her obituary. They said they could only find at the most a half dozen of corrections. That is just astounding, for her level of reporting; I’m so honored to be a part of that.
I’d just like to say a few other thank yous. I’d like to thank God, who gave me the ability to write; I’d also like to thank my beautiful wife, Dr. Tamer, who couldn’t be here tonight because she’s teaching tomorrow at Arizona University; my kids, who like you, have heard me say, “I’ll only be five more minutes and I’ll be home,” and I’m not home. Last I’d like to thank my editors at the Republic, especially Pat Flannery and Nicole Carol who allowed me to do this, and for all lawyers fees they paid for us to fight to get a lot of documents.
Thank you for generosity, and just how warm this university has been to someone who is a stranger from the desert, and grew up in a far away place like Oregon. Thank you so much for your hospitality, I appreciate this so much, thank you.
MARCUS STERN: Congratulations again, Craig; great work and a great honor. And these two kids who made the presentation, what about their poise? I mean, are they incredible? What’s amazing is, your mom would be so proud to watch you two, you’ll be doing this year after this and your hair is gray and hair is wrinkled. It’s going to be wonderful.
This is terrific honor for us — your mom, by the way, in addition to being a great journalist, was something not many journalists are — she was a tremendous person. She was such a wonderful warm person. I didn’t know her well, she was on a different tier than I was, at The New York Times, but she was always accommodating, always welcoming. She was just a very, very nice human being.
SEBASTIAN JONES: I echo what Mark said, it’s a real honor to accept this award.
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: To start our conversation about political reporting, which is going to be with the prize; we’re going to continue if we raise that $1 million — hint hint — we have with us former Newhouse dean and professor, my colleague just down the hall, David Rubin, host of “Ivory Tower Half Hour.” How about that for a rhyming name? A public affairs show here, who will present our Toner Lecture and moderate the conversation.
DAVID RUBIN: Hi everybody, thank you for coming. Nora and Jake, you are so good at this, I expect in four to five years — I want you to do what I’m doing tonight … So pay attention, learn from my mistakes, then you can do it better.
We are fortunate tonight to have one of the country’s leading journalists on the subject of health care, Marilyn Serafini. She has won awards for coverage of the healthcare proposals of the 2008 presidential candidates, and also for an article about President Bush’s proposal to give money to states to encourage marriage and to discourage divorce. She is, as you’ve heard, the inaugural Robin Toner Distinguished Fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation. She writes the website Kaiser Health News, which supplements lack of health care coverage in a beleaguered mass media these days — financially beleaguered media. If you want to read what she writes, you can see it at Kaiser Family Foundation’s website. Google KHN, remember KHN and that will get you there and you can read her work.
She’s been a health care and welfare reporter for the National Journal since 1995. She left the National Journal in order to take position at Kaiser Health News and will be there until the end of the year. She’s covered Congress since 1985; she’s a graduate of the University of Maryland, and got her masters from American University in journalism and public affairs.
She was there at the beginning — that is, she covered the first big debate over reforming health care. I won’t include the creation of Medicare, but she covered the debate at beginning of the Clinton administration, the first wave in which Hillary Clinton was in charge. Those of you who know history know that that was a failure, and was not attempted again until the Obama administration, so covering health care reform under Obama was round two for her with the subject, which has made her an expert.
Reforming our health care system, how we deliver and pay for health care, is the most contentious, political, social, economic stories the last few years, and believe me, it’s not over.
It had great impact on the 2010 election, it’s going to affect the 2012 election, as the Republican and members of the Tea Party attempt to defund the bill — which was passed into law — and start over, the effort will be part of 2012 election.
This bill spawned Constitutional challenges under the commerce clause, which guaranteed us that the Supreme Court will have the last word on the subject and decide whether the federal mandate for everyone in this room purchase health care, which is a key tenant of this bill. If it goes away, if it is unconstitutional, it will take serious thinking to think how we will salvage this bill.
Whenever a story such as this one comes along, the way in which the media framed this story, what they choose to cover, whom they anoint the experts that they will interview, how much detail they provide, how willing they are to challenge what politicians say, other experts say, is crucial to the public perception of what’s going on. In short, a story like this, the media becomes part of the story.
If you were paying attention, you will recall how much confusion and misinformation surrounded such terms on the debate about death panels — deciding for people my age and who will live and die; rationing of health care — we would have system will not get access to care; bending the cost curve with the bill, that is that the bill would reduce the end costs; court reform, if we simply limit ability by people injured by doctors and practice of medicine, it would cap the awards, and the insurance premiums would drop and everything would be fine. Some subjects off the top of my head that dominated debate, don’t have answers or truth, most of what I heard was probably not the truth.
So our focus tonight, given that this is the Newhouse School, is not specifically on health care reform, but whether the performance of media in covering the health care debate, which means, Marilyn — I’m going to start by asking you to critique yourself and how you covered debate, and critique not only yourself but your colleagues and all those who you consulted as sources.
And just one ground rule, for the sake of making this efficient: The bill is now commonly referred to as “Obamacare,” but we know it’s a loaded word used pejoratively. But it is easier than the actual name of the bill, which my guess is, no one else outside except the chancellor may know name of the bill: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or the acronym PPACA, which clunky as it gets … So let’s just call it the act, or Obamacare, or anything short.
MARILYN SERAFINI: I don’t think you’d ever hear me call it Obamacare, but we all know what you mean.
DAVID RUBIN: Let’s start broad overall — how would you assess the quality of the job of you and colleagues? How good did you do in informing the American public?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Very difficult bill and debate to cover; a lot has changed in politics since the first round of health care to today’s round. Politics has really changed; it has become an overarching presence through the debate, which made it difficult for the press in general to write about policy issues that were most important.
Because we had people talking about death panels — when Sarah Palin brought it up, the debate stopped. We stopped talking about how were going to bring costs down, expand coverage for the uninsured; we stopped talking about issues people really cared about. It was political hammering back and forth about what death panels are. Frankly, most people have no idea what she was talking about, but sounded so awful, that it consumed the debate.
One issue, aside from the death panels, that took up a lot of time and discussion was the public health plan. In 2014 everyone — most people — will be required to purchase health insurance. As part of that, each state is supposed to have insurance exchange; individual and small businesses can purchase insurance. The exchange was intended to provide a menu of insurance plans from which to choose, and then we come to debate whether there will be a public plan option to choose from.
This was not supposed to be an issue, or take up a lot of attention. Democrats were prepared on issues; they didn’t think it was that important, but such a political back and forth that ensued over this. It took up months of debate time that should have been focused on the more important issues of reaching goals of health reform. And the most important to the public was reducing cost. Issues like that, politics took away from that.
DAVID RUBIN: If you say Democrats were willing to concede on the public option from beginning, why did some Democrats, such as Nancy Pelosi, continue to make it an issue, that you as a journalist that you felt you needed to continue to cover? Why did they make it an issue if they were prepared to concede it from beginning?
MARILYN SERAFINI: It started as a negotiation point; in the end, Democrats, who thought they could not give in on issue politically, but tanked over time. Again the politics took over, they felt they couldn’t go there.
DAVID RUBIN: I’m curious, as a journalist, did you write a story early on, in which you said ‘Everyone knows the Democrats are going to give this issue up, the public option”? When they’re continuing to debate it anyway?
MARILYN SERAFINI: I did say that; I did write that in many stories, but frankly, I tried to steer away from stories that were just about the public option. It was so consuming. I tried my very hardest to move ahead and to look proposals that were coming down the road. I kept thinking this issue, this debate is going to end any moment, and it kept going on and on and on.
DAVID RUBIN: The issue about the death panel, I’d like to get your take on why that took over the life of this. I remember hearing when Sarah Palin said it — the word, and I saw my mother die, and there are many people in this room who have seen people die, there is an American way of death — it is a combo of doctors and family members getting together and deciding when to go to hospices, when it’s over. These things happen, anyone been through it knows that this happens. When I heard her say “death panel,” somehow, everyone in America lies in a bed until they die of natural causes, isn’t the way the world works. So I thought, “Everyone knows that, they’ll ignore that.” And yet they didn’t. How did it happen that people were so concerned of this?
MARILYN SERAFINI: It originated with a provision in health legislation; when the House had the bill and was working on it, really meant to give physicians to participate in Medicare, to give them some encouragement and fin reimbursement to encourage their patient to have living wills, to sign advanced directives, to give their instructions so wishes could be followed — exactly, prepare for the end. A conservative strategist was telling me this the other day, he thought Sarah Palin had no idea what those provisions were, and that she, somehow, blindly stumbled on this. It sounded great for those who did not like the law, didn’t like the legislation, so she latched on and used it as a political argument. But at the same time, this person said, she may not have understood but it did resonate politically, and now, this person believes — this is a conservative strategist — she believes that there was some truth in bringing up the issue of rationing care.
DAVID RUBIN: To get back to that rationing care — how did you write about health care rations, how did you combat ignorance in this?
MARILYN SERAFINI: I didn’t write much about it at all. I tried very hard to stay away from issues that I thought were solely political, and focus attentions more on other policies. I thought that eventually again, just like public option, that the debate had to wind down. I had to get to broader issues — what was in pieces of leg that could potentially reduce costs and improve quality?
DAVID RUBIN: Did you see many of your colleagues, who — unlike you, you didn’t want to write about side issues, but others were because they were keeping them afloat — did you witness that?
DAVID RUBIN: What did you say to them?
MARILYN SERAFINI: What did I say to them? I’m in a different position, at time I was writing for National Journal; I was not tied to the daily news. It’s a real luxury in journalism these days, to not to have to write about every little political peak that each of the political parties make. I was able to take this into the broader perspective, and to write about the policy as it relates to politics, politics as it relates to policy. But a lot of my colleagues, they really were bound to write the daily news. If all that’s being talked about that day is a comment or a town hall meeting where people are standing up and screaming about death panels, I don’t blame them for writing that story. Because it does have a place in our writing. However, if that’s all people are writing, that’s where you get into trouble.
DAVID RUBIN: They were then captive of these politicians on both side of this debate.
MARILYN SERAFINI: I think that’s exactly right.
DAVID RUBIN: Is there no way out of that captivity? Because it had a very — it had a very veiled effect?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Absolutely it did. I think that the goal should be to write about some of it, to keep it in mind, but to really write about the broader picture, and where is this taking us, and perhaps write about what are we not hearing. I think it’s the responsibility of journalists to write about what we should be writing about, not necessarily what is being said. And it takes a lot to do that; editors have to be convinced, to maybe the comment about death panels, that it could be included on a blog or put up on the website. But there’s a real lack of time at this moment for journalists; there’s a lack of resources, so it’s difficult. Newsrooms are shrinking, and in shrinking newsroom, there are fewer and fewer journalists who have time to write beyond the news of that day, and it’s a problem.
DAVID RUBIN: Did you find that colleagues were frustrated in the way that they were captivated in fringe element of debate?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Absolutely, very frustrated.
DAVID RUBIN: You mentioned rationing; do you want to address how that was hijacked as an issue?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Again, it falls in line with the death panels; rationing is a political issue. Anybody who tells you there’s no rationing in the health care system already, they’re wrong. There’s rationing, there has to be; we as nation spend more than most other nations do on health care, we as individuals spend more on health care than many other nations. But there is a finite amount of money; for millions of people who are uninsured, they face rationed care every day. A lot of people would use argument, well, they could walk to an emergency room to get whatever care they need, but that’s not really true. You can’t do that because what happens is, when people who come in to the emergency room, yes, there are laws that the ER’s to see patients until they are stable enough to be released, but what happens then is that the hospital charges these people who don’t have the money, a lot of money. What happens when they can’t pay? They’re sometimes — they take them to court, they garnish wages, take their homes, these things happen. For anyone to argue that we don’t already have a system of rationed care is wrong.
DAVID RUBIN: So that entire debate was uninformed, and took us in the wrong direction?
DAVID RUBIN: Correct if I’m wrong, but I heard it on NPR — when Canada first enacted its system of health, which is a more of, I guess, socialized or public option; that the whole bill was nine pages long.
MARILYN SERAFINI: I don’t know about that.
DAVID RUBIN: When Canada first enacted its health care bill, which I think is more socialized than health care and public option, the whole thing that’s encompassed in the bill is nine pages. Nine pages long. Which, of course, anyone can read that in a few minutes. And this bill, was 2,000 pages, and I remember thinking,  “You know, 2,000 page bill, 1 — is this necessary; 2 — who can read it, understand it, and is this not immediately going to make it impossible for a you as a journalist to cover, and for you as a journalist to explain to the American people? Is there truth to that view?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Absolutely, there are many questions in that question. First of all, in the polling that’s out there right now, the public has no idea what’s in the bill. They might have heard about one provision, or two provisions, and if they are lucky, they understand them correctly. But because rhetoric is being thrown back and forth, it’s virtually impossible for the average American citizen to understand what is in that bill. That’s just the public, then you get to journalists and, to the journalists, it’s very difficult. First of all, even  if we understood everything all in it, there’s not enough time in the day given the number of journalists we have to write about what’s in the law, it’s virtually impossible. Even if we had time, it is very lengthy. I learn something new every single day about what is in that law. And I’m doing this every day.
DAVID RUBIN: Do you have it? The bill?
MARILYN SERAFINI: The actual? No. It’s on my favorites on my computer; I have all the links, summaries — I do have the actual law itself electronically.
DAVID RUBIN: Electronically?
DAVID RUBIN: I don’t mean to embarrass you with this question, but how much of this bill have you actually read?
MARILYN SERAFINI: I couldn’t even answer that question, because I never sat down and read it from beginning to end. Mostly I am looking for certain provisions, but I can say I’ve been through quite a bit of it.
DAVID RUBIN: One of the attacks on the bill was that the people voting on it hadn’t read it themselves. So Republicans attacking Democrats by saying, “You don’t know what you’re voting on, who can read a 2,000-page bill?” Don’t you think that also has some public relations resonance with the American people?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Absolutely, they’re right, who could sit and read that entire piece of legislation; it’s virtually impossible, I absolutely give the Republicans that. It’s not just the Republicans, there were many Democrats who were concerned about voting for a piece of leg when don’t know what’s in it. And by the way, there are many Republicans who are concerned about voting to repeal the health care law, when Republicans aren’t putting forward a replacement.  So there’s some uncertainly on that front as well. So it’s not, in this case, it’s not just one party being upset with another party, although that’s a big chunk of it. The concern on both sides of the aisles is that there’s not a lot of information out there.
DAVID RUBIN: How did the bill get to be 2,000 pages?
MARILYN SERAFINI: It gets to be a 2,000-page bill when you have a lot of stakeholders.  In the early ’90s, when we had Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton trying to manage and pass health care reform law in the first place, one of the criticisms of that process was that the Clintons did not partner with Congress to create the law. And that they also did not partner with various stakeholders, like physicians, insurers, the pharmaceutical industry, to really bring everyone to the table to create law. In my opinion, that was the single biggest factor why that law, that legislation, failed.
So President Obama comes into office, everyone who advises him tells him what not to do, and what not to do is what Hillary Clinton did. So the first thing he does was get stakeholders at the table. When you start sitting stakeholders at same table…
DAVID RUBIN: By stakeholders you mean the insurance companies, the doctors, the nurses, the hospital people…
MARILYN SERAFINI: The various sectors of the industry, for the most part, everyone wants something. So you had a handful of deals that had to be made, and with all the deals came greater complications.
DAVID RUBIN: And that gave birth to a 2,000-page bill.
DAVID RUBIN: Not just the stakeholders — you had members of Congress who felt strongly they had to have this, they had to have that. You have to give credit where credit is due. This was a very difficult task, and for President Obama to actually put together and pass anything, was a pretty significant accomplishment. I’m not sure if anybody could have done it in any less than 2,000 pages.
So you’re a journalist, and this 2,000-page bill electronically hits your desk, this is going to be what you have to cover. Did your heart sink? How did you attack it? What did you do?
MARILYN SERAFINI: First thing you do is get a timeline, you get from Kaiser Family Foundation or you get it from the Commonwealth Fund, there are various groups putting out timelines for when the various components kick in. I think that was the single most important thing I did was, I printed out and I made this giant timeline of the bill.  In that way, I was able to look forward to what provisions had been coming down the road — when certain provisions would be implemented, when certain rules were coming out. That helped me to look forward as opposed to, again, following political rhetoric and getting stuck in what I think is a rut. The most important thing is looking forward to what is about to come, and talking to stakeholders who these provisions are very important to.
It could be the consumer, it could young people, it could be senior citizens who all of a sudden are getting a discount on their prescription drugs. If I can take the timeline, and looking forward as a starting point, I can try to talk to the people or sectors of industry who will be affected and then I can try to understand what challenges for them will be moving forward. That’s how I choose my stories.
DAVID RUBIN: So you organized it by trying to get a timeline of each provision implemented from 2010 to 2014; that was your organizing principle, and that works for you to get a sense of what was in the bill. Who turned out to be your best sources when you really needed to go to people and say, “I’m having trouble understanding this?”
DAVID RUBIN: Pollsters?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Yes, pollsters, it’s very true. Because for me, I write about the policies and the politics, I’ve been looking forward to the midterm elections, and the effect health care had on those elections, and vice versa, and now looking toward 2012 and how health care is going to play into the 2012 election, and so much of this legislature of its success, failure rides on public option. Whether people are buying it, feeling positively or negatively, that is what is going to drive whether this thing is a success or failure. I rely quite a bit on pollsters, and strategists on one side or another or neutral to talk about how the public is perceiving this.
DAVID RUBIN: I would have not thought that was the answer you were going to give me. I thought there were certain policy wonks in the Obama administration, who were briefed in health care, working 18-hour days in offices with no windows, you could call them and they would say, “Paragraph 13, section 12, that’s what that means.”
MARILYN SERAFINI: This is a very interesting point. I do know some of the people working in the Obama administration. The problem is the administration has been closed when it comes to talking to press. It’s a great problem for us working journalists in Washington. People who I’ve been talking to for years, they take a job in administration, in the health department, and all of a sudden it’s “Sorry, I can’t talk to you anymore.” They were my sources for years, some people occasionally talking to them, but they were very nervous because people got the word from the administration to lay low on this issue.
DAVID RUBIN: This is amazing, I remember within the first four days of Obama administration, the executive order saying it was the most transparent administration ever, and the Freedom of Information Act and how agency would have offices, that was the case. I remember telling my students, this is new era of transparency in Washington. Now you’re telling me it’s just the opposite.
MARILYN SERAFINI: At least when it comes to health care. From what I understand from political reporters at the National Journal, around town, it’s been very, very difficult to get info out of this White House and federal agencies. You think about Freedom of Information, that’s a different process. I’m talking about Press Secretary, and definitely beyond that. With interviewing other people, that’s what’s been so different.
Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary for health and human services, she has spoken very little to the press. I have to say that in the past month or so, she has started to talk more to the press. I don’t know whether we have reached a turning point, because maybe now, they see the need to start selling this, and explaining to people more what’s in the law if they’re going to win the public relations war. I’m holding my breath, I’m waiting to see if this is a turning point. Up until now, things have not gone well in the communications front.
DAVID RUBIN: Do you have any theory on why the Obama administration closed itself off to the press?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Health care was such, honestly, I follow health care, I believe on this issue that the thinking was that Republicans were hammering Democrats so hard on issue, that if they just laid low for a little while and let some of new benefits take hold, people would like it so much start that it would start to be seen in positive light.
DAVID RUBIN: Willing to lose the public relations war under the assumption that the American public will see how good the bill is, and win that way.
MARILYN SERAFINI: I believe that, and have been told by some people that has been the strategy.
DAVID RUBIN: That didn’t work out so well.
DAVID RUBIN: 2012 — I agree with you this is going to be a big issue in 2012. Do you think based on what you’ve seen with Kathleen Sebelius that the administration will deal differently with the press in talking about health care as we get closer to this election?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Things are changing a little bit, waiting to see how much they change. As provisions start to take hold; I can only believe that we’re going to start hearing more about them. We were supposed to hear a lot from the industry as well. For instance, I’ve been focusing a lot on seniors, because they were such an important voting block in midterm election. Seniors tend to lean slightly more Democrat in elections, in the last midterms and presidential elections. In the last elections seniors, especially those who were Independent, they leaned heavily to the right. This definitely was a change; seniors were taken with Republican statements in the midterm election, “Democrats want to cut $50 million out of Medicare, we are the ones you can trust when it comes Medicare”— which is so important to these seniors. What happened in many races that were close, and where there was large proportion of seniors; some of these races went to Republicans that, who knows, they might have gone Democrats if things had been different had seniors not been there.
Moving onto 2012, the question will be whether Republicans can retain seniors as this important voting block or whether Democrats will try to lull them back and convince seniors that they are the ones who are the defenders defending Medicare, the defenders of Social Security. The emerging debate over entitlement reforms — Republicans are very committed to reformed to reducing budget deficit, and the national debt — economists will tell you that the biggest way to do that, perhaps the only way to do that, is cut Medicare and Social Security. When I say reform, to come back to them in some fashion, to reform big entitlement programs, Medicare, Social Security, and way reform, I mean cut back in some fashion — these are extremely expensive programs.
DAVID RUBIN: Sound likes you’re focusing on the seniors’ battleground as the major focus, which indicates why you’re sticking with pollsters, getting into the field and talking to seniors about it.
Is there any other major part of the story that’s on your radar that you’re going to write about? Your next big project?
MARILYN SERAFINI: Frankly, I think that’s going to take me up to 2012; that is the next big project. I started working on it and a number of different stories in that vein that I’m going to be working on. At the same time, I’m going to pay attention to Medicaid and the situation in the states, because that is critically important. You have a situation now where states are feeling significant budget pressure, and are facing having to expand their Medicaid roles in 2014. Half of the expansion and coverage of health care in 2014 will come from increasing Medicaid roles; the federal government will step in in 2014, and they will fully fund these new Medicaid beneficiaries for a certain period of time. Currently, the cost of Medicaid is shared by state and fed government; then the fed government will ease the burden on the states, and is going to fully pay for Medicare beneficiaries. That won’t last forever, but even after they come back to their sharing arrangements and pick up costs for existing beneficiaries, however — right now, states are concerned that in 2014, there is a provision that is in the new health law that requires them to — states are not allowed to make changes to Medicaid that would result in Medicaid beneficiaries losing coverage. They have to maintain the current enrollment, what makes that difficult for states — we have finished with this provision, we gauge what happens with enrollment by unemployment figures. As we know, unemployment is still very high, while still high, a lot more people will be on the Medicaid roll, and will continue to be for a while. States are in a difficult position right now as they try to figure out how to afford Medicaid.
DAVID RUBIN: Last question before I’ll ask the others to join me on stage — do you think this healthcare reform will get better coverage in the 2012 elections, or will it be death panels all over again?
MARILYN SERAFINI: I wish I knew the answer to that question. We have to remember that the No. 1 issue right now for voters is the economy and jobs; that by far is the No. 1 issue. Health care will certainly be on minds of many people, that’s one reason why I’m focusing on seniors, because they’re such an important voting block and care so deeply about health care and particularly their Medicare. I think that a lot depends on what happens before election, because a lot could happen. We could potentially — the Supreme Court could take out individual mandates questions; we could end up with that gone. If that’s gone, if the individual mandate is gone, then does any of the new law remain in effect? Also a big question is, if the Republicans succeed in not even just repealing — because they’re not going to repeal the entire initiative — but what happens if they are able to slow it down, and defund part of it? There’s a good part of the law that is dependent on Congress funding it; if you lose some of that funding, that could really slow down the process. If the Republicans do that, will they offer replacement options? Are Republicans going to come forward with proposals to cut back on entitlements? Those questions, once you know answers to them, may help but it may be a while before we do. That’s all going to play out before 2012, at least to a certain extent. That will have a lot to do with the kind of coverage we see leading up to 2012.
DAVID RUBIN: If Craig, Marcus and Sebastian would come up and take these three mikes —audience members, what I’d like to do now, I’m going to throw one question at them that they’ll share, then I’ll open up the questions to you. So be thinking about what you’d like to ask.
My question to the three of you is as follows: All of you ran into issues of access to information, which is something that Marilyn discussed. For Craig, it was trying to get info on the Arizona pension system, and how much was owed to people who had already retired, and whether the state could pay for it. He had to resort to FOIA requests. And then for Marcus and Sebastian, they were looking into members of the Democratic Party in Washington, who had formed a caucus, and were raising money with Pharma. They wanted to write about the intersection with politics and money, and they called all 43 members of this caucus and not a single one would talk to them, not one.
So my broad question to each of you, we’ll start with start with Craig and move down — talk to our students a little about access to info in the year 2010 into 2011. How difficult is it to get the government to tell us what the government is doing to us and for us?
Craig Harris: In Arizona, we have a good open records law, but not everyone follows it. For a project, we did look at six pension systems in Arizona; five of those systems readily gave info we were looking for, which was names, the year they retired, how many years they worked, and most importantly how much benefits they were getting. The Arizona retirement system said we’ll give you their name, when they retired, and the years, but we’re not telling how much they got in benefits. To tell a long story short, we argued about this numerous times; then, they went and told their members that we were looking for their Social Security numbers and addresses, which got retirees up in arms. They sent letters into the Arizona retirement system how awful the Republic was, a few canceled subscriptions. Then the retirement system used that information to sue the Arizona Republic to keep us from getting records, which is almost unheard of. We countersued the retirement system, and then they realized the others five systems gave us info, and then they decided to give us the information.
Another part of project, we filed FOIA requests with all 57 school districts in Maricopa County to get names of employees of people who retired and came back to work. Some would call that double-dipping. Then we cross-referenced that information with the retirement system to see who was getting the full pension and full paycheck from the schools.
So it really depends. Some people are really good; some gave the info to us in less than 24 hours; some we had to threaten with a lawsuit. The city of Phoenix we had to threaten to sue, and then we had to appeal directly to mayor. It’s a good law, but getting everyone to follow the law is sometimes challenging.
SEBASTIAN JONES: What Mark and I did was a little different; but you had to realize that when no one would talk, you found a really good source. And I think that’s true — one thing as a reporter you know, when people don’t want to talk to you and there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t initially, you know you’re onto something pretty good. I think for most of stories I’ve done, and I suspect Mark would concur, with investigative journalism about politics, you almost have to go into story assuming that the people you’re writing about will not talk to you. The kind of people I’ve written about who’ve actually talked to me — the number of times is rare. It causes you to look at how do you get this info that people could tell you, but there are other ways to get it. Then you start to look at sourcing broadly outside of direct people you’re reporting on, looking at documents, looking at other ways to get info, and sometimes doing a little bit of anthropological field work, almost.
MARCUS STERN: Yeah, you know, politicians are famous for avoiding the questions they’re asked, talking about what they want to be talking about. But I’ve got a couple of points to make, maybe if we get back to some of the earlier discussions, if I can — one of the things I’ll say for you students out there, today’s a great time to be covering Washington and the issues that center Washington — or politicians — because there’s a tremendous amount of information and public records available on the web and on agencies’ websites, more than ever before. You can do more with public records than you ever could have done before. You wouldn’t have had enough. That’s a great advantage. Having said that, at some point you have to step away from the computer and go talk to people. That’s a hugely important thing to do; that’s what we call sourcing. When you’re dealing with politicians and coming at them with a bad story, and they’re not going to be able to somehow pull the wool over your eyes or back down from the story, what they’ll do, they’ll just completely stonewall you; their Congressional aides will just never call you back. Even if they take the call, they say they’ll get back to you, they’ll say they’ll get right on that and they never get back to you. And that’s tough.
DAVID RUBIN: Marcus, are things getting better or worse on that score?
MARCUS STERN: I think it’s getting worse; what you’ve got, is much more sophisticated communication operatives — in Congressional offices particularly, you’ve more staffers, you’ve got smarter staffers. Unless you’re The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal — they can ignore you in many cases. It gets tough; they know the game they’re playing, and they’re getting more sophisticated with it.
DAVID RUBIN: You agree Craig?
CRAIG HARRIS: I don’t meant to talk down the middle, but I think it depends. Some folks are pretty good, some are not. Ironically the press spokesman for our governor used to be a colleague of mine a couple months ago; I asked him question, a pretty benign question for the governor, that dealt with public records we weren’t getting from the governor’s office. He gave me a story that if he really wanted to he could withhold docs, because we don’t have to compile lists, which is not what the public records law said. I said, “Matt, you have lost your mind, I would expect that from someone in the business for 30 years on the other side, but you were a reporter for 10 years, and now you’re stonewalling me like a veteran PR guy.” It’s amazing.
DAVID RUBIN: What did he say to that?
CRAIG HARRIS: He said some choice words that weren’t quite as nice that had with expletives in them. After we finally calmed down, I reminded him what public records law was, and that he needed to give them to us, and we got them last week. That’s a different project looking at how they’re paying sick, leave and overtime. It’s amazing, even people who used to be on our side of the fence have so quickly put up barriers for pub access and public records.
DAVID RUBIN: Like to know what’s on your minds, do we have a mic out there? Just stand and speak into the mic clearly; if you want to identify yourself, great, I like identified speech, but you don’t have to.
STUDENT: My name is Michael Contino, a couple of the political reporting students met you earlier today. My question involves access to information as well — if people don’t have to talk to you, don’t have to give you information that’s understood. How often, when you do report something sensitive, a hot-button issue a good story about, that people wont talk to you along the way, how often do they come after you after it’s published and say it’s wrong? If you don’t have access to info that you’d like, how do you cover yourself so you don’t get in trouble for it?
MARILYN SERAFINI: You can’t really get into trouble for what’s true, or what people will eventually tell you. But it can go either way; you can have someone who will get very angry and stop speaking to you for a while. Not because you wrote anything correct or did a bad job, they’re just angry about this bit of information coming out. It can go other way.
DAVID RUBIN: Other thoughts? No?
MARCUS STERN: A couple of things — maybe I’m misunderstanding elements of the question, but you always want to be pretty sure of what you’re writing before you write it, you want to be sure you can back it up. But about not getting back to sources, for another perspective — that is sometimes if you’re the person taking it to public officials, and making them angry, but they know they have to deal to you, it helps you get access. In my business, some people suck up to public officials and I guess that’s worked for them, but there’s another approach if you’re on a subject like health care or another policy, you get to know it pretty well and you become expert — you can sometimes take it to those policy people and they then just have to deal with you. If you have good, tough stories and you’ve done the reporting, they wont ignore you at that point.
DAVID RUBIN: OK, who else?
STUDENT: My name is Alex, I want to know your views on revealing sources, how far would you go to protect source off the record?
DAVID RUBIN: So you’re asking about the relationship with anonymous sources and revealing anonymous sources? Do you each want to address that?
CRAIG HARRIS: I never reveal my sources. We had situation recently where we wrote a story a while back where we used unnamed sources; we did it, we finally were able to get lawyers to agree to it by one of the sources, who said if it goes to court, I will come forward. For the last year and a half, I protected those sources’ names and never used them. If I say I’m not going to reveal, I never reveal; if I do they’ll never talk to me again.
DAVID RUBIN: Are you prepared to go to jail to protect your sources?
CRAIG HARRIS: Absolutely, my wife wouldn’t be happy about it but yeah, I would.
DAVID RUBIN: Do your editors know their names?
CRAIG HARRIS: Absolutely.
DAVID RUBIN: Are they prepared to go to jail too?
CRAIG HARRIS: They’ll send me to jail.
DAVID RUBIN: If the judge or whoever is in charge knows that the editors also know sources, there’s nothing stopping them or requiring them to protect sources.
CRAIG HARRIS: I suppose, but we go into it seriously. If we’re going run a story — we never run with one unnamed source; two is risky, it has to correlated by three or more. There has to be a very, very significant reason why we wouldn’t reveal sources. I don’t question my editors above me, they’re not my pay rate. To determine what they do for me, people at the Arizona Republic have stood behind me and supported me. I may have never had to go to jail, but I know the legal bills I rack up for the paper, and it’s a lot. Frankly, I’m surprised they pay them, but they keep doing it.
DAVID RUBIN: And a lot of FOIA…
CRAIG HARRIS: Yeah, we filed FOIA requests and public records there and we get a lot of legal battles; we have good attorney, we win probably 96 percent of our fights. That’s a lot of money. We just had a case where we won against a small town in the Phoenix area, and we made them pay our legal fees — almost 10,000 legal fees.
MARILYN SERAFINI: Whether or not it involves a lawsuit, it’s critically important to pay attention to what a story could do to source if the identity was revealed. I had a story years ago about overcrowding in emergency rooms, and I worked on it for two months, and I had one nurse who had given me specific examples of where the overcrowding had led to deaths. I had the story ready to go and at the last minute, the nurse called me crying, begging and pleading, “Don’t use it at all.” I didn’t, we literally killed the entire story because she was afraid she would be fired if the story came out, even though it was critically important. Eventually I got to the story another way but — the big problem when we talk about off the record, or on background, I always make it a point when someone says “This is on background” — what do you mean by that? It’s something different to every single person you talk to, not supposed to use it at all, or don’t use name, information at all, or use for your own knowledge. Some people think you can quote them but can’t attribute to them, some people think you can say “A Democrat Senator’s aide,” some people think it means you can say “a source,” which of course no one would ever say just, “According to a source,” it means something different to each person.
Oftentimes you’ll have — I’m sure you’ve experienced this too — you set ground rules with someone who will talk to you, and then they try to set the ground rules late: “By the way, everything is off record.” You know, it’s not really right; there are many reporters would say you can use that information because they didn’t tell you ahead of time. My feeling is, and probably yours too, you have to protect people, you can’t do things that are going to harm people.
SEBASTIAN JONES: A couple things about anonymous sources. First off, in the kind of work we do, the chances of being called before a grand jury and asked to reveal a source who told us about a lobbyist is very low. We’re not doing national security; it’s not that kind of reporting; so it’s not really day-to-day consideration. The other thing in DC coverage, there is a real propensity — a sort of privilege — to hand out anonymity to people. You see it quite often, “unnamed source,”  “People in the White House critical him were wrong,” everything else — that’s a bad use of something that should be preserved for situations where the person telling you is in jeopardy and information is relevant and important. Your job as a journalist to reveal truth about the situation; if that info is critical to revealing that truth, that’s when you can grant these kinds of privileges, allowing people to speak background or anonymous.
There have been times where people would start conversation and, “Oh everything is on background,” and basically everything is in the press release yesterday. It’s ridiculous. Many times I have to, in talking with press people now, you have to almost talk them out of background when you begin the conversation. It’s depressing, because what we’re told in these conversations is hardly anything that will get them fired or in trouble or anything, so quoting exactly in a press release that was sent already.
MARCUS STERN: Just to clarify, we deal with Congress, and Congress is exempt from FOIA, it’s not like you have disclosure laws that subjected to. It’s different from state and county. On the issue of protecting of sources, I don’t know — for me anyways, it’s never been will I go to jail, of course I will. It’s how long I’ll stay there, that’s something to be negotiated. The other thing is on this question of off record — Marilyn you made this very clear­ — reporters have totally different ideas of off the record and background, you have to spell that out. Purists say don’t go off the record, stay on record, and there are good reasons for it in certain circumstances, everyone differs. I personally am very willing to go off record in many situations, because I just want to know what’s going on. Once I know what’s going on, then I can confirm it, then get in in paper. If I don’t know what’s going on, then it’s hard for me really to do my job.
DAVID RUBIN: Before Charlotte Grimes comes back up, would you join me in thanking our panel tonight?
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: I really want to thank you, David, and all of you for this wonderful discussion. I have to also sort of borrow a story from Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson; if you don’t know the story you’ll figure it out. To go back to Craig and this notion of his editors and whether they would go to jail, I’ll apply this story to us: A good friend would come and bail you out of jail, a good editor would come bail you out of jail. A really good friend would be standing next to you behind bars and say “Damn that was a lot of fun!” A really good editor would be standing next to you behind bars and say, “Damn that was a really good story!” Let’s keep hoping for more good reporters and more good editors.
And before we end tonight, I’d like to ask Peter Gosselin, Robin’s Toner’s husband, to say a few words, and we’ll close up a minute after.
PETER GOSSELIN: It’s easy at events like this to make big claims about small things. This program is a small program right now, but what we’re starting here should be — it has to be — it has to become a big thing. We launched this in time to recognize coverage for a year in which fundamental questions were raised about function of government, and the purpose of government. In 2010, we head into two years when the question seems likely to not only be the function or purpose of government, but the very fundamental obligations, what fundamental obligations, if any, we have to each other as Americans; how we as a society will cohere. I’m in the unusual position of being a journalist for 35 years, and am now a member of Obama administration — as you can imagine, I have my own views of how this should come out. But whatever your political views are, there’s still the question of how we discuss this issue of the obligation we have to each other. In some ways, the Toner Program and Prize is an experiment in the proposition that this discussion should be based on fact, and that it should be conducted at least in a minimally civil way, that we recognize our opponents are human beings who hold dear to their beliefs. If the program advances this experiment, advances the notion that there are facts around when we’re deciding our approach to government should be—if we accomplish this, we will have fulfilled the public purpose of the program.
For me, there’s a private one as well. One of things that happens when you’re the last parent of a family with young kids, people you have known for years, some who have come to other events with us, confide in you and that they lost one or the other of their parents when they were young. In one way or another, these people say what they most needed, long after the blow, even now, is to represent the lost parent, to stand in their place. This program will give Nora and Jake that chance. It is to remind them, should they forget as time passes, that their mother was someone to be reckoned with in her chosen field. They will be given the opportunity to represent Robin in over and over again in years ahead, and in doing so to ask what would she have thought? What would she have believed? What would she have hoped? What would she have loved? To Chancellor Cantor, Dean Branham, Charlotte Grimes and all of you, for helping to raise our children. For that I am grateful.
CHARLOTTE GRIMES: Peter, I hate you for making me weep. But thank you very much for all of this, what all of you should know none of this would be possible without Peter and his dedication and veracity for making this program what it is, and what it needs to be, I’ll ask you to join us in the lobby for a few of my favorite things: coffee, chocolate, conversation — sorry, we don’t have the scotch. You will also find a little bit of material to help you make some contributions to that million dollar endowment. Feel free, we would be happy to take anything you could give us. We appreciate most of all your time and your care, for this thing we call democracy and journalism. Thank you very much.


Panel: Gwen Ifill, PBS; Richard Berke, The New York Times; Dan Balz, The Washington Post; Jackie Calmes, The New York Times; Beth Frerking, Politico; Adam Nagourney, The New York Times