Before the first weekend in June gets too far back in the rear view mirror please allow me to share some insights from some Princeton University Reunions panels.
Popular myths about beer-fueled, head-pounding Reunions notwithstanding, some of the highlights for many Reunions attendees are the alumni panels that take place the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of the big weekend (events that are free and open to the general public, incidentally). For a lot of us, the panels are not only a chance to see former classmates or people we knew from other classes in action, so to speak, but they also address contemporary issues.
I went to three of them during the 2018 Reunions and came away with some lasting memories — not a bad takeaway for a guy celebrating arguably the most anti-climactic Princeton Reunion year you can imagine, my 49th.
I put on my biographer’s cap when I saw the panel on “Smart Cities: Policy and Implementation,” which dovetailed perfectly with my interest in William H. Whyte and the relevance of “new urbanism” to the management of our cities and suburbs. The moderator was Tom Wright, Class of 1991, president and CEO of the Regional Plan Association. The panel included Eric Rothman, Class of 1993, president of a New York-based transportation consultancy called HR&A Advisors. Rothman formerly worked for Transport for London and the New York City Transit Authority. I wished the session had been given twice as much time as it wfas allowed.
I put on my editor’s cap for the panel on “Real News: Covering Politics in 2018.” The alumni panelists included Marc Fisher ’80, a senior editor at the Washington Post; Bart Gellman ’82, a Pulitzer Prize-winner with the Washington Post and now a senior fellow at the Century Foundation; Rick Klein ’98, the political director at ABC News; Catherine Rampell ’07, an opinion writer for the Washington Post; and Gabriel Debenedetti ’12, the national correspondent for New York magazine.
If you believe that the mainstream media is also a monolithic liberal media, with a single-minded view of who’s right (the media) and who’s wrong (Trump and his ilk), then you should have been at this panel. There was widespread disagreement about a variety of issues. Should journalists call Trump out for lying? Fisher of the Post said he strongly resists the use of the “L” word. “We don’t know if he’s lying, mistaken, ignorant, or just playing games. He does all of the above.” Gellman took a different view. Even though there might be a variety of explanations for what Trump says, a journalist can still weigh the circumstantial evidence and then call it a lie. And, Gellman added, “you don’t have to repeat the falsehood on its own. There is no obligation to print what Trump said first,” especially when the journalist knows that it is false. “You can state the facts first.”
But separating fact from fiction is not easy, and a journalist can easily be played by the president. “The pace of news is insane now — a news cycle can be measured in seconds,” said Klein of ABC. “Remember that the president knows this business better than any of us on this panel. He has taken advantage of how the media works ever since his days getting placement on page 6 of the New York Post — the Twitter of its time.”
The Trump presidency has forged all sorts of new alliances between journalists and people in government who previously wouldn’t tell them the time of day. But journalists shouldn’t be fooled. “A lot of people think we are on their side of a political divide. We aren’t,” said Fisher of the Post. To which Gellman added, “We are not on a political side, but we are on the side of truth.”
The panelists all seemed to subscribe to the view that the public is getting less in-depth news than ever, due in part to the distraction of the turbulent Trump administration and in part to the economic decline of the media, particularly at the state and local levels.
A member of the audience pointed out that her Facebook page was now providing her with regular news updates — isn’t that partially making up for the decline in conventional media? No, said Gellman. “Their business model is much more profitable if you stay online for 10 minutes instead of 8. They push you toward certain content they think you will want.” Their goal is not to achieve journalistic excellence; rather it is “click here and stick here.”
The Post’s Fisher added: “Then they use you as free labor to expand the message in concentric circles.”
Someone asked how the journalists get their view of the world. Most of them mentioned a combination of the major national dailies and Twitter — carefully cultivated Twitter feeds. Debenedetti of New York magazine cited the Newseum website, which displays the front pages of nearly 800 daily newspapers from around the world. Fisher reads NextDraft.com and LongReads.com for in-depth pieces. He also maintains “two false identities on Facebook.” One, he said, “is a left-wing version of myself. The other is a right-wing lunatic.”
While this panel included no one close to either of Fisher’s false Facebook creations, another panel, on “The Evolution of Journalism,” had a more partisan edge. Moderated by NPR’s Deborah Amos, the group featured Edward Felsenthal ’88, editor-in-chief of Time magazine; Eugene Yi ’08, co-founder and president of Cortico, an artificial intelligence and media analytics firm affiliated with the MIT Media Lab; Cameron Hough ’13, the content and product strategy manager for CNN; and a 2003 alumnus who would definitely not consider himself part of the mainstream (or lamestream) media, Pete Hegseth, the co-host of Fox & Friends Weekend.
To kick the discussion off, Amos noted that in the prior week President Trump had roiled the waters in his usual style, ABC television had canceled Roseanne Barr’s show for her racist posting on Twitter, and the TBS network had not canceled Samantha Bee’s show after she used the C-word to describe Ivanka Trump. “It’s been a helluva week for journalists,” said Amos, as she asked each of the panelists to make some sense out of it.
When Hegseth’s turn came, he quickly became the media outlier. “I’m not a journalist, I’m a commentator,” he said, in a booming, broadcast-worthy voice. “I’m a conservative Republican who isn’t afraid to admit it. I’m tired of journalists who pretend they are objective when they aren’t.” He continued: “There’s a massive double standard in America. Roseanne gets cancelled. Samantha Bee gets a slap on the wrist.”
At that point I began to seethe. Call me opinionated, but I believe journalists are predominantly (but not exclusively) liberal because they represent the communities that they serve. No need to pretend otherwise. And liberal journalists can be as tough on liberal politicians and commentators as they are on conservatives. Hillary Clinton’s e-mails were covered ad nauseum by the mainstream media. Coverage of the MeToo movement outed liberal commentators as quickly as conservatives — sayonara Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Mark Halperin.
As for Roseanne and Samantha, a member of the audience at the Princeton panel reminded us that these cases were not first amendment freedom of speech cases; they were employment law. If anyone doesn’t like the way the company played its employer card, then they should boycott the company or its advertisers. ABC television is trying to build a national audience, and it might be mindful that in the 2016 election the nationwide vote went against Trump, 48 to 46 percent. TBS, on the other hand, is trying to attract a significant sliver of the late night cable TV audience. (Maybe Samantha Bee should get a bonus — I had never paid attention to her until this incident, and now I have to admit she’s as funny as she is crude.)
Thanks to skillful moderating by Amos, and despite some shouted responses to Hegseth from a few in the audience, some thoughtful discussion did take place. Yi, the artificial intelligence and media analytics guy now with MIT, explained how his research showed that false information “tracked faster” than true information over the Internet. Maybe we could all profit from some media literacy programs.
That sentiment drew applause from the audience. But it wasn’t happy news to Hegseth. “You know what I don’t like about that?” he proclaimed. “It assumes that everyone in this room is stupid. And we’re not stupid.”
My seething continued. Who the hell is this guy, anyhow? I wondered. Someone remembered him as great three-point shooter on the Princeton basketball team. I didn’t recall him ever playing and I never noticed him on Fox, either, even though I occasionally tune in to see how “fair and balanced” is defined these days.
So I put on yet another cap, the objective reporter’s cap, and collected some facts:
Pete Hegseth was on the basketball team as an undergraduate, scoring a total of 34 points in 37 games over three years, and making 8 of 26 three-point shots. He never started a game.
After graduation he enlisted in the Army, seeing active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
From 2007 to 2012 Hegseth served as executive director of Vets for Freedom, which lobbied for more troops in Iraq. In late 2008 Hegseth’s first wife, Meredith Schwarz, filed for divorce. He then married Samantha Succop, who served as a spokesperson for the Vets for Freedom group in 2008.
In 2012 Hegseth ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for Senate from his home state of Minnesota. In a campaign video Hegseth spoke of his wife and son: “I couldn’t love them more. It makes getting up every day an easy thing to do.”
In 2016 Hegseth published his memoir, “In the Arena,” in which he argued that the focus of family policy should be “on strengthening families and creating good citizens by preventing divorce of parents with kids.” In 2017, for the paperback edition, that passage was edited to say, “creating good citizens by preventing wanton divorce.”
In 2017 Samantha Hegseth, the second wife (with whom Hegseth eventually had three children), filed for divorce. The filing was made after Hegseth and Jennifer Rauchet, a Fox News producer who worked on his show, had a child, according to published reports. Hegseth’s website now notes that he has four children.
Double standard? Hypocritical? Sorry, can’t help you because we are wearing our hat of objectivity. To borrow a slogan once used at Fox, “We report, you decide.”