Mocked by Trump, Kovaleski says journalists won’t back down

Serge Kovaleski: A Reporter Reflects

Mr. Kovaleski with his father, Fred Kovaleski.

Say the name Serge Kovaleski, and you’ll likely get a blank stare from most people, even though he is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has spent a lifetime at the world’s best publications — including The New York Times, where he is currently assigned to the national desk, The New York Daily News, and The Washington Post — that is, when he’s not following The Rolling Stones around the world on their latest tour.

But say the words “mocked disabled reporter,” and just about everyone will nod their heads in acknowledgement.

Those words were as shocking as a slap in the face to those who came up with Kovaleski in Manhattan in the late ’70s. Besides being a star high school soccer player, he played a mean bass in his own rock band, and was known for his original tunes. His dad, Fred Kovaleski, was an international tennis champ and CIA agent. His mother, Manya, was the definition of grace and style.

Serge was, let’s face it, one of the cool kids. There was never anyone who was less defined by his physicality, and now, it seems, no one who is more so.

The media has taken a beating since that day in November 2015, when then-candidate Donald J. Trump allegedly imitated Kovaleski’s congenital joint condition at a campaign rally. “Fake news” is now a common expression. Walmart removed from its online store a t-shirt that read: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.” There have been two media shootings in one summer; in Annapolis at the Capital Gazette on June 28, which claimed the lives of five, and on August 5, when a masked man entered the studios of radio station WORT-FM in Wisconsin and shot another five people (luckily there were no fatalities).

And the press has been referred to as “the enemy of the American people” by the president in not one, but two tweets, in February of 2017 and as recently as July of this year

Kovaleski took the time to talk with The Independent about the current state of the media, his alleged mocking by then-candidate Trump, and how Mick and Keith keep rocking after all these years.

Newspapers have always been criticized by those in power, but never more so than today, it seems. What’s your take on this?

My take on this is that lies and obfuscation are the enemies of the people, certainly not a free press. Truth is the currency that serious media organizations use, and Mr. Trump has shown that he’s incensed by this.

Financial challenges aside, journalism in this country is in the midst of a golden age of reporting, I’m happy to say, lead by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Politico, to name a few, which are breaking stories on a regular basis that are vital to understanding how this administration works and how the president’s words and those of his surrogates often don’t reflect reality. Beat reporters, investigative journalists, and editorial writers are all stepping up in Herculean ways to shine a bright light on this and slice through the lack of transparency that, sadly, is too common with this administration.

Mr. Trump would like to have a monopoly on information, and the American press is not going to allow that to happen. We are doing our jobs with vigor, pride, and accuracy.

Like the president of the United States, we in the fourth estate also derive our role in American society from the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, mistakes get made unfortunately, like they have throughout the history of American journalism. But no matter how hard you come at a great reporter, she or he will not bow to intimidation. Not going to happen. On the contrary, it hardens the spine.

You were one of the team that broke the — at the time — shocking Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal, and received a Pulitzer Prize for your work. What was it like to get this story and see it through? And why are we so inured to this now?

First of all, The New York Times team involved in the Spitzer story was a highly talented, dogged, and responsible group of journos who knew that the revelations we were publishing would surely impact the history of the state and the country. Our leader was then-Metro editor Joe Sexton, one of the strongest editors this industry has ever had. He kept us super focused, energized, and careful as a result of his intensity, his heightened critical thinking, and an unrelenting sense of fairness.

I’ll never forget the morning we were standing around the TVs on the metro desk watching a breathless CNN report about the initial Spitzer story we had just published minutes earlier on the Times website. The CNN segment included an image of the digital version of our story plastered across the television screen. I could really feel the weight and profundity of the moment.

As a society, we have gotten used to unsavory and corrupt behavior by elected officials because, among other reasons, people have been numbed by the avalanche of information available to them at any moment, and the rapid clip of news cycles that doesn’t leave much time for readers or TV viewers to reflect on what is in front of their eyeballs.

Tell me about the work that garnered you the George Polk Award for Military Reporting.

Here again, I was part of a superb New York Times team of reporters from various desks guided by another editing great, Rebecca Corbett. The challenge we faced was formidable: peel back the secretive workings of Navy Seal Team 6, the unit best known for killing Osama bin Laden.

One of the top paragraphs in the piece summarized our findings this way: “Team 6 has successfully carried out thousands of dangerous raids that military leaders credit with weakening militant networks, but its activities have also spurred recurring concerns about excessive killing and civilian deaths.” This was another prime example of accountability journalism by The Times.

A grueling part of the project was trying to get former and current SEALs to talk to us. Chatting with reporters is definitely not part of the culture and we were getting considerable pushback. But through lots of convincing, reassurances, traveling, and patience we were able to engage with some of them — and that helped to make our reportage a real breakthrough.

We didn’t take “no” for an answer. Every time we hit a wall, we reset and made another tireless go at it.

As for our Times team, we each brought different talents and experiences to the SEALs project and, consequently, we learned a lot from each other. As a journalist, you can never stop learning about craft.

What was is like growing up with Fred Kovaleski as your dad? As an only child, I know you were always close, but it seemed like you two bonded so strongly toward the end of his life.

I’ve always felt that I am the luckiest person in the universe because of the mother and father I had. My mother was magical and spiritual and deeply devoted to me. She still is, just on another plane. She passed away in early 2014, leaving my father and I to carry the torch. My mother and I still communicate all the time. She is my guardian angel.

My dad was my greatest pal. He was the paradigm of compassion, decency, selflessness, grandeur, class, and patriotism. He was the best of The Greatest Generation — a veteran of the Second World War and the Cold War during which he worked as a CIA spy. Both were voluntary assignments that he relished because of his love for this country. He was also a blast to be around. A worldly man, he was an amazing raconteur and a deft, informed debater.

Over the decades, he gently taught me so many lessons about life and shared so much wisdom with me. He stressed the importance of never selling yourself short no matter how badly you want something. One’s dignity, in his eyes, was paramount. Amen to that.

One of the greatest memories I have was taking the Queen Mary II across the Atlantic from Brooklyn to Southampton, England, with my father. I was one of four New York Times journos on the weeklong crossing who were aboard the ship to give a series of talks on a wide range of topics. The most poignant moment came when I was talking to an auditorium filled with a few hundred passengers about a magazine cover story I wrote on the topic of my father and the relationship he developed with a high-ranking KGB operative who had defected to the United States in the height of tensions between Moscow and Washington.

Near the conclusion of my talk, in which I mentioned that my dad was on the ship with me, someone in the audience asked if he was in the auditorium. I proudly said that he was and noted that he was sitting in the back of the room in a pink Lacoste sweater. Suddenly, the audience gave him a thunderous standing ovation for his service and greatness.

It was one of the most moving moments in my life. I stood on the stage covered in goosebumps.

He left this earth in May of this year at the age of 93. The world is a bit darker without him. But I felt so much joy when I found out that The Times, without any prodding on my part in the slightest, told me that the paper was preparing an obituary on him and the writer needed my assistance. I had never been happier to help with something than I was that day.

Okay, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. When you first saw Trump talking about you, what affected you more — his alleged imitation of you, or the fact that he was calling out your journalistic integrity? What went through your head?

It’s definitely not the elephant in the room. As a professional journalist, it was my responsibility to publicly point out that Mr. Trump was trying to distort a story I had written about 9/11 to fit his agenda at that moment. Anyone who can read can easily see that he was misstating and exaggerating a number of key facts in the article.

Then, like clockwork, came the mocking. Someone in Washington had emailed and said I should look at the video of the South Carolina campaign stop. I wasn’t surprised when I saw it. By then, a fuller picture of Mr. Trump’s character was emerging. And I developed a clear sense of his temperament when I was covering him back in the late 1980s, early ’90s.

My strongest reaction to his behavior at that campaign event was pity — pity for Mr. Trump. To me, it was sad as well as concerning that Mr. Trump’s insecurities were so powerful and overwhelming to him that he would act in such an undignified and embarrassing manner. I can’t imagine what that must be like.

I decided right away that I was not going to engage with him even though he kept lashing out. My wise, dear father concurred. “Keep it classy, like I know you will, pal-o,” he said to me over dinner one night.

The outpouring of support that I received after this episode was simply beautiful. My colleagues in journalism and friends from high school and college and elsewhere showed how much compassion and class they had. And they were outraged.

I was overwhelmed by their kindness and sensitivity. It is not often that you get a clear picture of where you stand in life. I will never forget how everyone was there for me. I will return that favor one day, for sure.

This past weekend, a gentleman from Australia stopped me and my girlfriend in the Port Authority to share how “moved” he was to meet me. He had tears in his eyes as he said this. He then congratulated me for standing up to Mr. Trump and went on his way.

How was the Stones’ tour in Europe? What is it about them that still excites you after all these years?

Yes, let’s talk Stones. I’ve now seen them close to 80 times in a total of 13 countries, from Lima, Peru, to Columbus, Ohio, to Warsaw, Poland. And I feel that I am just getting started.

My first Stones show was in the summer of 1975 at Madison Square Garden when I was 14. I owe a lot to the band not only for bringing me so much joy and inspiration over the decades, but for opening up the entire world of music for me. I am today a passionate music omnivore. My collection is vast: rock, house music, electronica, world beat, jazz, acid jazz, blues, bossa nova, and more. I play the electric bass, studied music theory, and wrote lots of tunes, from rock to country to blues. I am now learning a lot about classical music as my girlfriend is a classically trained cellist.

But I always come back to the Stones.

This last tour, in Europe, was full-on Stones. I went to gigs in Marseille, Stuttgart, Prague, and Warsaw. At each concert, we were treated to fabulous grooves, electrifying energy, and a band that keeps evolving even after 55 years or so together.

I just listened to the Stones cover of the classic “Route 66” from their ’98 tour and I could feel the energy rattling my bones — still after all these years of playing the band’s records. It’s the grooves in between the beats that make the Stones so great. Keith, Charlie, and Daryl have a chemistry that no other rhythm section can match. Before you know it, a song has crescendoed into a runaway freight train while changing tempo two or three times. There is a loose discipline to the Stones that is unique and enviable.

But who would have ever thought that the Stones would become aspirational in terms of longevity and staying hip and stylish well into your 70s? The band that mastered the wasted, decadent image and was once reviled as les enfants terribles has outlived all expectations and labels.

I am hearing talk about another U.S. tour next year, possibly kicking off in May in California.

I’ll be there, of course.