Today marks the end of our first week here in Washington D.C. for the 2017 Inauguration Seminar. Our speakers today focused on the media, specifically regarding topics such as ethics, questioning, and the role of the media in politics.
Before the panel for this morning got on stage and began their discussion, our faculty director Julia Azari opened up with opening remarks to frame what our panelists would be talking about. She felt that it was very important that she distinguish the difference between presidential power and presidential influence, which is something I also learned a lot about in my Presidency course I took at ATU this past fall. Presidential power is made up of the president’s formal powers and duties described in the U.S. Constitution, while presidential influence is comprised of all the things that the president can do otherwise to shape public conversation. This can include anything from addressing the nation in a press conference to addressing the nation on Twitter. This is important particularly for Trump’s administration to understand, because Trump made endless campaign promises during his campaign, but it won’t take him long to find out that it will be almost impossible to deliver given the constraints on presidential power outlined in the Constitution. Julia then brought up the allegations regarding Russian intelligence “having sensitive information” about Trump. This led her to her make the point that when politicians have scandals such as this one, ideological biases should be set aside to fairly deal with it. She cited Clinton’s impeachment as an example, because this event led to a split in the Democratic Party over those who were willing to overlook the scandal because they liked his politics, and those who didn’t agree with the scandal or his politics. Rather than using an ideological lens to analyze the scandal, one should ask “what does this say about how this person uses and abuses power?” Answering this question will give you the only tangible claims you can successfully use against a person in a powerful position, such as the president.
Our panelists then came to the stage and were introduced by Julia. The moderator was Steve Scully, who is a Senior Executive Producer and Political Editor on C-SPAN. Our two panelists were Alexis Simindinger and Ed O’Keefe, who both work in the media. Alexis is White House Reporter who works for Real Clear Politics, and Ed is a congressional reporter at the Washington Post. Before he presented the panelists with their first topic, Steve took the mic around the room and randomly selected students to answer the question, “What does a Trump presidency mean for you?” Among the answers were: “I have no idea”, “Bigotry”, “Maybe we’ll finally hear his policy positions”, “Regression”, and many others. As you can tell, even the most positive answers are not that positive. This shows that Trump will not be entering the office with a mandate, because he didn’t win the popular vote of the people. Unless he reaches out to those who voted against him, his transition into office will be a rocky one.
Steve then asked Alexis how she thought the relationship between Trump and the media would change from previous presidents, and she explained the progression of relations over time. She said that a “gaggle” is a quick exchange of information between the White House Press Secretary (sometimes other staff would attend, including the president) that was held in the Press Secretary’s office. Now, the meetings are normally held in the briefing room inside the White House, although Obama has not used this approach with the media much during his presidency. Alexis also said that she anticipates a broader mix of media types in these gaggles under a Trump administration along with more tense relations. At this point, I don’t think the media could pull off an amicable relationship with Trump. Ever since his campaign first began, he has openly spoken out about “fake news stories” along with the apparent strong media bias in favor of Hillary Clinton rather than himself.
During Ed’s turn to speak, he explained a few journalist terms. The first was “on the record.” When something is “on the record”, the journalist can direct quote you and list your name with the quote. The phrase “on background” means that they can quote you, but they have to say something along the lines of, “We cannot use this person’s name due to the fact that they revealed confidential information, which could result in them losing their job.” The next phrase, “on deep background”, is sort of like an FYI. The journalist cannot name the source, but they can use the information if they can get more sources to confirm the story. The last one is “off the record.” This is one that we’re pretty familiar with for the most part, and it just means that this information cannot be used at all.
The last speaker we had today was Frank Sesno, author and professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. He wrote a book entitled “Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions & Spark Change.” He mainly focused on key points throughout his book that dealt with what types of questions successful journalists ask, how to know which types of questions to ask, how to gauge the personality of the person you’re interviewing, and several other techniques. I thought this was very interesting, because I’d never thought much into the art of interviewing someone until now since I’m not studying journalism. Sesno emphasized the importance of one’s reputation as well. If journalists don’t follow a proper code of ethics or they are somehow discredited even once, their career is basically over.
My favorite part of the day was when my small group and I went to the National Holocaust Museum. I had been before, but it’s one of those museums that you can’t see all in one day. The newest exhibit called “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust.” This exhibit revolved around the simple fact that there was a general awareness regarding what was going on in the camps, but no one said anything. Some of these victims were turned into the police by their own neighbors and friends, while some were bribed monetarily to turn in their friends. By
acting complicit in this situation, millions of people lost their lives. The only way that these deaths will not be in vain is if we continue to learn from them in order to prevent mistakes like these from ever happening again. The Holocaust Museum was incredibly moving, and through our small group discussions afterwards, we were able to reflect on everything we’d seen.
Day five was yet another wonderful day, but now it’s time to enjoy this nice, cold weekend in D.C. Thank you guys for reading!