The Current

How the New York Times's top lawyer stands up to Trump's attacks on media

Lawyer David McCraw has fought some of the New York Times's toughest and most controversial legal battles. The newspaper's vice-president and deputy general counsel tells us about his new book, Truth in Our Times: Inside the Fight for Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts.

'We shouldn't be in this business if we're not going to take a risk,' David McCraw says

David McCraw, the top newsroom lawyer for the New York Times, unpacks the legal decisions behind the newspaper's most powerful stories of the last decade. (Earl Wilson/The New York Times)
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The New York Times has exposed many of the most provoking stories of the last decade; each of which crossed the desk of lawyer David McCraw before being published.

From inappropriate touching allegations against U.S. President Donald Trump to Harvey Weinstein's sexual assault scandal, these stories were approved by the newspaper's vice-president and McCraw, the Times's deputy general counsel. Both have faced the brunt of the corresponding pushback.

McCraw detailed his involvement in all of those stories and how his job supports the newspaper's investigative muscle in his new book, Truth in Our Times: Inside the Fight for Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts.

Trump has repeatedly asserted that the press are "enemies of the people" and criticized journalists that contradict his opinion and policy positions as "fake news."

On Tuesday, the Times revealed information about Trump's taxes and business income from decades passed. The president has called the report, which states his businesses lost more than $1 billion US from 1985 to 1994, "highly inaccurate."

McCraw spoke about defending the truth and media freedom with The Current's guest host Matt Galloway. Here is part of their conversation.

Tell me about the first time you heard Donald Trump use those words referring to the media as 'the enemy of the people' … How did you react when you heard that?

It was all part of a larger attempt and a continuing attempt to de-legitimize the press. As I point out in the book, a press that's disbelieved and discredited is not that different from a controlled press.

It doesn't really matter how much press freedom you have if the press isn't believed. It can't move public opinion, it can't be a check on government. And I see it as as part of a whole. Same thing when the president and others talk about fake news, it is designed to win the hearts and minds of people and say 'trust us, don't trust the press.'

What was it like at the Times the night of the election when it became clear that Donald Trump would be the president of the United States?

I think that there was, in a sense, just a shock of the news, but also people's awareness that a president was going to come into office who had made the press an issue. And I think initially there was some question about well, does that change how we do our job or what we do?

I think in the end people went back to exactly what they've been doing before which is: let's cover the president aggressively, let's get it right. And it's up to the public to make a decision about what to do with what we're reporting.

So how often do you have to put up the red light versus the green light [on a story being published]?

Never put up the red light. I may have a yellow light in my bag. There are times when we need to work through a story, look at the language, maybe add something to give it more balance, more context. But at the end of the day, my role is to stand behind our journalism and make sure that we avoid a lawsuit. If we can't, that's kind of the cost of doing business. We shouldn't be in this business if we're not going to take a risk.

You write in the book that a distrusted press is little different from a shackled press. What do you mean by that?

Well the power of the press comes from people believing what was said, understanding that those are the facts, and then acting upon that, whether it's in an election or in some other fashion.

When I visit countries that have a controlled press, no one really pays attention to the press because they know the government's lies are the things they're going to see. They don't believe it and they exist in what becomes an information void. The same thing is true when you have a disbelief press.

If people are looking at the press ... and saying 'I don't believe that, that's not true,' they're in the same information void. They can't act upon that. And it's a very dangerous situation because it leaves so much power in the hands of a government.

When there are threats of lawsuits, as there often are, how do you respond to those threats?

Most of the people who write to me are not Harvey Weinstein. Most of the people who end up writing to me, or have their lawyers write to me, have concerns about a story. They may not be legitimate in the sense that they may be wrong, but I want to hear from them.

Trump's lawyer demanded that the Times retract an article featuring accusations against the president in 2016 about inappropriate touching from two women. McCraw's blistering written refusal went viral at the time. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

I want to use that as part of our system to make sure we get it right. When it's the Harvey Weinsteins of the world or the Donald Trumps of the world, much of that is an attempt to intimidate, and we just have to stand up to it.

Much of the time, they will actually go public with it, which is also part of the reality. It's not really legal, it's political. It's designed to move public opinion. And I think our reporters expect me to stand up to that, and I do, I think the public expects us to do that as well.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation. 

Q&A edited for clarity and length. Written by Émilie Quesnel. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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