The day had begun with President Donald Trump tweeting at 5:49 a.m.: “The New York Times reporting is false. They are a true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!” It was probably not the best day for Tony Schwartz, a former New York Times reporter who propelled Trump to fame by writing the 1987 book Trump: The Art of the Deal. He had come to seek absolution from a gray-haired audience of more than a hundred people who had served long careers in New York journalism.
As NYU Professor Jay Rosen has written, journalism is a kind of religion, with its own priesthood, creed, ethics, and First Amendment protection. Many leave it to go to what they wryly call the “dark side,” better-paid work in public relations. I can’t think of any former reporter who has expressed so deeply the darkness this instilled in his soul as Tony Schwartz.
“The irony of being asked to address a group of journalists isn’t lost on me,” Schwartz said as he stood at a podium before a lunchtime crowd on February 20 at the National Arts Club in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan. The group he addressed was the Society of Silurians, which, as its name may indicate, is made up mostly of old-timers. When I joined recently, I was told that I had brought the average age down; I’m sixty-five. So is Tony Schwartz. Much of the audience was from the journalistic generation responsible for our formation in the religion of journalism. Some attendees would qualify as high priests.
“I’ve been doing successive versions of this talk for two years now, and it’s in the service of absolution,” Schwartz said before taking questions at the conclusion of his talk. There was a bit of laughter in response. He continued, “I know that sounds funny but it’s 100 percent serious.” Schwartz, a tall, gray-haired man who wore a blue pinstriped suit and white shirt, took a deep breath. “I’ve struggled with my composure,” he explained, his voice choking. After twenty-nine seconds of silence—from him and from the room—he continued, “maybe because I carry so much shame about what I did. And this audience is the one that I feel most ashamed in front of.”