Journalism in the time of Trump

by Lani Diane Rich

September 26, 2018

New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni shares his thoughts on politics and the persistence of optimism

Frank Bruni and Harriet Brown
Frank Bruni talking with moderator Professor Harriet Brown on Sept. 25, 2018 Alexandra Moreo

When asked by Professor Harriet Brown how he stays cool in such a politically chaotic time, New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni had a simple answer.

“I don’t.”

During his talk Tuesday afternoon, co-sponsored by Friends of Central Library and the Newhouse School, Bruni spoke openly about the challenges of being a journalist during what he calls the “24-second news cycle.”

“I find this time we’re in utterly exhausting,” Bruni said. “I find it professionally exhausting, and I find it morally exhausting.”

Since the 2016 election, he said, taking even six hours away from his inbox means he will be faced with an overwhelming task of catching up to the news that accumulated in that time.

“It makes me want to ask myself a question: was that really six hours’ worth of news? Is the problem that we’re really missing out on so much, or are we all actually investing way too much in these meaningless, microscopic developments?”

It’s a question Bruni has yet to answer himself, despite his many years of experience as a journalist, which included stints as an investigative journalist, a White House correspondent, a movie critic and, now, an opinion columnist.

Bruni started this varied career in the mid 80s as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he had a fateful epiphany while writing for The Daily Tarheel.

“I loved it and I realized, ‘Oh, this is a way people make a living.’”

Bruni moved on to the Detroit Free Press, where, in 1992, he wrote a controversial profile of a convicted child molester who had carried on a three-year “relationship” (“for lack of a better term,” Bruni said) with a 10-year-old child who lived across the street.

“It was told through his eyes, as an exercise in trying to understand what the world looks like to someone like that so we can do a better job of combatting that kind of thing.” The piece was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing that year.

The time he was allowed to dedicate to telling this story, three days a week for about four months, is becoming a rare luxury in journalism now, Bruni said.

“I don’t do that sort of journalism anymore,” he said, “but there’s something uniquely satisfying about following a story for such a long period of time.”

The success of that piece eventually brought him to The New York Times, where he moved around topically, doing restaurant reviews and enjoying a brief stint as the Rome bureau chief before finally settling into his current position as an opinion columnist. He is the paper’s first openly gay op-ed columnist, but it’s a distinction he waves away.

“We had plenty of openly gay and lesbian writers on staff, but if you’re talking about a regular, two-times-a-week op-ed columnist, I was the first,” he said. “To me, it’s just one of the things I am.”

It wasn’t long before the discussion moved back to politics, and Bruni shared his impressions of the presidents he covered as a White House correspondent. George W. Bush was introverted and surprisingly intellectual when he was in less formal environments. Barack Obama was great around people, but hated the legislative process. And Donald Trump?

“You could make the argument that we’ve never had a president as dangerous as Donald Trump,” Bruni said.

When asked if the country is too fractured to ever come back together again, Bruni admits he frequently worries about that.

“We’re more fractured than at any time in my conscious adult lifetime,” he said, but added that people who witnessed the tumultuous times of the late ’60s report similarities between then and now. Bruni expressed concern that the way we consume information today may make it harder for us to come back now, but he tries to remain optimistic.

“As long as there are many, many people who are worried about this,” Bruni said, “I don’t think that hope is lost.”