„Democracy can only exist with robust, independent journalism!“
John Harris is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of POLITICO, a global news and information company at the intersection of politics and policy. Since its launch in January 2007, POLITICO has become one of the most-trafficked news sites in the United States and has drawn widespread attention nationally and internationally for its efforts to create a new editorial and business model to sustain robust journalism in an era of radical change for the media industry. Harris brought two decades of experience from the Washington Post to POLITICO. Sven Lilienström, founder of Faces of Democracy, spoke with John Harris about the Trump era, independent media and nuclear weapons.
Mr. Harris, the Faces of Democracy initiative wants to support a better understanding of democracy in Germany, Europe, and around the world. How significant are democracy and democratic values to you personally?
John Harris: I think most of us choose our professions for a composite of reasons. We gravitate to occupations which intrigue and excite us, and also give us the satisfaction that we are advancing some higher principle.
As a practical matter, democracy can only exist with robust, independent journalism!
My own view is that democracy is linked inextricably to the free flow of information. As a practical matter, democracy can only exist with robust, independent journalism. Democracy is important to me, as to most citizens of free nations, and I consider a career in journalism to be a form of public service.
At least since the publication of intelligence service material relating to the Russia scandal, one gets the impression that US President Donald Trump has himself declared his own justice system – in particular the FBI – to be an enemy of the state? Is democracy at risk in America?
John Harris: Each generation must meet the challenges of its day, and defend and vindicate the values of a free society. This generation is facing such a test, though I think it is an error to exaggerate any peril posed by Trump and his bombast.
In the Trump era, an independent judiciary and an independent media are robustly fulfilling their historic roles of watching power of all kinds and holding it accountable.
Trump seems to have the instincts of an authoritarian, and who knows what kinds of actions he would be attracted to if there were not checks on him. But there are checks on him. In the Trump era, an independent judiciary and an independent media are robustly fulfilling their historic roles of watching power of all kinds and holding it accountable. The legislative branch has not yet risen to the occasion, but in due course it will.
Far from expanding executive power or threatening democracy, Trump’s stumbles in his first year have weakened executive power and stimulated a revival of citizen engagement.
Far from expanding executive power or threatening democracy, Trump’s stumbles in his first year have weakened executive power and stimulated a revival of citizen engagement. By my lights, there are two great challenges for free society in the coming generation. One is to ensure that the digital revolution is an instrument of enlightenment – of societal freedom and individual empowerment – rather than an instrument of authoritarian control – of surveillance and manipulation – in the hands of government or corporations.
Nothing would threaten democracy and turn free societies into national security states more than a nuclear catastrophe!
The other great challenge is suggested by your next question: Nothing would threaten democracy and turn free societies into national security states more than a nuclear catastrophe.
Germany has criticised the US Government’s decision regarding the manufacture of new tactical nuclear weapons – so-called “mini nukes” – as a signal of a new arms race. Is nuclear deterrence still relevant in today’s world?
John Harris: I agree with former U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry, a public servant I admire more than any other I have covered during three decades of journalism.
The great peril of our age is that the science of the 20th Century will collide with the violent passions of the 21st and lead to a nuclear catastrophe.
The great peril of our age is that the science of the 20th Century will collide with the violent passions of the 21st and lead to a nuclear catastrophe. There are far more scenarios – and more likely scenarios – for such an event than is generally appreciated by most citizens or their leaders.
Even a single bomb going off in a major city, as an act of terrorism, could result in a global economic meltdown and widespread suspension of liberties.
Even a single bomb going off in a major city, as an act of terrorism, could result in a global economic meltdown and widespread suspension of liberties – in other words, an abrupt turn in the course of modern civilization. This reality means that nuclear deterrence – limiting the spread of nuclear weapons and the likelihood of their purposeful or accidental use – should be the preeminent public policy question of the day, instead of residing at the margins of public debate as it often does.
The nuclear threat is one of two existential challenges to the modern world as we know it; the other is global climate change!
The nuclear threat is one of two existential challenges to the modern world as we know it; the other is global climate change. In neither case is it obvious yet that democratic leaders or the political cultures that produce such leaders have credible answers. But I identify with a phrase that historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. used to describe himself. He said he was “a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist.” The great strength of democracy is its capacity for self-critique and self-correction.
President Donald Trump has portrayed renowned US media outlets as propagators of “fake news”, and depicted them as “winners” of his Fake News Award at the beginning of 2018. What do you think about this development?
John Harris: I take seriously the question of the reputation of an independent news media and whether our political culture can sustain support for the historic ideals of the news profession as I understand them.
I recognize that this ideal of news is not shared by everyone, and that many media outlets regard every story as either weapon or shield in a nonstop partisan or ideological battle.
Conscientious editors and reporters through their work can illuminate essential facts, allowing citizens to argue and debate around a body of shared understandings. I recognize that this ideal of news is not shared by everyone, and that many media outlets regard every story as either weapon or shield in a nonstop partisan or ideological battle. But I think the news business generally is doing a good job defending its values and vindicating its purpose in the Trump era. His rantings about “fake news” don’t offend me the way they seem to do some colleagues, but I also don’t take them seriously. It is bombast, and I think even most of those who find the bombast entertaining recognize its emptiness and its folly.
According to a current study, many Americans believe that Facebook has a more negative influence on society than McDonald’s. How do you rate the influence of social networks on our society?
John Harris: Social networks are a transformative feature of modern life, and as with all such transformations there are downsides and unintended consequences, including their vulnerability to manipulation and propaganda. The question for Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms, as well as for their users, is how quickly and creatively do we find remedies for these unintended consequences. I don’t see these companies being indifferent to the problems, or their users as being passive. So I think it is unfair to condemn them for having a negative influence – on balance the impact has been positive.
“We will manage”: In the fall of 2015, thousands of refugees gathered at the main train station in Budapest. As a result, Chancellor Merkel opened the border to Hungary. What is your view of Chancellor Merkel’s decision?
John Harris: I don’t regard it as my role as a journalist to endorse or oppose specific decisions made by leaders who we cover at POLITICO. I will say that that I admire Chancellor Merkel as a powerful voice for the values of open societies and a humane world order, and it is clear her words and actions on refugees were animated by these values.
I will say that that I admire Chancellor Merkel as a powerful voice for the values of open societies and a humane world order!
Mr. Harris, our seventh question is always a personal one: what do you like to do most of all in your leisure time and what objectives have you set yourself for the next five years – professionally and privately?
John Harris: Founding POLITICO and helping sustain it from a start-up to an enduring journalistic institution has been my professional preoccupation for the past decade. Looking forward, I hope over time to let others take on the responsibility of steering POLITICO and tending to its future and I would like to embrace again my original calling as a reporter and writer.
At the personal level, I am happiest when I am with my family – at home or enjoying our love of travel – or with friends on a golf course.
Mr. Harris, thank you very much for the interview!
Photo POLITICO Office: © Bilyana Dimitrova