A conversation about democracy and the media drew a crowd of more than 300 students and faculty on Wednesday, the day after Donald Trump won an election characterized by insults on social media and dogged press coverage.
In an auditorium at the Law School, the inaugural Poynter Journalism Symposium held a conversation about “Truth in the Internet Age” beginning with Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren, Eileen O’Connor, University vice president of communications, and Robert Post, dean of Yale Law School. And while the event was booked as a talk broadly about the role media plays in the political process, attendees came with only one thing on their minds: the 2016 presidential election.
The roughly 12 panelists — conservative and liberal alike — expressed confusion at how Trump had sustained an image of trustworthiness among his voters despite the media’s tireless fact-checking of his many inaccurate claims throughout the campaign season.
“Many reporters are not aggressive enough about getting facts,” Van Susteren said at the panel. “We’re up to our eyeballs in this issue ourselves.”
The panel also explored the role of the media in shaping Trump’s image and in his ultimate election to the presidency. Wall Street Journal Deputy Editor Bret Stephens expressed frustration with how journalists often filtered Trump’s speech to impart meaningful information to the public, which ended up portraying him as a more serious candidate than he really was. The panel concluded that the best way to address the decreasing credibility of facts on the internet is for people to consume many different media sources.
“Students here need to spend more time understanding what these facts actually are and how to act on them,” said Scott Carpenter, managing director of the tech start-up Jigsaw, at the panel.
National Review’s Washington Editor Eliana Johnson ’06, a member of the panel, was more optimistic, despite widespread disappointment with the election results on campus. She argued that the election showed that the art of investigative journalism was “alive and well,” and that the media had done a satisfactory job of vetting Trump throughout the previous months.
“We’re doing him a favor that he’s never done for himself, which is ‘have a thought,’” Stephens said. The audience erupted in laughter and applause.
The second panel, featuring Kurt Eichenwald of Newsweek, Tanzina Vega of CNN and Graeme Wood of The Atlantic, focused on the disappearance of civility in civil discourse, especially on social media like Twitter. Eichenwald, who has more than 170,000 followers on Twitter, began his speech by asking the audience whether they think Trump supporters are racists, sexists and ignorant. Seeing a strong show of hands, Eichenwald told them they were wrong. He said the large section of the country voting for Trump are not stupid, but rather angry and abandoned by both parties.
The symposium culminated in a heated debate between Van Susteren and student leaders, including Joshua Altman ’17, president of the William F. Buckley Jr. Program, about intellectual diversity and microaggressions on campus. Altman said many Yale students felt harassed or ostracized about expressing viewpoints on social media. Abrar Omeish ’18 said microaggressions, though oftentimes unintentional, reflect the deeper biases of a community and should be taken seriously.
Yet Van Susteren worried that if students are so sensitive and upset about verbal abuse on campus, they might be unable to handle real-world crises when they graduate.
“You’re going to go out in there and be leaders, and you’re worried about these words,” Van Susteren said. “You have no idea what’s out there.”
Her repudiation of microaggressions was met with a strong reaction from the audience, and some attendees confronted Van Susteren after the talk. Van Susteren said she was not familiar with what happened on Yale’s campus and only intended to create conversation.
Other students came to Van Susteren’s defense.
“She was trying to bridge the gap between the wider politics of America and campus politics of Yale,” Benjamin Marrow ’17 said. Daniel Leibovic ’17 said the “antagonistic” style with which Van Susteren addressed the student panelists was unusual in an environment like Yale.
“I think especially in colleges we don’t often get viewpoints that are challenging like that, in a way that we have to answer them rationally and in a way that makes sense to an audience who might not agree with us,” Leibovic said.
Omeish and Altman did not consider Van Susteren to be overly aggressive. Altman said he had become “desensitized” to the topics they discussed, and Omeish said she appreciated Van Susteren’s challenging questions, which she noted were questions at the top of many people’s minds outside of Yale.
Altman said he wished there was more time for the student panel and expressed disappointment that the panel did not devote as much attention to “ways of coming together and moving forward.”
Eichenwald, one of the journalist panelists, said he met two Trump supporters in Florida who voted for Obama but switched to supporting Trump after seeing a Youtube video of a Yale student shouting at the former Head of Silliman College Nicholas Christakis. Eichenwald said the country as a whole has a hard time understanding college students’ concerns with problems like microaggressions.
“We just saw a total wipeout of this country by people who aren’t [at Yale], by people who aren’t talking about microaggressions, people who are struggling day to day,” Eichenwald said.
O’Connor, the event’s main organizer, said the timing of this talk after the election was intentional. Referring to the divisive rhetoric in the presidential campaign, O’Connor saw the conversation as a model of civil discourse.
Early in the event, Post spoke to the media’s significant role in the election and commented on how journalism will change given the outcome of the election. Post defined truth as “what works” and stressed the importance of expert knowledge in grounding any modern society.
“In the end, you’ll need to trust the community of doctors if you want to treat cancer,” he said.
The panel’s journalists, however, questioned where facts end and opinions begin. Stephens asserted that journalists’ opinions are always embedded in the articles they write, even those which claim to stick to just the basic facts. Stephens added that newspapers’ opinion sections are the “most honest section” because they advertise opinions most blatantly.
University President Peter Salovey concluded the event with a few remarks, thanking the event’s organizers and the panel for the discussion.