SMPA, along with GW College Republicans and Democrats, hosted a town hall in Jack Morton Auditorium on Sept. 13.
The event opened up with the College Democrats’ and Republicans’ broad perception of politics, the state of the media and where each groups get their news from.
College Democrats Vs. Republicans
A member of the College Democrats, Aly Belknap, emphasized the changing nature of media in the Internet age. She mentioned that she attempts to “diversify” her media consumption, but primarily gets her news from the Washington Post, CNN and the New York Times, and disavowed partisan news’ agenda, calling out FOX News by name.
The president of the College Republicans, Allison Coukos, said she felt like the mainstream media often unfairly attacks Trump, referring to the media’s portrayal of him on health care policy in particular, and the idea of the media becoming “the resistance” is out of place. She mentioned that she reads the Wall Street Journal “religiously.”
The two seemed to agree that both liberals and conservatives tend to read news that confirms their own biases, and both seemed critical of confirmation bias at large.
The Main Event: The Panelists
After the College Democrats and Republicans opened the event, SMPA Director Frank Sesno turned the event over to the six panelists, featuring experienced reporters, political communicators and strategists and even an elected official, Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa.
The six answered questions and ultimately formed a conversation about the changing media environment, media credibility and how reporters should properly cover President Donald Trump.
“Facts did not matter during the election,” said Cornell Bletcher, SMPA fellow and author of Black Man in the White House. Bletcher, along with media strategist Howard Opinsky, harped on how fact-checking of any capacity didn’t make any difference during this election cycle.
“Combat with the media is part of the President’s MO,” NPR Political Correspondent Mara Liasson said, critical of the president’s “war on the media.” She also mentioned that Twitter enables Trump to get his unfiltered opinion out directly to his followers via his Twitter account.
Bletcher even went as far as to question Trump’s need for traditional media when he does have a platform to communicate so instantaneously to his supporters. He asserted that social media is more important in the modernizing media environment.
Opinsky seemed shocked by Trump’s adversarial relationship to the media and claimed that the media was Sen. John McCain’s “biggest ally” in the 2008 election, though noted that you have to be truthful to benefit from coverage.
Talk on Trump’s use of Twitter and purposeful evasion of the media morphed into a conversation on the media’s credibility and sensationalism at large.
Former “Meet the Press” Director Jeffrey Blount compared the media’s sensationalism and need for views to that of a rabid dog. Liasson commented that sensationalism is par for the course and that covering fad stories to get views is more important to media outlets than reporting on substantive policy.
Robert Entman, professor and researcher on agenda setting, framing and media bias, offered a perspective that condemned the norm-breaking, over-politicized government more so than the media.
“I don’t know where to go from here,” said Entman, calling dealing with Trump and an evolving media a race to the bottom. “Political science doesn’t have much to tell us about how to understand this.”
“I think our society was better off in a more simple media environment,” Boyle said.
The event was designed so that students were able to ask questions to well-experienced journalists and political communicators, as well as feel closer to the SMPA community.
Many SMPA students and question-asking attendees felt like the country was divided largely by geography. People debated the differences between blue-collar versus white-collar workers in middle America and how the term “flyover country” is actually quite offensive to these geographically marginalized communities.
A question was also asked about how to better involve people of color into the electorate, particularly African-Americans, in white-dominated newsrooms, government and political institutions at large.
Other questions were asked about current events, like immigration policy after Trump’s move to end the DACA executive order and the potential support of the Dream Act in Congress.
Questions shifted to more broader themes, such as when journalists should use loaded language, such as weighty words like lie, and how social media networks like Facebook have created online echo chambers for media consumers across the country.
The panels did a good job at offering unique perspectives — to a point. More panelists than not were people of color, which provided an interesting venue for questions geared at minority struggles in the electorate and media environment.
However, ideological diversity was nonexistent. Out of the six people, there was only one self-identified Republican who worked for McCain, one of the most moderate Republicans in the Senate.
Alarmingly, all six appeared pointedly anti-Trump. In a panel aimed at asking how the media should gain back their credibility among Trump voters, it seems counterintuitive to not feature at least one pro-Trump perspective.
The point of the SMPA Town Hall was to answer the question: Where do we go from here? However, leaving from the event, it was easy to feel more divided as a country and disaffected than united and determined to enact substantive change.
The event seemed to identify problems and re-articulate them in multiple ways rather than offering solutions for the problems faced by modern-day journalists and political communicators in the ever-changing media environment.
At this point, the problems seem clear to political scientists, mass communicators and journalists alike. However, we should use events like this to push for understanding different perspectives and pushing for innovative solutions to these issues rather than just identifying them.