Panama: “Here’s how to investigate Donald Trump”
Donald Trump is now president. This challenges many of us, not least members of the press. Countless reporters are still shaken and stunned by how he singled out a CNN reporter, one of the most respected news outlets in the world, to attack and humiliate him during his first press conference since winning the elections. Worryingly, none of his fellow journalists in the room stood up for him at the time.
This wasn’t Trump’s first attack on the press, and it certainly won’t be his last. The first White House press briefing, held on Saturday, featured bullying, threats and unproven claims. That is why a new level of solidarity and cooperation is needed among the fourth estate.
American journalists should stop him from dividing their ranks – however hard their professional competition may be. They should do the opposite: unite, share and collaborate. Even if doing so would mean embracing something quite unfamiliar and new to American journalism.
The Panama Papers has showed that a formerly unthinkable project of collaboration can work. When we shared the data of the papers with a team of 400 reporters worldwide, we brought together a vast number of investigative reporters who typically compete which each other. The main reason why our newspaper, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, shared the story with competitors was simply that it was too big and too important to do alone.
Now, once again, we are faced with a story that is too big and too important to handle on our own: Donald Trump’s impact on the democracy of the United States of America.
Of course, American media can’t approach this the way we did for the Panama Papers, when the Washington DC-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) coordinated the work of 107 news outlets around the world. But there’s a wide range of possibilities for how news outlets could work together.
This first step could be showing concrete solidarity. The next time Donald Trump tries to single out a reporter or doesn’t answer a question, the next reporter who’s allowed to speak should repeat the question of the journalist Trump has snubbed.
And if Trump stops this reporter, too, then the next one should repeat the original question, and so on. This would be a new, unusual approach. But if the media doesn’t want to see more press conferences like the disastrous one we saw recently, they will need to be bold.
The next level of solidarity and cooperation is even more challenging. Let us assume a source approaches a reporter of the Washington Post with important information which is hard for them to corroborate. Why not reach out to a colleague who already did work on this topic, even if at a rival publication – the New York Times, CNN, ProPublica, Fox News or where ever – for help? They might have the missing piece of the puzzle, they might have the vital second source and they might have what it takes to publish the story. So why not collaborate?
The highest level of collaboration – which is what these times require – would be special joint projects. A possible first project could be to look into his international business ties, and those of his billionaire cabinet, to find all of their conflicts of interest.
Donald Trump alone has his hands in hundreds of companies, so it is impossible for one news outlet alone to investigate this properly. But it is not impossible if there’s a collaborative investigation.
Another project could be to investigate his ties to Russia and his past with Russia, which also is very promising, even if you don’t believe a single word of the Trump dossier Buzzfeed made public. Unknown conflicts of interests in both fields can turn out to be a huge danger to the national security of the US.
Collaboration could even mean working with foreign news outlets in different countries, whose reporters certainly might have more knowledge of Trump’s respective business partners than a US-based journalist. This is an experience we had over and over while our international Panama Papers team worked on stories about Iceland, Russia, Pakistan, the UK or Argentina.
Trump is now the president of the United States. He is the government. It has always been the noblest job of a journalist to check the power of government, the center of power. This seems even more important as the president acts like one of the oligarchs that journalists like the two of us, who work on international corruption, investigate again and again.
He threatened his Democratic opponent with jail, he is making promises no one can fulfill, he is mixing family and government, he is mixing business and government, he is obstructing control and he is fighting the freedom of press.
This government has decided to go down a new and hostile path. Now, it is time for us to change path, too. That’s not only just fair – it is absolutely necessary.