“Jump In, the Water’s Great!”
Underneath the tent in Greenleaf Yard last Friday, Radcliffe alumnae, family, and friends huddled together (in spite of a persistent drizzle) to try to answer a question that has been asked throughout the spring term and at this year’s Commencement exercises: Is there still hope for integrity in journalism? The 2017 Radcliffe Day ceremony honored this year’s Radcliffe Medal recipients, co-anchors Judy Woodruff and the late Gwen Ifill, under whose leadership the PBS NewsHour has been lauded for its honest, thorough reporting in an age when the fundamentals of journalism have been shaken. Ifill’s Radcliffe Medal was accepted by her close friend and fellow journalist, Michele Norris, whose bright yellow jacket echoed Ifill’s own colorful blazer choices on camera. Norris reflected on how much her friend’s work meant to her, sharing how Ifill’s career was one of shattering glass ceilings for women and people of color in the media.
“Democracy Is about Disagreement”
The crowd at Radcliffe was receptive, frequently bursting into applause, laughing ruefully at jokes about the state of American politics, and murmuring in agreement at points of reflection about the caliber of Ifill’s reporting. “A vocation is what you are summoned to do in life. A career is a choice. Judy and Gwen have demonstrated commitment to their vocation,” said New York Times columnist David Brooks in his brief remarks opening the day’s program. Following Brooks’s commentary, Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, took the stage to moderate a panel discussion on “(Un)Truths and Their Consequences,” featuring Conant University Professor Danielle Allen; A’Lelia Bundles ’74, author and former television executive and producer at NBC News and ABC News; E.J. Dionne ’73, columnist for The Washington Post; and Jonah Goldberg, senior editor at the National Review.
As the lone self-identified conservative on the panel, Goldberg quickly emphasized his decision not to support President Donald Trump in either the Republican primary or national elections, noting that he could not find anyone who could make a defense of Trump’s character in any context. “The conservatism that I love boils down to the idea that character matters and ideas matter. ‘Ideas matter’ means that reason and arguments are important. Democracy is about disagreement.” Lipinski asked panelists about the downsides of such disagreements, chiefly the lies and deception that became commonplace in the 2016 election. All of the panelists reflected on instances in which they had been lied to by sources, and commiserated over the repercussions for the integrity of reporting. It was Danielle Allen who called for a refocusing of priorities in the American media: “We need to focus on equality and liberty again. Conservatives don’t do a good job when it comes down to equality,” she said to a burst of applause, before adding, “and liberals do a terrible job of talking about freedom.”
Fortune-Telling and Magic-Making
To conclude the morning discussion, Lipinski tempted the panelists with either a crystal ball, through which they could tell the future, or a magic wand, with which they could change something about the future of journalism given the current state of the industry. The responses were almost entirely somber. “I think that 20 to 50 years from now, this time will be seen as an aberration. I think people will look back and ask, ‘What side of history were you on?’” Bundles said, citing the aftermath of McCarthyism and the way journalists were held accountable for how they reported the facts of the era. To counter her nostalgia, Goldberg quickly said, “I’ve come to define hope as a brief pause in between being kicked in the groin.” He picked up his magic wand to increase the amount of community-based reporting, with more news outlets developing in overlooked parts of the country that, he argued, are not being adequately covered through the mass media.
Dionne and Goldberg (Dionne himself acknowledging, multiple times, how surprised he was to find himself agreeing with Goldberg’s commentary) both referred to Mark Zuckerberg’s Commencement speech, in which he urged the graduating class to look beyond their comfort zones to engage with perspectives that differ from theirs. At Wednesday’s Class Day exercises, former vice president Joe Biden expressed a similar sentiment, asking the class of 2017 not to allow their Harvard degrees to become a barrier to entry to spaces and conversations with people whose backgrounds and beliefs differ from their own. Dionne echoed the dangers of becoming trapped in an echo chamber of similar thoughts, and the power such environments have in influencing how people think about political issues: “People are entitled to their own opinions. They are not entitled to their own facts,” he said, quoting the late Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
An Optimistic Luncheon
Once the audience had settled in for the afternoon luncheon, before the awarding of the Radcliffe Medals, fellow journalist Walter Isaacson ’74 engaged Judy Woodruff with questions about the responsibility of established industry figures to train young journalists. “Gwen and I viewed our roles at the NewsHour as custodians of a kind of journalism that had been handed down to us,” Woodruff said. She acknowledged the challenges of reporting in an environment where lies and misrepresentations of facts have become an unavoidable part of the media landscape, but emphasized the importance of avoiding calling out lies outright because “If you say something is a lie, that ascribes a motive.” Instead, she encouraged reporters to depict the facts clearly and trust their audience to be smart enough to distinguish truth from fallacy.
Woodruff underscored her underlying trust in American viewers based on her thoughts about what the public stands to gain from engaging with the news. “Journalism should be holding a mirror up to American citizens to tell them what they’re doing well, what they need to work on, and what they need to learn to be good citizens,” she asserted. In a similarly optimistic response, touching on one of the themes of the morning panel—about whether young people are distancing themselves from the news—she shared an anecdote from the day before, when a group of twenty-somethings approached her at the airport to take selfies, and to tell her they never miss the NewsHour.
At the tail end of the program, Isaacson asked Woodruff to share advice for aspiring young journalists. “I’d say, ‘Jump in!’” she responded. “The American people are always going to need people with an insatiable need for answers. Jump in, the water’s great!”