Haberman connects public policy, politics, journalism

Susan Webb Yackee and Maggie Haberman talk on a video call.
Susan Webb Yackee (left) and Maggie Haberman (right).

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More than 500 people from 28 states and two countries joined the La Follette School for Politics and Policy with Maggie Haberman of The New York Times on October 29 – just five days before the 2020 presidential election.

A 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner, Haberman said during the live-streamed presentation that visual journalism has given news media outlets another strategy for explaining public policy. Visual journalism includes illustrations, maps, charts, movies, and other digital content to help readers understand complex topics.

In response to an audience member’s question, Haberman said the role of journalists in shaping public perception of policy has changed over the years, especially since the demise of many national broadsheet newspapers and in the current “choose-your-adventure news cycle.”

“In its best possible distillation, reporters play a role by explaining what actions their government could be taking, what the impact is on actual citizens, and does not turn it into a parlor game,” said Haberman, who has covered Donald Trump for more than a decade before and during his presidency. “The problem is that policy often in this administration is made as a parlor game … one person wins and several others lose.”

A 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner, Haberman said her early-career experience writing for The New York Post and The New York Daily News prepared her well for covering Trump’s campaign, election, and presidency.

“My ability to report the kind of palace-intrigue stories that are the staple of tabloids and of Politico has turned out to be useful in a White House where knowing who has the president’s ear at any given moment reveals a great deal about how policy debates are shaped and won,” she said.

Haberman also spoke about how she keeps an unbiased approach when covering a president who repeatedly attacks the media.

“I have gotten good at putting aside my … whatever … in order to be fair, in order to give a hearing to people who are coming to me,” she said. “I want someone to talk me out of why what I think or believe might be happening is not happening. What I want to do is give someone a hearing.”

La Follette School Director and Professor Susan Webb Yackee, who moderated the discussion, noted the similarity between journalism and academia.

“Unearthing the truth, that is such a wonderful, noble value,” said Yackee. “I feel like it’s part of academia as well. It’s one of the things that drove me to my job.”

The presentation was part of UW–Madison’s fall 2020 Journalist in Residence series: Journalism in Extraordinary Times. The event was funded by the Kohl Initiative and co-sponsored by UW–Madison’s Elections Research Center.

In addition to the hour-long presentation and question-and-answer session, Haberman spoke with more than 60 students in the La Follette School’s Contemporary Public Policy Issues course (PA 200) less than a week after the Nov. 3 election. She gave a brief presentation, and then responded to students’ questions.