Top Journalists Discuss Foreign Affairs in Lisner Event

Gwen Ifill, Thomas Friedman and Andrea Mitchell examine how America’s role in the world has changed and how it is covered in the media.

changing role
Journalists Thomas Friedman, Andrea Mitchell and Gwen Ifill visited GW for a panel discussion on Wednesday.
November 16, 2013

By Julyssa Lopez

Award-winning journalists Thomas Friedman, Gwen Ifill and Andrea Mitchell brought their foreign affairs experiences to “America’s Changing Role in the World and How the Press Covers It” on Wednesday at Lisner Auditorium. The conversation was organized by the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs and the News Literacy Project (NLP).

SMPA Director Frank Sesno opened the event, telling the audience the panel would be “a fascinating and simulating conversation from people who know the world on the role journalism can and should play in informing an electorate.”

He introduced Alan Miller, the founder of NLP, an educational program that partners journalists and teachers to promote news literacy.

“Their mission is to give students the critical-thinking skills they need to become smarter and more frequent consumers of credible information. Imagine if we were all more frequent consumers of credible information,” Mr. Sesno said.

Mr. Miller discussed the accomplishments of NLP and introduced the night’s panelists: Mr. Friedman, author and foreign affairs columnist at the New York Times, and Ms. Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent at NBC News and host of MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.” Ms. Ifill, co-anchor of PBS NewsHour and managing editor of "Washington Week," moderated the discussion. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson was also scheduled to appear but canceled due to health reasons.

Just the day before, Mr. Friedman had penned a New York Times opinion piece about the U.S.’s role in Middle Eastern affairs, particularly in negotiations over Iran’s sanctions and nuclear programs. Ms. Ifill opened the panel by asking why the U.S. should be involved in discussions in the region in the first place.

Mr. Friedman said there are several layers of overlapping interest in the Middle East, highlighting the United States’s complicated relationship with Iran. The U.S. has been involved in what is characterized as a 34-year cold war after imposing sanctions on the country following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Despite frosty relations, Mr. Friedman explained that Iran had a critical role helping the U.S. oust Taliban forces in Afghanistan—which is relevant today since there are still a hundred thousand American men and women deployed in Afghanistan. 

He added that dealings between the U.S. and Iran may affect other Middle Eastern interests, including relationships with Israel and Arab nations. Because of past feuds between Iran and Israel, nuclear arms negotiations may color how Israel reacts in other conversations, including peace talks with the Palestinians brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry. He emphasized that the U.S. is not involved as a “lawyer” in particular conflicts.

“We don’t need to apologize to anyone to be part of the story,” Mr. Friedman said.

Mr. Friedman also explained that Iran and U.S. relations are in a unique place in time because sanctions have cut Iran’s currency in half. By choosing moderate President Hassan Rouhani in an election organized by Iran’s Ayatollah, the Iranian people signaled that they wanted change. 

Ms. Mitchell added that were it not for President Rouhani, discussions likely would not have taken place.

The panel examined how the Obama administration’s foreign policy decisions have changed America’s role in the world. Ms. Mitchell described the U.S. response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s purported chemical weapons attack: Secretary Kerry signaled toward military action on national television, only to have President Barack Obama seemingly retreat by holding a congressional vote. The situation led Middle Eastern leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to view the U.S. as inconsistent, Ms. Mitchell explained.

“They are not wrong in saying there have been a lot of mixed signals coming from the West,” she said.

Mr. Friedman told the audience that the American people didn’t fully absorb the Syrian chemical weapons attack, perhaps because of a general exhaustion with Middle Eastern issues.

“A foreign government used poison gas to kill a thousand men, women and children in contravention of a red line drawn by the president, and the U.S. Congress was going to vote not to do anything,” Mr. Friedman said. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Middle East finally wore us down. After 9/11 and Iraq and the Arab Spring coming and going… we’re just fed up.”

The panelists went on to share thoughts on Secretary Kerry. Mr. Friedman lauded Secretary Kerry for engaging with countries despite the risk of failed negotiations. 

Ms. Ifill inquired about U.S. intentions to pivot foreign policy to Asia, a plan Vice President Joe Biden shared with GW students in July. Mr. Friedman explained that the government shutdown had stifled the pivot, since the president was unable to travel.

Before opening the panel to questions from the audience, Ms. Ifill asked the seasoned journalists what they have learned throughout their experiences.

Mr. Friedman described his career in journalism as “one big mash-up” and said his beats have ranged from the environment to foreign policy to domestic issues. He said he brings knowledge from each discipline to every story. He also urged students to come into interviews with a strong opinion to generate unique answers.

“If you come in empty, you leave empty,” he said. “The greatest compliment I can get is, ‘I’ve never said this before, but…’ Then you know you don’t have a commodity answer.”

The panelists then took questions from students in the audience. One student asked what challenges journalists face while covering global affairs in the digital age.

“The digital age is truly transformative,” Ms. Mitchell said. “We just have to find ways of doing it not only technologically, but of also making it palatable and interesting and lively without being superficial.”

Another student asked if the mainstream press has lost credibility through coverage of the Iraq war and Syria. He said he felt his generation places more trust in late-night comedians, like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

“Here’s the thing,” Ms. Ifill said. “You can’t laugh at Jon Stewart’s jokes unless you’ve got the information. And guess where he gets his information? Guess who he reads? Us.”