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Journalist Jane Mayer Wins Albany's Museum Of Political Corruption Nellie Bly Award

Jane Mayer
Stephen Voss
Jane Mayer

Jane Mayer has added another award to her distinguished journalism career. The Museum of Political Corruption in Albany has just named the longtime “New Yorker” staff writer the recipient of the 2020 Nellie Bly Award for Investigating Reporting. Mayer has written about the Supreme Court, money in politics, the War on Terror, and more. Her most recent article focuses on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Congratulations on this award. First question, which I'm asking everybody, how is life under the quarantine and the pandemic for you?

It's probably like for many other people, a little closed in. You know, we take the dog for a walk a few times a day, but otherwise, we're very locked down here in Washington, D.C. And for a reporter it's hard because one the things I love to do is get out in the world and go meet people see things and, you know, inspect what's going on. And I have to do everything by phone now.

Is that affecting your work in any tangible way?

Well, I do think it's making a difference. I mean, for instance, right now, if I if I could, I would either follow up on some of the reporting I did on Mitch McConnell and head into Appalachia, where I would really like to sort of figure out more about why the support for Trump is so strong there even among places that are hurting so badly, or I might like to, given the pandemic we're all facing, go and see what it's like in some of these meatpacking plants, particularly in my area, that Delmarva Peninsula and Delaware and that area, Maryland, Virginia, there is a very high rate of disease and terrible working conditions and I would love to go see what's going on there. But you know, frankly, I'm afraid of getting sick and then and then passing it on to my family.

I wanted to follow up on something in the press release announcing this award. Apparently you have some family connections to Nellie Bly and the golden age of muckraking.

Well, very, very distant, but I come from a family of newspaper people at least on one side, and so my great-grandmother was the head of something that was called Ladies’ Home Companion. It was one of the big women's publications and at the turn of the last century. She came to New York, in 1900. So she may have overlapped, who knows. She was part of the world of women getting into journalism. Nellie Bly was certainly a trailblazer in that front and then my grandfather, which would have been that grandmother’s son-in-law, Allen Nevins, was a historian, but he worked at the New York World, where Nellie Bly had previously worked. So they're all from the same inky world of New York City.

So were you born into it? How did you yourself get into the field?

I actually got into it in in northern New England. My parents had a little place in Vermont, and I had nothing to do in the summer. So I wound up working for the smallest weekly newspaper in Vermont, the Weathersfield Weekly, where we both did the reporting and printed it and then we took it, put it in the back of the car and delivered it to our readers. And that was, you know, just as I was going to college, and it was, actually it was the year that the Watergate hearings were happening, and we used to listen to them on the radio, and I think in some ways that inspired me, because I was listening to this incredible story of corruption unfolding at the top of the government and the heroes to me were Woodward and Bernstein — these, you know, dashing reporters at the Washington Post who'd uncovered it all.

I would love for you to contrast that with our journalism world today. You know, we have another president who's constantly at war with the press, and we have small newspapers like the one you just mentioned struggling to stay open, cutting back production days and things like that. How have you seen the field change in the time you've been in it?

Well, obviously, it's under tremendous financial strain, because the model has changed thanks to the online world. And so where small newspapers used to be able to make a living and provide what I think is a really vital function. They're suffering, dying and folding all over the country. I think not only is that cutting off communities from news they need to know. But it's also, I think, had an effect on how the public regards the media. Support for the media and trust in it has really going down. And I think that's partly because many communities no longer see and know the reporters who are doing the work. And if they did, the way that they used to in a place like Weathersfield Vermont, where they would see you go to the meetings and, you know, whatever else, they knew we were working hard and they knew if we made a mistake, they could talk to us about it and that we were, you know, we were members of the same community with many of the same concerns and it's still true that the press is incredibly hardworking and I think admirable in bulk. And yet much of the country doesn't know the members of it anymore and it's very easy for reporters to be picked off and turned into the enemy of the American people as our president has tried to do.

Let's talk about Mitch McConnell. This article, people should read it if they haven't yet. A very interesting look at the Senate Majority Leader. He did not give you an interview. But of course, you were like a dog with a bone and that didn't stop you. How did McConnell get so powerful?

He had some of the traits that would help. He was he has tremendous focus, great ambition, not a lot of charisma. But he was very good at also forming connections with important people. And, and quite early on, he had his eye on money and money has really been sort of the subplot of his life and his career. At one point, I have an anecdote in the story where people who knew back in Louisville, where he was starting up his career, describe how after he shed his first wife, he stopped by for dinner. And he said, you know, what he wanted to do next was find a really wealthy woman to marry. And he did. He's married into an incredibly wealthy family of originally Chinese shippers who have a maritime shipping company. It's based in New York and the Chinese family became Americans. They're American citizens now, but the connections with China run very deep in his family, and he and his wife were given something like $25 million by the family. So that's helpful. And then he's cultivated relationships with really rich donors. There are not that many of them in Kentucky. So he's also moved outside the state to cultivate relationships with some of the most powerful players and richest people in America who back him.

McConnell's wife is the U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

That's right.

An important factor because it sort of explains in a way the McConnell-Trump relationship, which you write is not anything like a warm relationship. And apparently, according to people you spoke with, McConnell doesn't think much of Trump's intellect, yet they obviously have some common interests. Right?

Yeah, it's a very political arrangement they've got that’s mutually beneficial. At least it has been up to this point. And what it is, is that people around McConnell told me that behind Trump's back, he has described Trump as nuts and said that he thinks he's smarter than Trump and he's likened Trump to some of his least favorite politicians. Really, particularly Roy Moore. And so he speaks contemptuously of him behind his back. But he realizes Trump's the secret to getting support from voters who he needs himself in his own state.

McConnell's actually, surprisingly, quite unpopular in his own state. And his state loves Trump and kind of tolerates McConnell. So he needs to stick with Trump in order to get reelected. And the same situation holds true for a number of people in the Republican members of this Senate who need to get reelected in order to keep the majority in the Senate and keep Mitch McConnell as majority leader in the Senate. So it works for him to keep supporting Trump and Trump meanwhile, has done some tremendous favors for McConnell. Most importantly, backing this tax cut bill that is exactly what the big donors that McConnell is backed by want. The 2017 tax cut bill, really, really was a gift to the richest people in the country, many of whom back McConnell. So there was kind of a nice little back-scratching deal there.

What McConnell does for Trump is quite important, because McConnell knows how to govern. He knows how to work that Senate. He's a very effective player in Washington. And Trump is not, he's a newcomer to Washington and he doesn't know his way through the corridors and even after three years, you can see that he's having a hard time figuring out how to use the government effectively.

But McConnell has been there since 1984 in the Senate, and he knows his way around, and so he can deliver legislative wins like that tax bill for Trump, and he also more importantly, in some ways, is delivering a tremendous number of conservative judges that he's getting confirmed to the to the courts, which is what Trump's supporters really want to see. A lot of them are evangelical voters and social conservatives. And these judges that McConnell's putting on the courts give Trump something to boast about and to say he's done for his base.

And we are seeing that play out in real time as we do this interview. There is a section from the story that got a lot of attention, where you talked about his daughters from his first marriage and the way that their politics, as far as we can tell, don't align with his. What can you tell us about that relationship?

Yeah, I think it's very sad in a way. You know, I came away with this feeling that McConnell is someone who's just been driven to get power, but he's cut so many deals and corners along the way to get there, that people who know him well have begun to just turn on him. They sort noticed, there's a sense that he knows better and they expected more.

They expected maybe some conscience and some kind of principles from him, but among those who've turned against him politically, are his three daughters and his former wife, interestingly, who's gone on to work at Smith College with Gloria Steinem, where they put together an archive of women's history.

And I interviewed Gloria Steinem about his wife because and she said, ‘You know that for the wife, it's like having, you know, been married to, you know, Dr. Hyde or Mr. Hyde and wind up with Dr. Jekyll or vice versa.’ Either way, it's a Jekyll and Hyde situation where she got she thought she was marrying one person and ended up with kind of a monstrous other. I don't know, it's hard to tell. The wife didn't give me an interview. But there's a sense that early on in his career, he might have been a man of principle or something else. And then what he became, and his daughters are progressive activists, at least one of them is, Porter McConnell, and she's taken stands in a group called Take On Wall Street, that appear to go directly at her father's politics. She's working with a group that fights corrupt money in politics, and specifically some of the big donors that are backing her father, the Blackstone Group.

Let's talk about big money for a minute. People will remember that you did a lot of reporting about the Koch brothers. What's the state of big money in the 2020 election this year, who are the major players, and has anything changed since the last cycle?

You know it there's sort of this, this weariness about it because the money seems to grow exponentially from cycle to cycle. I was looking most recently at the money in the Senate races because there is a possibility that the majority of the Senate could change hands from Republicans to the Democrats in this 2020 year. The Cook Political Report has put the chance at a 50-50 tossup. So there's going to be a huge amount of money flowing into those Senate races and you can already see it. You can see it in McConnell's own race down in Kentucky, where he's raised something like $25 million. Meanwhile, Amy McGrath, who he's up against, has raised even more, amazingly.

And you can see it in in in the New England area, the Maine race involving Susan Collins, and Sarah Gideon, I think is going to break all kinds of records for the amount of money that's coming into it. A lot of it's dark money, meaning you can't tell who the donors are. It makes the dollars flow into groups that that hide the identity of the donors. And apparently, McConnell has been telling donors, the way he goes and raises money, that in the main race, he wants them to come up with at least $25 million on behalf of Susan Collins. So the numbers are just kind of dizzying at this point.

I don't mean this to sound as dumb as it does, but why is that bad?

Well, I think what we're seeing is, you know, if you sort of step back, and it's in some ways, this is what I see as someone who came to Washington, believe it or not, to cover Reagan in 1984. What I've seen in the years since, is just an overwhelming amount of money that seems to be capturing the government. It's grown and grown, as I've been watching it as a reporter, I used to be at the Wall Street Journal in Washington, and then eventually moved to the New Yorker magazine in Washington. But you know, I've been here and watching Congress and watching the White House and one election after the next and what you see is that the public interests are being drowned out by private interests in all kinds of subjects.

So people sort of wonder, well, why is it that Congress doesn't work and why can't Congress, for instance, do something about climate change? You know, the rest of the world is trying to do something about it, but our Congress is not, so why is that? It's because it's been captured to a large extent by private interests that benefit from continuing to stick with the kind of energy companies that we've got, they've got the money and they're tying up the hands of Congress. It’s not that Congress is not working, it's that Congress is working really well for a handful of private interests and some of the wealthiest people in the country and you're seeing growing economic inequality for the same reason that tax loopholes keep getting cut for people who've got power and money and not for people who don't and so it corrupts basically the government in a kind of fundamental level and that's the problem with money.

I want to turn to another subject now. You've obviously written some groundbreaking stories and books about you know, allegations of sexual misconduct and so on. From Clarence Thomas to Justice Kavanaugh, you did a big story re-looking at the Al Franken allegations. I don't know if you're currently working on the Tara Reade-Joe Biden's story. But there's a lot of question about how you go about substantiating something that may have happened or may not have happened 25, 30 years ago. What can you tell us about how we should look at a story like that and how reporters can go about looking into the facts of the case?

Yes, so this is obviously a really fraught area and I haven't been reporting on the Tara  Reade story just because I've been busy with other stories, the McConnell story, basically. And so I don't know the facts in it. My feeling about these stories is that each one is different. You know, not every sexual harassment case is the same. Each one has its own individuals involved in it and the job of the reporter is to get the facts and leave the coverage to wherever it goes. And not to sort of prejudge anybody with a particular political agenda. I started so many years ago, when I was reporting on Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, and with the supposition that that, that either something happened or didn't happen, and there should be a way to find the truth, if you do enough reporting.

And in that case, it took me along with a colleague, Jill Abramson, who later became the editor of the New York Times, the two of us were both at the Wall Street Journal when we started. It took us three years to go through the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill case, and we really didn't know how it would come out. Anything can, you know, the facts can lead you anywhere. And we were open to the possibility that Anita Hill was lying, and we were open to the possibility that Clarence Thomas was lying and it took three years to come to a pretty strong conclusion, but I wouldn't say 100%. But it we felt that the vast probability was the Clarence Thomas lied under oath to get confirmed to the Supreme Court about Anita Hill. And there seemed to be no reason or any evidence that Anita Hill had lied. But it took time, basically reporting takes time, and it takes tons of interviews. In the case of the Al Franken story, he was accused. I didn't know whether he had really done the things he had been accused of. I think I interviewed something like 60 different people. Usually they're patterns you can find of people's behavior, and that's one thing reporters can do. But again, it takes time you have to look for records, you have to look through people's past. You have to judge their credibility on the basis of their track records. All of that.

Clarence Thomas is on the court to this day. Brett Kavanaugh is on the court to this day. Al Franken is not in the U.S. Senate. There's more money in politics than ever, as you said. Do you ever get discouraged that your work, as groundbreaking as it is, doesn't have the effect we might imagine it would have?

You know, I do sometimes. I think right now, it's a particularly depressing time. You know, I think it's probably also because of, I mean, the pandemic is just so scary and so sad. But, you know, you can look at the glass being half full, too. I think if you look back at the 2016 election, one of the salient features was that voters really cared much more than ever, about corruption and about money in politics. And I think some of the voters who chose Bernie Sanders were motivated by the sense that that things were rigged and that they didn't have the power that you know of one vote, that every everybody in a democracy should have. And I think I have to say, I think that some of the voters who backed Trump had the same feeling, the idea that the insiders were kind of corrupt, and they want change in a big way. So I think that there's a growing sense in the public that money matters and that there's an urge to reform it. I do see that out there. I don't think the reformers are winning yet. But I think the public cares more than ever, and generally there have been in American history, these waves of reform after corruption, and I'd say we're overdue.

Jane Mayer has just been named the 2020 Nellie Bly award winner from the Museum of Political Corruption here in Albany. She's a longtime New Yorker staff writer. Jane, it's just a pleasure to have the chance to ask you some questions. Thank you so much and stay safe.

Thank you so much for having me on your show. Stay safe yourself and I hope the listeners do too.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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