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“I fear today we have … a cadre of reporters that in some ways have enabled the Trump era,” Bernard Avishai, author and Guggenheim fellow, said at Yale on Thursday.

Visiting from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is an adjunct professor of business, Avishai spoke on Thursday as a Poynter Fellow in Journalism at the Grace Hopper Head of College House about whether American journalism has lost track of its civic mission. Avishai is a contributor to the New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine, where he writes extensively on Israeli politics and economy.

In light of the ongoing national conversation about the media’s role in politics and the coining of terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts,” Avishai discussed the responsibility journalists have to educate the American public. He argued that the recent inability of the press to adequately defend against falsified facts — partly out of fear of appearing partisan — has made tens of millions of Americans blind to the destruction of “norms of the commonwealth” taking place right under their noses.

Pointing to a larger problem, Avishai said journalists who were educated in political science departments across the country are not trained with the language necessary to understand the history of American democracy and to recognize that in violating certain “norms,” Trump is in fact “threatening the commonwealth itself.”

“There’s a way in which what we have as journalism today was incubated in a rather fatuous social science,” Avishai said. “And I don’t think we can really just look at the civic failures of journalism as a profession without looking collaterally at what incubated it and a lot of that blame in my view belongs here at the university.”

Avishai went on to explain that the eye-catching charts and infographics found on primetime news today reflect how poorly equipped journalists are to help viewers understand matters of public policy. Instead, Avishai said, the press is much too focused on conveying to the public who the winners and losers are in the game of politics.

Avishai mourned the loss of the reporters of the 1950s and 60s, whom he grew up watching and idolizing on CBS News. Trained to defend the liberal ideal of a free press after witnessing the Nazis’ rise to power, Avishai said he viewed these reporters as the “very embodiment of liberal responsibility.”

Not only were they skilled in making facts and arguments about facts the basis for public conversation, he said, but there was a “moral tact in the way they presented themselves, the way they spoke.”

The news correspondents of the mid-20th century were not concerned with identity politics and demographic preferences and values, Avishai said. Rather, he said, they defended liberal civilization through the depth of their analysis of public policy issues and evidence-based argument.

“It’s impossible to understand the success of the civil rights movement in this country unless you realize the determination of a cadre of reporters — many of whom were schooled in the fight against fascism — to go down south and sniff out something they saw as being pretty familiar and to bring the injustices of Jim Crow to the rest of the country night after night after night for years,” Avishai explained.

The Poynter Fellowship brings to Yale distinguished reporters, editors and professionals in print and broadcast media, as well as documentary filmmakers and media critics.

Julianna Lai | julianna.lai@yale.edu