There’s a big Georgian building in Ivy I’ve mentioned before, it’s an offshoot of UVA that offers free and open forums to citizens every month with leaders on the world stage. Its mission is to decode public policy for the rest of us, and its “American Forum” can be viewed on PBS – if there is still a PBS in the future:
“At the Miller Center, we strive to illuminate presidential and political history accurately and fairly. To shine a light on all the ways our democracy has worked—and all the times America has struggled. To inspire America’s leaders with unbiased insights, especially on the presidency, that advance democratic institutions and the public good.” https://millercenter.org
Because I felt like I needed some illuminating, I bid farewell to Bob, who was waiting at home for painters, and drove into town to hear Gerald F Seib (Wall Street Journal’s Executive Washington Editor and Chief Commentator) pontificate on presidential power at the Miller Center. As makeup artists powdered their faces, and the lights dimmed for filming, American Forum’s host, Douglas Blackmon, prepared to interview Seib about Donald Trump. The room was so packed I was squeezed onto a pew sitting sidesaddle. Seniors and students alike, we were all eager to understand Trumpland.
Seib told us that reaching out directly to US citizens is nothing new, that President Obama actually liked to cut out the main stream media and talk to real people. Utilizing Twitter however is a new phenomena. Labeling media the “…enemy of the American people” is not just new, it’s dangerous. He called Trump a “Master at Communicating,” in that he creates bright shiny objects (Tweets) every day in order to control the media.
Seib also told us time and again that we must take everything a President says seriously; when his aides tell us not to take his statements – like the wiretapping charge against Obama – literally, we the public and the media must still consider his words seriously. The surveillance charge is a diversion, it puts the others (his media enemies) on the defensive.
And although I like to think the purpose of journalism is to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted (Scotty Reston), Seib told us that reporters need to explain and put into context a leader’s words. His job is to analyze in depth, to find the meaning and illuminate facts. He emphasized the one thing journalists have is our credibility, ditto for presidents, then he asked us how will we know when to take Trump seriously – if everything he says isn’t?
I thought of Peter and the Wolf.
He did acknowledge that Rupert Murdoch bought the WSJ years ago, but insisted that his editorial pages have been critical of Trump. And he told us about some memos that had been circulating; saying it’s fine to call certain statements “False” but not “Lies,” not until they are proven to have come from a person’s conscious intent…“and nobody has skirted around facts like Donald Trump.”
Seib warned reporters not to let their attitude substitute for the facts. In other words, don’t become the story you were covering. Harder and harder to do these days I imagine. With UVA Communications majors sitting in the orchestra seats, Blackmon asked what one piece of advice he would give to a young journalist today. “Be honest!”
Seib went on to say he would tell Mr T he must be careful not to devalue his currency (ie credibilty) and to understand and accept that a free press is good for democracy and he should not diminish it!
In short, the Bully Pulpit is still real, it exists and it’s easier than ever to get everybody’s attention. And today, similar to Nixon’s Watergate era, we reporters must be willing to, “…suspend disbelief”…one story at a time. In order to write about the news today we must “temporarily accept as believable, events or characters that would ordinarily be seen as incredible. This is usually to allow an audience to appreciate works of literature or drama that are exploring unusual ideas.” http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/suspension-of-disbelief.html Yes sir, that’s the best definition of Trumpland so far!
Let’s hope Mr T doesn’t lay his hands on Angela Merkel while he’s talking trade with Germany. No shoulder rubs for the President who grabs you know what. Seriously. And let’s also hope Tillerson does no harm in Asia. Although he refused to bring the press with him, so how will we know? Not to worry, Andrea Mitchell is on the job. This is the season to lay mulch at the feet of Buddha, and have faith that North Korea doesn’t take Tillerson seriously.