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The Long View From Journalist Al Hunt On The Turbulent News Media

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a long view now of the turbulent news media. It comes from Al Hunt, a journalist for half a century. He recently took a half step back from daily journalism and paused for a moment to reflect on people entering his profession.

If approached today by a young person who said, I aspire to be a Washington journalist, would you tell them to run away?

AL HUNT: No, I wouldn't. I'd tell me do it.

INSKEEP: That advice may sound surprising at this moment. Thousands of journalists have lost their jobs in recent years, including many just last week at Gannett newspapers, BuzzFeed and elsewhere. That is an odd development considering that journalists are also being told their work is vital to democracy. Yet Al Hunt still finds the job meaningful for those who remain in it.

Since coming to Washington in 1969, Hunt has covered scandal-ridden presidencies for The Wall Street Journal and then for Bloomberg. Many things have changed. But just as when he started, he says, journalism is about trying to find out what powerful people do behind closed doors.

HUNT: You know, the media was profoundly different. But the reporters, I don't think, were that different. I mean, yeah, you can see distinctions. But I think the trade is really quite the same.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note that the press corps at that time was overwhelmingly white men.

HUNT: There were no - when I joined the Wall Street Journal bureau here in 1969, Steve, there wasn't a single woman in the bureau, and there were no people of color anywhere. Now, the Post and Times had a few women - not very many. So it was a much different environment.

INSKEEP: What were you doing during Watergate?

HUNT: I was covering Congress. And I covered the urban committee a little bit. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield set up a special Watergate committee, in 1973, headed by a very conservative North Carolinian named Sam Ervin, who had a great reverence for the Constitution. And what that committee really did is it really set the stage for an impeachment proceeding to begin in the House the next year.

INSKEEP: Did the system work in 1974?

HUNT: Yes, it absolutely worked. They did it right. It had public support. The president did go quietly into the night. I mean, Nixon must be given credit. He didn't try to stay beyond when he could stay. He didn't try to rouse the people to the streets. I'd worry about that today. And...

INSKEEP: He didn't send a single tweet after leaving office in 1974.

HUNT: The - oh, God.

INSKEEP: Did the system work in the 1990s when Bill Clinton was impeached and then acquitted by the Senate?

HUNT: No. It was a sham because it wasn't a serious job. It was a political job to begin with. And look. Clinton lied. Clinton did some things. My view back then was, Clinton should have been censured by the Congress - that they should have said, you know, this is unacceptable. He lied about sex. I'm not excusing any kind of lying. I just doubt very much that rises to an impeachable offense.

Nixon had done things with the CIA and the FBI and the IRS that were unlawful and unconscionable - far, far greater sins. And I think that became an embarrassment, too, for the Republicans. It backfired. And it just - no one can look on that as a model that you'd ever want to emulate.

INSKEEP: How well is the system working now?

HUNT: Not well. Steve, when I came here 1969, the Vietnam War was raging. Civil rights was still a huge issue. Watergate was on the horizon. Nixon was a divisive president. And then there were people of, you know, strongly different views, but there was a certain comity in Congress and in Washington. Today I don't think the stakes are nearly as big, and there's far, far less comity.

You know, Daniel Patrick Moynihan one time said of academic politics, it's so bitter because so little is at stake. And sometimes you think that today. I mean, the bitterness is just over a wall. I mean, the - it's just - it's insane, Steve. It really is. And so in that sense, the system is not working.

INSKEEP: Is the country in danger?

HUNT: Yeah, I think the country is in danger. I've never thought that before. I didn't even think it would Nixon. But I do think there were people around Nixon who, whatever he...

INSKEEP: Restrained him.

HUNT: Yeah. And I worry about that today, particularly with Jim Mattis gone.

INSKEEP: And the danger is what? What is it you're afraid of? Because somebody listening - many people, maybe millions of people are listening who think the president is not a danger at all. They support him, or they just don't think it's that bad. They don't think it's that big a deal.

HUNT: No, I know. And they will point to, you know - so he's been in office for two years, and we think some good things have happened. And what are the bad things? The problem, Steve, is that he doesn't know much and he doesn't really care to know much. He really hasn't faced a crisis. Presidents...

INSKEEP: These have been good times.

HUNT: These have been really good times - and not just at home but on the foreign front. I mean, there hasn't been a crisis. He talks about what he's done in Korea. He created a crisis, to some extent, in - he exacerbated the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

So when a crisis occurs, we're not sure, A, how he'll react and, B, what kind of advisers he will have around him and what kind of advice they'll give. When you read about the 13 days, John F. Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis, one of the things that's striking - they made mistakes. But one of the things that is striking is how good the advice was from some people back then. And I'm not sure what would happen today if we hit a crisis.

INSKEEP: Al Hunt, thanks so much for coming by.

HUNT: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Al Hunt, formerly of The Wall Street Journal and of Bloomberg, who has left daily journalism after half a century - though, in this 21st century, he is now, with James Carville, starting a podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.