SMPA Town Hall Examines Changes in Media, Politics

The discussion was driven by students and included a panel of journalists, political experts and a member of Congress.

Panelists at SMPA's town hall discussed changes in media and politics in the Trump administration. (William Atkins/GW Today)
September 18, 2017

By Julyssa Lopez

The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, GW College Republicans and GW College Democrats held a town hall on Wednesday that explored how the relationship between media and politics has changed during the Trump administration and in the digital age.

Students guided the discussion held at the Jack Morton Auditorium and asked questions to a panel that included Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher; communications strategist Howard Opinsky; CNN reporter Hadas Gold, B.A. ’10, M.A. ’12; NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson; award-winning television producer and 2017 SMPA Shapiro Fellow Jeffrey Blount; and 2017 Terker Fellow Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.). SMPA Director Frank Sesno moderated the event.

Donald Trump, the Media and a New Era of Facts

Representatives from the College Republicans and College Democrats kicked off the discussion. Senior and executive vice president of the College Democrats Aly Belknap spoke about how today’s media environment has become polarized, while senior and College Republicans Chair Allison Coukos said she felt the mainstream media has been overly critical of the president.

Ms. Liasson, a former SMPA Terker fellow who has covered several presidential administrations as a reporter, said that Mr. Trump presents a whole new set of challenges for journalists.

“In terms of how he uses the media and what he’s like to cover, he is something wholly new and different…. He’s out there either saying things to the media, to the pool or in a speech or on Twitter that are often not based in fact, and we have to report on that. If it’s not true or there’s no evidence, we’ve got to say that,” she said.

Mr. Opinsky, the former press secretary for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), added that the public’s relationship to facts and accuracy in politics also has fundamentally changed. When he worked with Mr. McCain, he said, his team was careful to make sure the senator didn’t make mistakes or misrepresent facts in the press. This seems different today.

“You have to be truthful to begin with, and I think the challenge we have is that the value of truth seems to have plummeted. Politics too often today has become where people are willing to make up facts and call them ‘alternative facts’ or whatever you want at any given moment, and the electorate seems to care less about it,” he said.

Ms. Gold added that “normally, the U.S. has been a bastion of freedom of expression.” But Mr. Trump sends dangerous messages when he jokes with leaders and dictators who threaten the safety of journalists.

A Divided Country

The panel also analyzed how divided and politicized the country has become. Mr. Sesno shared statistics that showed how divergent opinions among Democrats and Republicans are when it comes to issues such as climate change and racism. Mr. Sesno and Mr. Blount both discussed how young people no longer tune into nightly programming or television that once united previous generations.

Mr. Belcher said that the media isn’t strictly to blame for divides in the country—he pointed to voters and changing demographics that have magnified issues that have always existed.

“Millennials are the most diverse generation in American history,” he said. “You will see a democracy switch from majority white to majority minority. That’s a really big deal, and we shouldn’t pretend that this sort of dramatic change in our country and what that means from a power and politics standpoint is not going to have backlash or bumps along the road.”

Professor Robert Entman, who studies media and framing effects, added that the leadership of the country is also responsible for divides.

“When we have a situation where we no longer have a common public sphere and we no longer have elites of the two major parties agreeing on basic ground rules of how the political game is played, we are in unchartered territory,” he said.

Professor Nikki Usher underscored the way algorithm-driven social media platforms, particularly Facebook, have altered communication. She highlighted a recent study that she co-authored with Dr. Entman that looks at how algorithms reinforce selective perception and confirmation biases.

Tudor Mihailescu, a visiting fellow and doctoral student, asked about how today’s fragmented media landscape has changed communication not just for media organizations, but also for politicians. He helped launch the startup GovFaces to improve communication between citizens and their representatives.

Mr. Boyle, who represents Pennsylvania's 13th congressional district, shared that while he often interacts with his constituents directly through social media platforms, their questions and experiences range drastically depending on the part of the state in which they live.

The Road Ahead

The town hall concluded with reflections from the two students who began the conversation. Ms. Coukos said that millennials can help media organizations they believe in by consuming news critically and responsibly.

“If we aren’t consuming news that’s informative and is actually helping us further dialogue, it’s going to start to go away. We need to be critical of what we’re consuming, and that’s going to be a big part moving forward,” she said.

Mr. Senso also urged students to be more informed news consumers, especially in today’s quickly changing media environment.

“What we got here is a sense of how much things have changed, how dynamic and fluid they are—whether it’s politics, media, demographics—and that’s going to be an amazing space of change for all of you. The change we’ve experienced isn’t going to stop—if anything, it’s going to accelerate,” he said.

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