Growing up in a small town in Illinois, David E. McCraw said the bluegrass state “was an exotic place for me as a kid. People who were worldly went to vacation, not in Illinois, but Kentucky. I was always envious of the other kids.”
He’ll be making his first trip to Louisville on Tuesday, May 14, as the guest of the Kentucky Author Forum.
McCraw, the deputy general counsel of The New York Times, will be talking about his new book, “Truth in Our Times,” which provides an inside look at the “fight for press freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts,” covering the most turbulent era for journalists in generations.
On Friday, I phoned McCraw at NYT headquarters for a brief preview. He has worked for The Times since 2002, leading the paper’s fight for freedom of information, providing legal counsel to reporters and defending against libel suits.
(As an editor at The Times, I often consulted McCraw with legal concerns, usually on deadline, for articles that invariably would be better for his suggestions.) Here are highlights of our conversation slightly edited and condensed:
Insider Louisville: Are you putting out any fires today?
David McCraw: We’re doing a Mother’s Day story that actually has legal complications. I didn’t think that was possible. It’s a story about pregnant athletes and how they get treated. And I think the great, great, piece for Mother’s Day.
Insider: Another week and another blockbuster investigation from The New York Times about Donald Trump’s taxes. You deal a lot about this in your book; I guess this raises the ante?
McCraw: It does. In most cases, though, whether it was President Trump or any other public official, my concern is twofold. One, is really about the minor players in a story — that some of them may or may not have been accurately portrayed.
I want to make sure that happens. The other piece of it is just to make sure that it’s factually accurate, and boy, some of that stuff is pretty dense going. I’m really impressed by our reporters’ ability to grasp tax law.
Insider: You spend quite a bit of your book dealing with the president. Does this development fit into the narrative?
McCraw: As you know, the book opens, largely, with the week that three pages of his tax return in 2016 arrived at The Times.
(An envelope had shown up in the mailbox of Susanne Craig, McCraw writes: “Inside were what appeared to be some pages from Trump’s 1995 state tax returns from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut when he filed jointly with his then-wife Marla Maples. No note. No way to know who sent them.”)
And all of this becomes a story because Donald Trump wouldn’t do what other candidates and other presidents have done, which is release his tax return. It’s really a story that’s completely the result of a U-turn in transparency.
That’s unfortunate because we would be like we would like to be spending our time talking about other things. This is a big issue. Voters expect to know about their candidates and their president paying his fair share really and getting this information has taken some really diligent reporting.
My role, in large part, has been really talking about the places where it might exist, and how we can present it in a way that readers will understand because this is a tax return like nobody else in America has filed.
Insider: One thing that surprised me given the news of the release of two Reuters journalists this week is the work you do to protect Times’ journalists. Could you talk to us for a moment about that?
McCraw: The release of the Reuters reporters is really good news. I know that the people over there worked really hard. They had absolutely persistence in making that happen.
There was a dramatic change 10 years ago when I found myself dealing with first with David Rohde’s kidnapping and then other incidents overseas. And it really prompted us to take a very close look at how we prepare people to go out, how we monitor them and provide support.
I think we’ve done a really terrific job. The proof of that is that we have not had serious incidents for the last few years, but as I talked about in the book, my concern is that we have an administration, which has launched this attack on the American press — fake news, stain on society, enemy of the people. And I think in America we can digest that and we may not like it but we understand it is political rhetoric.
Unfortunately, I think overseas, some of the worst governments in the worst places embrace it. In China, the Chinese News Agency has flat-out said if the American president says that about the American press, then we don’t have to worry about what the American press is saying about China. It’s a really unfortunately place to be.
Insider: Also, this week, the White House placed new restrictions on which reporters could have access.
McCraw: One of the things that I think is important for Americans to realize, which is that much of this happens without rules involved. We just accepted as a democratic norm that the White House is going to hold press conferences and reporters are going to be there to ask questions. I don’t relish the idea that we’re now going to have a legal structure around that.
Insider: Working for a local news organization, Insider Louisville, we’re facing an uphill battle when it comes to government transparency. We’re lucky in Louisville to have a strong local media presence and to have access to the First Amendment lawyer Jon Fleischaker. Other cities may not be so lucky.
McCraw: The situation in local news is truly dire. We’re in a place where we are looking at news deserts locally that do not have effective news organizations and that situation is I think probably the No. 1 threat to Democracy. I think there are there ways to address it. I think the laws need to change; the government has to be more open, even if there’s not a reporter asking.
I’m hopeful that if a lot of people like me keep talking about this issue that people will understand that they need to support their local news outlets. Local news outlets need to continue to do a good job and do a better job with fewer dollars to do that. But I’m hopeful that people will understand the need for that.
Insider: What can guests at the Kentucky Author Forum expect Tuesday?
McCraw: I have been questioned by some of America’s great journalists. And sometimes, people want to ask questions about the narrative in the book. And sometimes people want to talk about the big issues. I’m happy to do both, and end up doing both.
A friend of mine, a lawyer at NBC declared the other day this book was a great beach read for lawyers. I don’t know that many lawyers who go to the beach. But I really tried to write a book that was going to be engaging for people who weren’t lawyers or weren’t journalists. I wanted people to understand journalism, the good, the bad and sometimes goofy.
And I’m hopeful that by taking them down that path with me to see the world through my eyes, to see my job through my eyes, that maybe they’ll understand more about why the First Amendment is important.
The Kentucky Author Forum will take place Tuesday, May 14, at the Kentucky Center at 6 p.m. McCraw will be interviewed by Chuck Rosenberg, who served in the Department of Justice. Tickets start at $25.