“You’re sort of watching this chaotic dance of democracy from the sidelines and doing your best to describe it, analyze it and explain it to your readers.”
Matea Gold ’96
The Washington Post editor
Third-generation Bruin Matea Gold ’96 grew up in Sacramento, where she fell in love with journalism while working on her high school newspaper, the McClatchy Prospector. She chose to attend UCLA because of the Daily Bruin’s reputation as a top college publication. She joined the Bruin staff on her first day as a freshman and rose to editor-in-chief during her junior year. As a senior, she interned at the Los Angeles Times, where she went on to spend the first 17 years of her career. Now editor of the political investigations team at The Washington Post, Gold oversees 15 reporters covering the nation’s highly charged and polarized political scene.
When did you start writing about politics?
I did a pretty long stint covering politics at the L.A. Times. I was sent to Iowa in the fall of 1999 to cover Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign, and I covered the 2000 and 2004 presidential races as a trail reporter. In between, I covered state and local politics. I was Los Angeles City Hall bureau chief for a while and then went to the New York bureau of the L.A. Times.
Did you report on politics there?
In New York, I covered the media/entertainment industry and wrote about television production in New York and the TV news divisions, which were experiencing incredible change. On my second day, ABC anchor Peter Jennings announced he had cancer, which was the beginning of a dramatic remaking of those traditional, stalwart evening news shows.
And you later covered money and politics?
In the fall of 2010, I came to the L.A. Times’ Washington bureau, where I began covering money and politics. It was right after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates of big money in campaigns. It was, in some ways, a throwback to the Gilded Age. I could map how wealthy people were able to influence our politics in newfound ways. Already, you could foresee a backlash. American voters did not feel comfortable with the wealthiest among us having the loudest voice and the ability to shape politics. That gave me some insight into President Trump’s election, because he was so able to tap into that sense of disenfranchisement.
Has the stark polarization of U.S. politics changed how you do your work?
Oh, sure. The environment in which we are trying to tell stories is so much more fraught than it was five or 10 years ago. One thing that is so difficult is that we’re confronting a situation in which the country is polarized, not only politically but also in our information sources. I feel increasingly anxious about that divide. We have a split in our nation in how people get information, and that vulcanizes and separates us, impairing our ability to engage in civil discourse and debate.
Is it harder for reporters to be objective in this climate?
If you’re a thinking, engaged citizen, you’re going to have some views about things, and it’s sort of unrealistic to pretend that you’re going to cover an issue and not have your own feelings and beliefs. It’s important for journalists to recognize that and to strive not for objectivity but for fairness. It’s a lot more honest to recognize your own point of view and to try even harder to get the perspectives of others with whom you don’t agree. You always feel like you’re sort of watching this chaotic dance of democracy from the sidelines and doing your best to describe it, analyze it and explain it to your readers.
What is the most critical issue your team is covering now?
Our reporters are working every day to try to explain what’s happening in our federal government, holding decision-makers accountable, investigating the president’s companies and possible conflicts of interest. They’re investigating foreign influence in American democracy. We come in here every day feeling like we’re living history. There’s a great sense of purpose to what we’re doing.
What about so-called “fake news”?
I find it incredibly dangerous and frightening, because we’ve seen how rapidly fake information is not only spread, but also consumed by people. One of the things we confront here all the time is that people will label our stories as fake news. You feel like they’re missing out on the opportunity to really understand some huge phenomenon that is shaping our society right now. As a society, we have to figure out how to grapple with this.
How do we do that?
I’m involved with the News Literacy Project. We go into schools to try to teach students to discern facts from fiction. It’s essential that we start at that spot to teach people how to determine which source of information you can trust and which you can’t. If everyone is not operating from a sense that they’re relying on credible information, it’s very hard to have a democratic discussion. We were incredibly careful and thorough before, but we’ve redoubled and tripled our efforts, because in this environment, we have to be better than perfect.
How are the present challenges similar to what the Post faced in the days of Watergate?
The subject of that scandal was different, but the questions that faced the Post and congressional investigators then were: “Has there been an abuse of power? Is the president obstructing justice?” Those are huge, scary questions to confront about the commander in chief, and there really is a parallel between the basic issues faced. But the situation now is unique: The idea of a foreign adversary interfering in an election has been a game changer that will have echoes for a very long time.
How has the game changed?
As a reporter in the 2016 election, I was dealing with the fallout of the WikiLeaks revelations that we now know were orchestrated by Russian intelligence officers. The Russians were able to manipulate social media and influence public opinion, exploiting preexisting divisions in society. It makes you realize that the vulnerability of our democracy — its diversity and open debate, which is also its strength — was turned against us and weaponized. I don’t think anyone previously had contemplated how much that was at risk. Going forward, there will always be a question about whether the source of certain information was a foreign adversary trying to shape public opinion.
Are you fearful for the future of the free press in the U.S.?
I’m not fearful. I am by nature a very optimistic person. It does feel like we’re in a very tumultuous time, but I have seen firsthand from our readers this incredible outpouring of support and gratitude for our journalism. There is an incredible appetite for the work we do. So that’s very heartening. We have to make sure that this kind of work is sustainable across the country, so we don’t have a two-tiered system in which some people have this kind of journalism in their world and other people don’t.