Journalism in a Time of Crisis
Transcript edited for clarity.
Hal Hlavinka: Hello everyone and welcome to community bookstores virtual event series. My name is Hal Hlavinka. I'm the event director of the bookstore and I'm absolutely thrilled today to be collaborating again with our friends at the New York Review of Books for the second entry in our panel series, tonight's topic journalism in a time of crisis, featuring Justine van der Leun Howard French Elizabeth Breunig, and Mark Danner and moderated by Darrell Pinkney. While the pandemic has taken a toll across all of our lives, virtual programs, like the one you're about to see have become bright spots in our days. And I want to give a huge thanks to our panelists for joining us this evening.
So do a little housekeeping, you should be able to see and hear our presenters but they cannot see or hear you. So if you have any questions, please click on the q&a button here at the bottom of your screen to submit them. We'll try to get through as many of those as we can at the end of the program. There's also a chat button here at the bottom, through which I'll be posting a link to a special NYRB subscription offer for all of tonight's attendees. A caveat for tonight's event and for all virtual events. We are all at the mercy of our home internet connections and server loads. So please bear with any technical issues that could arise. We'll try to solve them quickly. And finally, we've scheduled a whole host of spring programming so head over to our website and sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date. To that I want to point out first, our panel series within NYRB will pick back up on Tuesday, April 20 with fiction in a time of crisis featuring Valeria Luiselli, Ben Lerner, doctor and others. And second, our NYRB poets series resumes tomorrow evening, welcoming Nashwan Darwish for the release of his newest collection “Exhausted on the Cross.” Again, you can learn more about our events by signing up for our newsletter or registering to our at our website. And finally, I want to give a special thanks to Daniel Mendelsohn for helping coordinate tonight's program.
So now just a little bit about tonight's guest and we will get started. Justine van de Lune is a independent journalist and author and a fellow at tight Media Center. Her most recent book is ‘We Are Not Such Things: the murder of a young American, a South African township and the search for truth and reconciliation.’ She is the recipient of reporting grants from the Pulitzer Center type investigations and the International Women's media Foundation, and has been awarded fellowships by Penn America's writing for justice program and the sustainable arts foundation. Howard W. French is a career foreign correspondent and global affairs writer and the author of four books, including three works of nonfiction and a work of documentary photography. His most recent nonfiction book, ‘Everything Under the Heavens: how the past helped shape China's push for global power,’ was published by Knopf in 2017, and was widely reviewed and featured by The Guardian and other publications as one of its notable books of the season. Elizabeth Breunig is a New York Times opinion writer who has published original reporting on the Catholic Church, America's struggle to respond to the Coronavirus, Bernie Sanders 2020 primary campaign, the Trump administration's resumption of federal executions and much more. Previously, she has written and edited for the New Republic and The Washington Post, where she won several awards and was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and feature writing for her feature, ‘What Do We Owe Her Now?’ Mark Danner is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a former staff writer at the New Yorker and has covered foreign affairs and politics for three decades. He is the author of ‘The Massacre at El Mozote: torture and truth’, ‘Stripping Bare the Body’, and ‘Spiral: trapped in the forever war’ among other books. His work has been honored with a national magazine award, three overseas press awards, a Guggenheim and an Andrew Carnegie fellowship and an Emmy. In 1999, he was named a MacArthur Fellow. Darrell Pinkney is the author of two novels, ‘High Cotton’ and Black Deutschland’, and three works of nonfiction ‘Out There: Mavericks of black literature’, ‘Blackballed: the black vote in US democracy’, and ‘Busted in New York’ and other essays. So, Darrell, I'm turning things over to you.
Darrell Pinkney: All right. Good evening. In 1976, the British journalist John Swain was taken captive by rebels in Eritrea. He expected the Sunday Times of London to make an announcement, which for various reasons the paper didn't do. After a month, the Sunday Times did make his disappearance public.
Swain had with him a small transistor radio and a small tape recorder. He'd conserved his batteries and was able to record the BBC World Service report on his having gone missing. He played it for his captors, who last believed he was what he's been saying he was, he was who he said he was. He was released
In 1999. Swain was in East Timor, and what and went into what turned out to be a war zone. His driver and translator were abducted by anti-independence militia. Swain and a photographer fled into the jungle. While in hiding, swaying phoned the Sunday Times, and people there immediately got in touch with the Australian high command in Australia that was in charge of the military operation, and within minutes, dispatched a helicopter to rescue them. They pinpointed their location with the help of heat seeking devices. The difference between Swain’s capture in Eritrea and his flight into the jungle was finally is having a flip phone, a mobile phone.
From the electric typewriter to the word processor to the computer, the web, the Internet, and technological change strikes us in journalism as even faster now. Deeper.
Nicholas Lehman published provocative essay in the February 27, 2020 issue of the New York Review of Books ‘Can Journalism be Saved?’ made rather dire predictions about the place and practice of the kind of serious journalism that the brilliant writers on this panel are very much associated with, Elizabeth Breunig, Mark Danner, Howard French, Justin vanderloo.
The market has no chance of fixing reporting with a public mission, Lehmann said. Journalism about matters of public importance either can't be essential or needs more reliable support system because in most instances, its sources of commercial revenue have collapsed yet. Newspapers have gone the way of selling not just news to readers but readers to advertisers said Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, who Lehmann saluted for having successfully navigated a broadsheet newspaper into internet life.
Published on the eve of lockdown, Lehmann's essay conveyed the old wariness of internet technology that had been with us, some of us, for a long time, because the internet made or threatened to make long established outlets and models of news distribution and news analysis obsolete. But now we are in a world changed by the pandemic. And it's odd what can sound pre pandemic, even an essay published only a year ago.
Maybe one of the shifts in attitude that the pandemic has caused has been to make an individual's contact with the outside world, primarily dependent on the internet. Negotiations and processes of professional life, daily life, are largely performed over the internet. It is the bringer of alternative media, except in India, where print remains the dominant media. India has over 100,000 newspapers and periodicals. But the internet is also the bringer of the mainstream.
At the same time to the opposition's Lehman described within contemporary journalism, professional journalism and citizen journalism, original reporting and comment on information available to everybody have become more urgent because of the internet and its prevalence, making the ethical moral and political considerations once again a motive that challenges the bottom line. The Washington Post New York Times became ever more militant day by day under the previous administration. The New York Times recently reported an increase in subscriptions and profits, even as print subscriptions and advertisement continued to decline. The business is truth.
Professional news sources have somehow survived the end of their near monopoly status and in some cases have adapted, or have they? We tell ourselves that this year of global pandemic, global protests, and political violence has been one of profound change. The works of Elizabeth Rooney, Mark Danner, Howard, French and Justine van der Leun share a sense of intense commitment of immersion in the material or scene. Journalists work under difficult circumstances, and so I wanted to begin by asking each panelist to talk about how the covid 19 pandemic has affected his or her work, what you are doing how you do it, but you had planned to do.
So may I begin with Elizabeth Breunig, who's a generation that grew up with the Internet, and who writes about people trying to cope with the pandemic, or who have found a new sense of purpose independent. So may we start with you and ask you about the effects this has had on the way you work or the work you're doing.
Elizabeth Breunig: The immediate effect was that we couldn't travel. And we couldn't sit down with people. And I was traveling when the pandemic restrictions began, I was backstage with Bernie in Detroit, right before Super Tuesday. And by the time I got back, you know, the world had kind of shifted. And you know, it makes writing well, difficult, if you don't have scenes, if you can't see people, and you can't observe events happening, and you're just interviewing over the phone or over zoom and you're not on the ground. That stuff is useful, it's important, but it's hard to call it beautiful.
And so that was sort of the thing that hit me instantly is ‘I'm gonna have to figure out a different way to do this craft altogether.’ And so there was quite a bit of figuring out how to get these, you know, sort of human elements on the page, what people are going through emotionally when you can't be with them is really difficult.
A lot of it came down to me asking a lot of people to send me pictures of themselves. I started asking people who were doing sort of interesting things like monks who were working in a COVID ward in New York City. I asked them to take pictures all day long, and send me all the pictures, selfies, everything they saw, their faces when they got up, things that interested them during the day, take 100 pictures while you're bored and waiting to show me. I've had some success with guys in the military doing that as well. But it's hard to beat being with people on the ground. And I had a COVID-19, I got sick. Pretty much right off the bat, my husband and I and our kids got sick, everybody was fine. I was not even 30, at the time, my husband was fine. I was fine. We were both kind of rundown for a week, the kids were barely symptomatic at all, runny nose. The pediatrician told us parents and young children get Coronaviruses all the time your immune system is primed to deal with it. And so for my purposes, I knew that I likely couldn't get it again, then it was just a matter of making sure other people felt safe and comfortable and trying to understand what was the likelihood that someone with a degree of immunity could transmit it.
And if people were willing to take the risk with me, or if the risk was, you know, purely mine then I was willing to travel. And I have traveled and I have sat down with people to the degree that they're comfortable with, just because I find it's a really irreplaceable part of what we do.
So I was I traveled as recently as December, and and will be doing that again in the spring. And you know, it's a risk, you know it to some degree and it's certainly not a universally usable thing, right? Because not everybody is protected against the virus. Not everybody does feel comfortable, incurring that level of risk. But for me, that was something that I just couldn't get couldn't get away from, couldn't stop doing, comfortably.
Pinkney: I remember the photograph of the Dominican talking about fear in the ward. And what the Church teaches him that, it's not the end of life, it’s a changed life. The photograph is very striking.
Breunig: And their situation was so difficult because the touching of people and like kissing and being close is such a such an important part of this.
Pinkney: Mark Danner, in your right, sort of evocative piece on being with the crowd storming the Capitol on January 6, I notice that you've sort of said that you're wearing the mask and everyone around you isn't, and it’s very kind of uncomfortable. But it doesn't seem uncomfortable just because they're around not wearing them. But somehow it marked you out because you did have one. And so maybe your camouflage or your undercoverness in the crowd was slightly blown. Like Ms. Breunig, you go out to the stories that you're interested in. Have you found a similar kind of sealed up problem that she has had to face?
Mark Danner: Yeah, I think very similar to what Elizabeth said, during the run up to the election. I really felt I had covered each presidential back to before 2000. And I wanted to cover it. And it was a little soul searching went into it, because I have also have a couple of small children. And I knew that the real scene to cover was the Trump campaign, you know.
And I knew that though I could wear a mask, that most people wouldn't be wearing them. And, you know, I anticipated this and just decided what I was going to do it, I would come back, I would get a test. I would be as careful as one could. But it wasn't quite like what I expected. I think the first rally I went to is in September, in Michigan and you arrive after having been mostly inside and not in any crowds for six months, and suddenly you're in an aircraft hangar with 15,000 people, who are pushed together tighter than a rock concert. Your elbows are pinned against your sides. And you have people screaming into your face from next to you from a few inches away. And as you said, Darrell, I mean, I was wearing a mask, and I'd say perhaps 10% 5% of people were wearing masks. And they were kind of two different sorts of paranoia.
The first level of paranoia was I started to feel that I was seeing little bits of virus floating above the crowd, there were like little black dots. It affected me in kind of a physical way that I hadn't at all anticipated. This really paranoid feeling that I was in this mass of virus just above this extremely tight crowd, you know, you stand there for four hours, you can't go to the bathroom, you can't get a drink, you can't move essentially. So there was that level of paranoia. And then there's the secondary level, which comes from wearing the mask, and being surrounded by people who aren't wearing one. And when you talk to them, which is what you're there to do, you get a look back that may or may not suggest that you're either an outsider, or in their terms, ‘a pussy,’ that you're wearing a mask, and why are you wearing a mask, and wearing a mask in that crowd declares your political preferences in some way. And indeed, your manhood in some way.
I was very aware that well, of the people who were masked that most of them seem to be women rather than men, which was another weird observation.
And so this whole mask dichotomy between those who are masked and those who are it was completely new to me. I live in Berkeley, California, you know, everybody is very dutiful, what my friend calls COVID kosher. They all wear masks assiduously. So being in this crowd was a shock. I mean, what you were referring to was a mention I made in a piece about the actual capital coup or the stupid coup, as I called it. And, you know, the percentage who are wearing masks there, I think was even lower. And I felt definitely sort of standing out in wearing in wearing my mask.
But nonetheless, I, like Elizabeth, really felt that I had to be there, particularly for the coup, which is remarkable. You know, I told people in the days before when I was traveling to Washington, why are you going to Washington, I'm going to cover the coup. And now we're have this controversy over whether people could have known about it or not. But of course, everybody, in fact, who was paying attention on the internet did know about it.
I guess, something I'd add here is that journalism in the time of crisis, such an interesting notion, because not only is there this pandemic, which has changed so much of how we behave, and how we look at the world and how we associate with people and how we live our lives. But there are course these other crises that seem to lie under this one, like layers of a layer cake. One of them is obviously the social justice, racial justice crisis that was really set off with the killing of George Floyd, in its current form. And then there is a much larger, it seems to me crisis that you touched on in your eloquent introduction, the crisis of legitimacy. Which now we see in a small way, when it comes to the crisis of legitimacy of the current government, because half the country believes that they stole the election to get in power, but a much larger crisis of legitimacy that brought us Trump. And that must be brought into play when we talk about the current news media, that these institutional sources of informational power have been delegitimized.
And without that happening, you never would have had a President Donald Trump. Without those sources of information being delegitimize without these other institutions, like the political parties being delegitimize. So that there is it seems to me a kind of decadence over our not just our information institutions, but our political institutions. And I think when we talk about doing journalism in a time of crisis, if we're looking at the phenomenon of Donald Trump and now covering the Biden administration, we have to look at this delegitimization. Because it is just everywhere around us. And I guess that's how I would I would conclude.
Pinkney: Yes, I think that's very important. And we'll certainly come right back to that, after we talk to Howard French and Justin van der Luen. But you're absolutely right about that, how that has happened, or why is something I'd be interested in hearing what you think about, especially in connection as a reaction to the social justice movement, really, which has been going on for a long time or gaining ground for a long time.
But Howard French, you write a kind of witness research and travel to these distant places have been very much what you do. In the pandemic, you have something coming out soon on Africa, I assume from work done before the pandemic. But now I'm just understand you're writing about kind of the American leadership, or loss of it. And certainly the Trump lack of response to the Coronavirus figures in the story. Perhaps or maybe not.
Howard French: First, first of all, I would like to sort of draw contrast with Elizabeth, I was fortunately never got sick with COVID. But that became at a very steep cost. So as you rightly said, I've spent most of my life moving around quite a bit, and generally outside of this country, and far and wide. And was in the midst of an accelerating process of reportage for the book you just alluded to, which is coming out in the fall, which is about Africa's role in the creation of the modern world. And I had been traveling to many different parts for at least four different continents up until COVID outbreak, and then boom, came COVID. And since then, I have been, you know, it forced me midstream to completely revise the approach to this book, from one that would be heavily based, not, I mean, certainly lots of scholarly research and, and archival research. But nonetheless, in the way the story was told heavily based on reportage to one much less so. Because it just struck me as being simply impossible.
Last January, I was in Brazil, and then went to Toronto for a very important museum show. The last time I did something remotely adventurous, was right here in Manhattan. I went to a concert at the Met by a West African musician named Baba Maal, which was on March 9. And I remember the palpable sense on March 9 of last year, that although not everyone was yet convinced of it. COVID was about to grab us by the throat here in the city. And since that moment, I have been really confined to a kind of postage stamp area of real estate here on the Upper West Side, I've gone on my bicycle, I left Manhattan a few times. But that's the furthest I've ventured from home. And I have, as I said, had to rethink my approach to my book. I'm happy with my decision. I'm not happy to have been constrained the way I've been constrained, but I'm happy with the way things worked out, given the constraints. And I've had to learn a lot in terms of approaches to writing and approaches to thinking about writing books forced upon me by this crisis.
Thankfully, I've had this book project because I'm, you know, steeped in reporting, I've spent all my decades as a journalist, as areal reporter. And if I hadn't had a book project under way, I'm a little bit older than Elizabeth, I have preconditions and so not feeling safe to sort of not as brave as Mark wanting to sort of go out into the crowds, so heedlessly as he did. You know, if I hadn't had a book project really well underway, when all of this happened, I probably would have lost my mind. I mean, what would I have been left with? Not feeling safe enough to go out and report and nothing left to do. But as it turns out, I've had the book. and I've reverted is the wrong verb because this was never my has never been my principal identity, But I've sort of invested a lot in commentary during this year, because commentary is, of course, it may not be that commentary without on the ground report is always the best kind of commentary, but you can do commentary without, you know, fieldwork, in a, in a moment to moment sense anyway. So I've had those two things, the book project and, and commentary. And recently, I've got the second of my two vaccines, and I've given myself a kind of threshold date, after which I'm going to go running into the world, like, like a wild man, I mean, the people who are closest to me have no idea how, how much energy I'm about to unleash. And that's really about to happen. So I can announce to you guys now that you know, sometime in mid March-ish, I'm about to undergo a big trend transition, if you will, into or reversion to form.
I want to come back to some of the things Mark was saying about the undermining of the institutions and the decadence of the time, I largely agree with the thrust and spirit of what you said, Mark. And there was certainly a war on institutions and one of the institutions has been, of course, the media, the press and its place in society. And there are plentiful reasons to be seriously concerned about that, even after Trump, about the implications of not having a more or less commonly shared understanding of what reality is in a country. That's, that definitely brings dangers. And I don't know how this is going to work out. But on the other hand, I think we would be remiss not to recognize - listen, I'm someone who says this, having spent an entire career at the New York Times as a reporter. So working for kind of the mainstay of the mainstays - I think we would be remiss not also, however, to recognize that there has been an extraordinary democratization of information over the last generation or so, that with all of these perils, has also brought a lot of positives. It has made information much more accessible to people who were put off by institutions like the New York Times or “the official media”.
Darrell, I think you invoked citizen reporters, or somebody's previously mentioned citizen reporters, it has given way to open up space for all kinds of new news gathering commentary, opinion, reportage, communication of ideas, some of which are dangerous, we should just, you know, posit that right out front. But I for one wouldn't want to go back to the old days, when, you know, we had two or three newspapers, we had the nightly news on the networks, and very little outside of that. And so I think, you know, as we try to make sense of journalism, the age of crisis, we have to think, in terms of a very active balance sheet where we have, you know, clear the clear perils, but not often enough discussed, positives, or at least potential positives that come from what I've called this opening up, or democratization. I think I'll conclude with that.
Pinkney: It's a good point. And I'd like to also return to that in the discussion. But for the moment, I want to ask Justine van der Leun, in your work, sometimes you seem to find the stories where you happen to be, or story beckens to you where you are, brings out a story you didn't know was there. How's the pandemic affected the way you work, what you're thinking about working on? I remember, it comes to mind very quickly, this very intense piece you did on the vulnerability of incarcerated women to COVID-19, this kind of thing. So how have you been moving through or trying to since lockdown?
Van der Leun: Yeah, I think it's I seem to be in a sort of different space than everyone else here. In the sense that certainly, I have done my share of traveling for reporting and tons of immersive, years spent just with somebody in Cape Town. But in a way I was sort of grounded
before the pandemic hit, by motherhood of two young children. And I became really interested in what is my current sort of beat, which is women in mass incarceration and issues of the criminal legal system.
And I had started conducting a nationwide kind of data gathering project. Because even before the pandemic, people in prisons are not interviewable, I mean, unless you really want to commit some kind of crime when you're gonna go to prison, which I think would even be difficult to do. You can't do immersion journalism in prisons. And I think my last, similarly, my last reporting was like March 11. And I did I was, I was interviewing someone at Bedford Hills maximum security prison. And I had a similar experience to Mark, I could see the virus in that prison. And I really knew right then sitting there in that room, where there were no precautions. Everyone was hysterical in the outside world, and I walked into the prison, and it was just as though it didn't exist at all. So I knew that COVID was really going to hit hard. But I had already been developing a kind of interviewing technique that did not involve needing to be in person with people. I wanted to find a way to collect these really suppressed voices. And the way that you do that with people in prison largely is through writing. So quite strangely, the situation we all found ourselves in, which is cut off from the rest of the world, confined to our small spaces, of course, our apartments are not comparable to American prison cells. But the sense of being cut off and only able to communicate virtually, or through the written word was already something that I was doing, and I was already finding ways to get to know people through alternate approaches to interviewing.
So I didn't actually have that experience. Yes, I haven't been able to interview people in person. Prisons have been closed, there have been people I wanted to profile. But for the most part, I almost felt like my methods were kind of paralleling their experiences. I could understand better, what these people were living through. And, and what it is to not be able to, you know, have that freedom.
And I also found sort of strangely, or maybe not strangely, maybe it makes a lot of sense. Because I think, Darrell, in the virtual Green Room, you were saying, has this been kind of has this pandemic, in a way been good for journalism? Has it you know, there's the layer cake has the pandemic, in a way kind of exposed the rotten layer that journalists and social justice journalists have been saying is there, and other people have been just being like, let's the frosting is nice. And suddenly everyone sees that, because it's now affecting us all. And we're, we're taking stock of what is this country? I think Darrell, you were also saying something about, do we know America like and, did we ever really know it? Are we starting to get to know it now? And is that meeting a difficult and traumatic one.
And so I found that these issues that I was working on, which were quite niche and kind of radical and had to do with abolition, and had to do with institutions like the police and prison that that I don't consider are legitimate, but that were previously held up as legitimate. You know, people were questioning those, especially with the protests. And so for my kind of quite niche topic which had very little interest for the year so that I was focusing on it coming up to this pandemic. I mean, Never have I had less success pitching as a freelancer, something that I knew was really important. I was just coming up against total resistance. After the pandemic hit and as the protests happened, as abolition came on from this weird leftist thing to like the front page of the New York Times, Merriam Kaba is saying yes, we need defund the police. My topics found a home quite easily in a in a totally new way. So I'll end that there. But yeah, it's an alternative experience, I think.
Pinkney: Talking about what Howard meant by the democratization of information. Now, there's a need to know more about what had been in the margins or on the fringe. And so that's coming in. I think of Trump and the pandemic has this kind of occupation. And it's very heartening to hear these writers speak of the need to make contact, these sort of human stories to communicate.
But I sort of wonder if everything that's happened doesn't in some ways, bring into question, an important pillar of the legitimacy of journalism in America, which is this kind of free speech, or the neutrality of free speech as an idea or the innate libertarian view, we have of the journalism profession. Now that there are all these other sort of competing and mad voices, can the kind of journalism were for combat or even address this? Or should it? I mean, is it a kind of force of defense of free values, liberal values? What is free speech now, especially with Twitter and Facebook, sort of facing all these questions?
I think that all of you do a sort of advocacy journalism, even if it's not overt. And this seems to be to be the direction to go in more and more, because it's the only way to understand what's happening, is that information has to always have a context to protect it, or to restore its legitimacy in some ways.
But I don't think there's parody of right and left. But what is now the free speech moment, in your view? Where should the argument go? Are we policing? Or should we police political opinions or political expression, given how dangerous some of it seems to be? We were talking before about trying to listen to serious podcasts explaining q anon and I couldn't do it. I almost don't want to know what they think it's so horrifying, in a way. But it goes to what we're talking about. I feel like such a fool all my life, I thought I understood or knew. And these last four years, I find, I don't know, white America at all.
Sometimes the only place I feel safe is reading. So where are you? Did that make any sense? Or lead to thoughts you might have?
Danner: I think the democratization of information is a beautiful idea. And I completely agree with Howard that it's important to emphasize that this phenomenon has had a lot of strong and positive effects. But I also think that the rule based order of information, if you want to call it that, and I'm not going back to Walter Cronkite, but say 20 years ago, had certain advantages. The gatekeeper function meant that there was some definition for what a fact meant. Q Anon, as a national phenomenon would not have been possible 20 years ago. That doesn't mean there weren't paranoid conspiracy theories. It just means they weren't democratized to that extent. You can look at Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style and American Politics” written I think in ‘62. And the phenomenon is very helpful in understanding Q Anon, but the fantasies he was talking about did not encompass 30 million people.
So this kind of definition of what a fact was, and what information had to go through to be considered credible. That is gone. And that was a function, not of the high concentration of media institutions that were part of the 60s and 70s. But at least the idea of some gatekeeping when it came to information, and that gatekeeping is over. And the reasons why 74 million voters can believe that the election was stolen, when our whole system of determining facts about that involving the courts, for example, says that's not true, really has to do with the degradation of these institutions, it seems to me, the nicer way to put it as the democratization of these institutions
To go back to what Darrell said about limit limiting what we hear, I teach at Berkeley, and I'm very aware of this phenomenon, right into the classroom, by the way. But I also think that, you know, it's like trying to take a colander and prevent a flood. Do you know what I mean? In a larger society, the kind of rules that universities and other institutions are putting down, will not prevent Q Anon. The rallies, I talked about Trump rallies, I have to add something about wearing a mask. Most people believed that COVID was a hoax. And these are not crazy people. These are people who have jobs and kids and kids going to college and all the rest of it. I met a nurse I interviewed a nurse who treated COVID patients and believe that COVID as a national phenomenon, was a hoax. That would not have been possible during the pandemic of 1918. It is possible now. And it has to do it seems to me with what are institutions of information. I don't limit this to the New York Times or journalism institutions, but in a much broader sense, what they have become.
French: Darrell, if I could just very quickly respond. So I, Mark, I think that a careful discussion of this would reveal that there's more continuum than what has been said so far would suggest. We had, in our lifetimes, a candidacy for the presidency of a man named Barry Goldwater, which was based on wild distortions of reality. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was opposed vehemently by broad sectors of society on the basis that he was a communist. Something which was never remotely factually true. For most of my childhood, much of the country, especially in the deep south, was dependent for much of its information on am radio, and on am radio in that era, things every bit as woolly as what you find on the internet now, were being said. Ideas were being transmitted, hatred was being fomented, myths were being perpetuated. So, I share a sense of alarm about where we've just come from over the last five years or so, and where that might suggest we're heading. But the difference is, I don't think that the internet is the entire explanation for this and that we've experienced an order of magnitude change yet. I think that, too, to believe that requires ignoring or downplaying a lot of stuff in the past.
The other thing I would say, I'm sorry to go on here, but is that you have to be careful, not you Mark, but anyone having this discussion, has to be careful what they would wish for. So I am very happy that Twitter blocked Trump, at the moment. Not because I take infringement on freedom of speech lightly, now because I think that such a sanction should be applied widely or freely to anybody who says anything objectionable, but because Trump occupied the position that he occupied and he already had the most popular, most powerful platform in the world for disseminating his ideas without Twitter and then was weaponizing Twitter for his explicit political purposes in the midst of a campaign. So I thought that there was an urgent need to withdraw that access to Trump. However, if for all of our alarm about the implications of this new era of a lack of shared truth, or no gatekeepers, I have a great deal of trouble understanding on what principle basis, one can begin to say, this person can speak, that person can't speak, this person can have a platform, that person can't have a platform, this can be said in public that can't be said in public, this can be printed that can't be printed. I just don't know where you end up once you proceed down that path. I
Danner: Briefly, I certainly wasn't proposing that path. In fact, I didn't propose anything. I'm just saying that, you know, Barry Goldwater was not elected, he was crushed. And, at the time, the greatest landslide in the history of the country. So the one candidate who you could cite as an extremist in the last 60 years, was completely destroyed. Trump was elected. Trump was elected, and governed, if you'd like to call it that, which is if there's not a difference in magnitude, they're I don't know what a difference of magnitude is. So I'm not I'm not making any argument about limitation of speech or anything else. Nor am I being nostalgic. I'm just saying that this is where we are at the moment. We've gone from a kind of top down society when it comes to information to a democratized one. And one of the consequences is, you have a popular myth like Q Anon, suddenly having the allegiance of arguably 10s of millions of people. And I think that's fairly predictable.
Pinkney: Did you want to say, Elizabeth or Justin?
Breunig: Yeah, I think I agree with Howard. I grew up in Texas, I'm still tight with all my family down there. My husband's also from Texas, we met in high school and obviously, different life plan than lot of colleagues and me is always sort of bizarre opinions percolating down there. Recently, Agnes Callard, a philosopher at the University of Chicago, made a remark to me in conversation, she said, GK Chesterton said, if you if you want to meet people who are not like you, I'm paraphrasing, live in a small town. The meaning being, when you're actually in like a tiny tight enclave where you're forced into constant contact with other people, you're going to get a true sense of how kind of nuts people are and the just enormous variation and, you know, not only things people think, but ways they go about acquiring thoughts, different epistemologies, they vary hugely.
The problem is that because the internet is what it is, no, no one lives in a small town. Everyone lives in this kind of hive. have constant communication. And within that you can wall yourself off in an enclave of people who are kind of in the same zone as you are, whose social psychology tells us when a bunch of people who are like minded get together, they polarize, they become even more entrenched, their thoughts become even more extreme versions of what they had been before. That is what the internet enables. And I think the reason that it's running afoul of our sensibilities about free speech, is because it's that you have to control forms of speech that threaten liberal democracy is priced into liberal democracy, it's priced into the idea of free speech, right? This is something Rawls goes on about at length, right? You can't just allow unfettered promotion of speech in a liberal democracy that's inimical to liberal democracy itself, or else you face the dissolution of liberal democracy. And at this point, we just don't have any way of preventing that. And the nature of the internet itself kind of encourages it. Because it's going to create these enclaves of people with ever escalating, evermore extreme ways of thinking and views.
Now, is it concerning? I suppose I think letting everybody in the world talk to each other simultaneously was never going to turn out good, right? That's the Tower of Babel. People should not I think there's too much togetherness. I think that's a possibility. And this kind of strange psychology and the just vast polarization of public discourse is why I think that happens, it's hard to even describe a center anymore. There are people who can remember it. But I'm not even sure what I would politically describe as the center and even Biden situates himself that way, it seems like he's referring to something in the past. And maybe that's a stopgap for the moment. Maybe this can be decelerated. I'm not sure how, but I think it's a matter of technology, catching up with liberal democracy in a way that was always going to hit us at some point.
Van der Leun: I feel like a student here. I think these are the central tensions, the crisis of journalism, journalism at the time of crisis, these are the central tensions, everyone has said them better than I possibly could. It is disinformation. It's the proliferation of false ideas versus the fact that, who were who were the gatekeepers to begin with? What information were we getting before? And who were these, you know, arbitrary people? I mean, I think we know who they were and who they've always been. I agree with everyone I suppose. And I'm really interested also in Liz's idea that right? It's a hopeful idea, certainly. Or maybe it's a resigned idea. But that perhaps technology will just have to catch up to this chaotic time.
Pinkney: Tocqueville knew two kinds of newspapers. One is for information, and the other is an organizing tool, much more like a sort of club. So there are these aggregates that have always been with us, or people seeking a common group or a place to belong. And I sort of think our problems come from both sides, not just the right, but also the left, or that progressive side, that sort of cancellation, punitive side, that polices culture as well, they should sort of internalize this, polarization, shall we say, or something like that? I always thought the free press was part of liberal democracy.
But our troubles to me seem to come from people sort of being confronted by what democracy working actually means. And one of the things identity politics has done I think, is to give us a white identity politics we haven't had since the 19th century, and that we haven't needed to have because I don't know, white was the norm, the standard or something. But now there's this kind of very brittle, fragile feeling of being superseded, or are made one of many, loss of status that a lot of people seem anxious about. Some said that people voted for Trump not because of race, but because of, they just thought he'd make them richer, but the two are the same in my mind, and we have Trump because we had Obama. Maybe that's simplistic, but I think the cost of democracy is shocking a lot of people, especially in an era where climate change and the idea of finite resources, and how different the future is for the young now, compared to what it was, when I was young. These are sort of traumas to American power.
I like Elizabeth's idea that there's too much togetherness. And the one thing about reading is that it does quiet everything around you. One thing the internet did was sort of, I think, elevate the short piece, that burst, the block. And I sort of think that the moment gives a chance for the longer form, since the book remains the only place where you can make a complicated argument. And in a lot of the journals that you write for people used to write books by writing for them for these journals first. So I think that if anything, the current crisis had made of every journalist, a kind of writer of imaginative prose, and the solutions you have to come up with and the stories that you seek out and how you tell them. I think the human element, if it wins, then everyone will be okay. Anyone else want to, before we go on to questions and answers from listeners? Do you have other points you'd like to make? For instance, I think the Facebook oversight board that they propose is rather feeble. As an idea, I don't know why.
French: I think you raised some very fertile ideas that would take another two or three hours to begin to sort of chip away at the surface of, but this emergence of white identity politics that you speak to, I think, is, on the one hand, related to this precariousness or sense of precarity that you that you spoke to, you know, the difference between the era of our youth in the era of young people today, where abundance doesn't seem to be the prevailing truth of life anymore, opportunity doesn't seem to be, although opportunity was never equally shared, opportunity for people, for people for whom it seemed reserved, doesn't seem so promising or full anymore. That these are drivers of white identity politics that I think are fairly obvious.
Another driver of white identity politics, I think, goes back to, excuse me to return to this theme, but to the depths of democratization that I invoked earlier. White people didn't have to put up with black people saying stuff in the past, in public, getting on the air being in print, being heard, being seen. And that itself is threatening, I'm talking about with the volume, or the scale of audience that or the readiness, all that can all be obtained today, right? In the past that just didn't exist. So part of having gatekeepers was also the fact that the gatekeepers all sort of came from a very narrow social and racial set of identity backgrounds, and, and, you know, black people and many others were kept out of view almost all of the time, right. And so I think that the identity politics, white identity politics that you spoke to, are also in a very real sense of a reaction to that, then, like, Who are these people? Why are Why are they on my TV screen? Why do I have to hear about their issues? You know, let's get back to the real America. The real American being, of course, that group of white people.
Pinkney: I think that we're talking about a loss of shared culture or a sense of a sense of a shared culture. So are we ready for the q&a?
Hal: We got a lot of questions. I've tried to select a few that we haven't touched upon. And we'll see how many we can get through. So what one on the theme of the panel, crisis privileges a certain kind of journalism focused on immediate responses. How does one link the immediate to long term without the tenuous string being snapped and ending up in a balloon that spirals from crisis to crisis to crisis?
Van der Luen: I'm not quite sure I understand what the
Hal: I think the question is getting at that right now we're in a state of journalism responding very quickly and suddenly to things that we deem as crisis. And does that feed into itself over and over? And is there any way to start, you know, separating that out of the Trump era, out of the January 6, Riot and start, you know, looking at more of a cohesive long term, larger picture journalism? Is my reading of that question.
French: I think that's a great question. I mean, that's so are we addicted to a very short attention span, short term, immediate sense of crisis that the cliche would have it was born of CNN and cable news, but which has been vastly accelerated by the Internet, and by the Trump administration, and by his use of Twitter. And, you know, deliberate politique of outrage that he cultivated, right. I don't know the answer to the question. But I think it's a very good question.
Pinkney: I think journalism is has journalism has always had to follow or cover these things. The weird thing that happened under Trump is that with so many outrages occurring on a daily basis, it was hard to keep them in mind. And so I saw a reference to something that had happened four months ago, I'd already forgotten it. Yeah, it's just sort of one after the other. So it's not that you got used to it, it's just that you couldn't keep up.
Van der Leun: I mean, I think it functioned in large part as a distraction, right. I remember feeling almost when he was when his Twitter was shut down, that suddenly there was genuinely more space in the world. I could almost physically feel it. And I remember being in South Africa years ago, and reading about some really massive sort of government scandal, but it was like, on page six of the newspaper, you know, and I thought, now so naively, how can such a thing be on page six of the newspaper, this would be front page. We've lived with the most shocking scandals that would take down anyone happening twice a day, for so long, that it has to me, you know, really function as a way to suck away the air and act as a distraction. And, and it sets the playing field up differently. So what's what was once pressing is now almost irrelevant.
Personally, I continue doing my long form journalism, I don't do you know, Crisis Response journalism. But certainly, you can see the frantic energy that has been created by all of these crises on top of each other, has definitely taken the air from a room and it seems by design. I'm not sure what the I can already tell that we have more space right now to tell other stories that maybe have needed to be told.
Breunig: There's a there's a great book by David Walsh, and the first few lines, it's called ‘The Growth of the Liberal Soul’. And it says, you know, in one sense, liberal theory and politics have always been in crisis. I think that the post war, American experience of liberal democracy was atypical, historically, you just don't see that. I think that the typical experience of liberalism is an experience of kind of just a revolving door of tumult. Right. different governments get in there, governments don't form at all. You get these sort of grossly deadlocked governments, like the one that we're about to enjoy, it looks like. And you get these wildly divergent theories of the true and the good. And that leads to enormous conflicts, and that's no different than pre modern or pre liberal history. The question is just liberalism was supposed to be able to contain that without it devolving into bloodshed. Would it be able to actually contain all of those tendencies, non-violently.
And, ‘sorta’ has been the answer, we did have a civil war. We have not always been able to maintain our liberal democracy, non-violently, and many other sort of insurrections and armed conflicts, besides, in the United States. As recently as 1995, Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building killed on 68 people. That was, that was a, you know, one of these moments where the question was, are we going to be able to actually do this or not? And we did, we pulled through it. But I think that this, that one of the problems right now is that the news has gotten so much, you know, the press has gotten so much better at covering the news. We know that people like to read about crises. And so there's just a whole slew of incentives to cover these things. And very few arguments against covering them, it's what the press is supposed to do. And it's not like the press is less interested in muckraking now than it used to be. So the question is, how can we like train a citizenry that's able to deal with this constant influx of information about crises without becoming so emotionally disaffected that they're barely able to kind of participate in the liberal democracy as citizens? And I don't know the answer to that question. I think, a little bit of maybe news literacy, historical literacy, it's always been bad. It's always been a one crisis after another. And the question is, can we hold it together, and our mission as a liberal democracy should be, if we can just get through tomorrow, without everything degenerating into out and out chaos, that's a win for liberal democracy for the day. And I think that's the message that the press should convey, I still do long form. That's my preferred mode. And the idea that I always try to convey is just that, you know, the basic unit of this whole society is the human, the person, and they are a complicated a universe unto themselves, you can make no assumptions about. which I think is maybe the, in my view, as best as I know, as best as I can tell the right frame of mind for a citizen of a liberal democracy to maintain, which is ideas are what they are, parties are what they are, but individuals, the very reason that we don't want to let this degenerate into violence, that the human life is extremely precious, still matter, must matter. And it's when you start losing that that you really you're looking at something like fascism. I don't think we're there yet. Hope not, hope we're moving away from it. But I think that's the shape of the problem, as far as I can tell.
Danner: It's interesting, I think that we're dividing into those who think things are different, and those who think they were, they're the same. And I guess I'm firmly would put myself down on thinking things of the last 10 to 15 years are decidedly different, that we've got a degree of political degradation, and that the press is implicated in, that is pretty much unprecedented. That if you I see history, I guess, of liberal democracy, and certainly the US liberal democracy very differently than Elizabeth just described. I mean, if you look the periods of the history of this country, we had long periods of Republican rule, after the Civil War, long periods of democratic rule after the New Deal. And then in the last 20 years, we've had an increasing degree of political shift back and forth. Increasing degree of minority rule, two elections in the last 20 years, where the person who got the most votes did not get to the White House, the only time that's happened in so short a period. And if you look at the news cycle, that we that was the basis of this question. I mean, Trump basically mastered the news cycle, and showed that the idea that the press sits down, has editorial meetings and decides what's the news at the beginning of the day, was in a world in which eyeballs count the most, a fraud. That is, he determined what was being covered. He determined that his entire rallies would be covered. Why? Because they made the commercial press the most money. And that kind of news cycle, it's a departure, I think has left a kind of vacuum that is going to be filled by something. You know, more people paid attention to politics in the last four years than I would venture to say ever in American history. Why? Because because we had a reality TV star, whose major talent, major brilliance was essentially reaching out grabbing the press and making it do what he wanted. Why? Because they all wanted to make money. And I think that's a major change. And we can talk about the history of journalism and partisanship and all these other things. But it seems to me that we're in a different world after Trump. Yes, there's been violence in American history before. But there has never been an election, like this one, where the almost the entirety of the opposing political party believes the winner is completely illegitimate, that they stole, stole the election, the closest you can compare it to is 1876. Maybe, but at least there, there was a deal of some kind. I think we are in uncharted territory, I think there's gonna be a lot of terrorism. I think we are in for a very different polity than we've seen in the past. And I think the capital coup is just the beginning. I think there are a lot of people who do not recognize the legitimacy of this president, this regime, and you're going to be hearing from them. I wish I didn't feel that way. But I do.
Hal: Well, with any good panel, we're going to have only room for one more question. So let's go with this one. To what degree is journalism to blame for its own delegitimization. It's not a secret that the profit motive has frequently interfered with major news organizations’ willingness or ability to report all of the news, particularly with regard to international affairs or the shortcomings of capitalism, people aren't entirely wrong to suspect that the news sometimes isn't telling them everything. How can journalism confront this? Is it possible at all to confront it without excising the profit motive from the field?
French: So Mark, in a sense, answered some parts of that question. And when he said that, basically, Trump mastered the news media on the basis of its desire to make money. And that's absolutely true. And we’re gonna have to figure out how not to let that happen again. If that's possible. I wish, you know, a platform like this could serve up an easy answer to your question, but it's a very big question. I take another piece of the question and say, I don't think that there's any such thing as all the news. There's no such thing as any organization that will ever serve, even remote approximation of what everybody will consider all the news. And so that may be a vain wish that news organizations ABC or A to Z will satisfy every audience's definition of what all the news should be.
Coming back, Mark, I don't, I don't want this to the audience to for you to feel that this is devolved in any way in to this side versus that side discussion here, because I certainly don't feel that way. But you know, one of the interesting things about Trump in the way he figured out how to take advantage of the news media in the way you described is that, this press, sort of serving up its daily agenda or what what's going to be on page one on what's going to be on the nightly news has always been driven, first and foremost by what the President's Day was like, that that's always been the basic, the most basic ingredient, right? What is new is the rawness of it under Trump. It’s hard to speak of him always in the past tense. He had so openly exploited that and sort of exploded the limits on the degree of dominance that a president could exert over the news agenda of major news organizations. And you know, I think Biden, who knows how his presidency is going to turn out. But something I believe he's consciously attempting to do is to ratchet that back down now, like he could have a very different style of politician could say, ‘okay, this is the norm. Now the president should be on the news all the time, and whatever the President wants to have scheduled, he can figure out a way to get scheduled.’ I don't think that Biden's not capable of that, he's not “talented” enough to do that. But I don't think that's the problem. I think the issue is Biden thinks that that's not right, that that's not healthy, and that we have to get back to some status quo ante, I'm not actually sure if that's possible, whether Hawley of Missouri will be the next Trump or there'll be some other candidate who emerges with the same kind of playbook that will try to run with the Trump playbook. But the press hasn't figured out the answers to this viewers, very big and provocative question. And this is sort of our homework for the whole society in the next years.
Van der Leun: I would say that, I think, and obviously, journalism, as the institution is certainly not the enemy in any way. But I think that it's something I think about a lot in terms of what stories have been centered, what stories we've given space to, whose perspectives have been valued. And I think historically, because journalism is institution has followed the makeup of our institutions. One thing that I that I kind of noticed shifting is more black people are getting promoted, are getting put in places of power, and more women. And I think there's been sort of a recognition that perhaps if these people's voices had been listened to a little bit earlier, if they're very valid perspective, if what they saw happening, had been accepted more widely, by those gatekeepers, that maybe we wouldn't have gone along for the ride, as long as we went along for it, I think.
So to inject a little bit of positivity. I mean, there is a significant shift there. I think that we're seeing whether or not that will continue on and be something that then trickles down into the kind of information that we're getting remains to be seen. But I think New York magazine has a story right now, on the new faces of publishing. This is the faces of black women now put in power, how is that going to change? And journalism, how will that change? Certainly, what we're getting, if our gatekeepers are different, I think journalism may have failed, in part because the gatekeepers that we allowed to stay in power, or who stayed in power, were part of an institution and weren't seeing what a lot of people on the ground kept saying, or were being told that, but were denying it, maybe to make money for whatever reason. So just a little bit of hope for the future. That's one thing that I have noticed happening quite recently,
Pinkney: Generational change is never without some pain to someone. But talking about the journalism that is still at bottom, a commercial venture, we must keep in mind that 37% of the workforce, never mind, the kind of work they're doing are millennials or Gen Z. So the stories they're interested in will become more important, which I think fits with what you're talking about the changes within a lot of these newspapers and stations, etc. I don't know what to call them. The Press.
Hal: All right. Any last thoughts on that question? Okay, that will wrap us up for the evening. Thanks for sticking around with us. Thank you again to Justine, Howard, Elizabeth and Mark. I and of course, Darrell, for joining us tonight. For this panel.
Darrell: Wonderful to be here. I know we've talked about them as journalists but they are first to me, writers. I mean, I don't know why make difference. But you know what I'm trying to say, really good journalists.