2017 Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics with Nancy Gibbs: “The Divided States of America”
November 15, 2017 — Nancy Gibbs, editorial director of Time Inc. News Group and former editor of Time Magazine, delivered a thought-provoking speech on American values, political polarization, and the impact of social media and journalism. Also at the event, Kevin Cullen, Boston Globe columnist, received the David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism. Watch the video and read the transcript below.
Nicco Mele: Good evening. Welcome. My name is Nicco Mele and I am the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. We are delighted to have you here for one of our biggest events all year, the Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics, and the awarding of the David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism. I think of this event as almost like our state of the union. What is the state of our media? Without further ado I’m going to introduce my colleague, Dr. Tom Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press, to introduce the 2017 Nyhan Prize. Please, a warm welcome for Dr. Tom Patterson. (Applause)
Thomas Patterson: It’s an honor to present the David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism. David was a Shorenstein Center fellow. He was a friend. I loved David Nyhan. We all did. You just couldn’t help it when you were around David. He was about one of the most charming and charmed persons you could imagine. He had this great impish smile, and an unlimited appetite for humor, for politics. That was David the person. Then there was David the Harvard man. He was a Harvard grad. Played on the football team, but he was more Irish than Harvard. (Laughter) His good friend, Marty Nolan, who was himself a Shorenstein Center fellow, worked with David at The Boston Globe for five years before David mentioned his Harvard connection. And what makes that doubly remarkable is that these two Irishmen hung out at more places than The Boston Globe newsroom.
David Nyhan was a reporter and then a columnist for the Globe. He grew up in Whiskey Point, the tough Irish working class neighborhood in Brookline. He lived his roots, becoming the Globe’s voice for the little guy. As David wrote in his last column upon retiring in 2001, “The thing I’ll miss most is the chance to shine a little flashlight on a dark corner where wrong has been done to the powerless.” In his memory the Nyhan family and David’s many friends and admirers endowed the David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism. David’s wife Olivia is with us tonight, as are other members of the Nyhan family. I’d like them to please stand. (Applause)
Now, the recipient of the Nyhan Prize is picked by a panel of judges from a list of nominees obtained through a call for nominations. This year’s David Nyhan Prize is awarded to Kevin Cullen, columnist for the Boston Globe. I believe it’s the first time a journalist from David’s paper has received the prize. Who today is giving voice to the voiceless? It’s Kevin. If you want to hear an echo of David Nyhan go to Kevin’s column of July 17th of this year. It’s about the mother of Bella Bond, the two-year-old girl who for a time was known only as Baby Doe. Bella’s body washed up in Boston Harbor while her mother, knowing she’d been killed by her boyfriend, continued to cash welfare checks meant for Bella’s care. What you’ll read in Kevin’s column is not what you might expect. It’s devoid of condemnation. It’s a story of the tragedy of poverty, of drug addiction, and of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship.
Before becoming a Globe columnist, Kevin served as bureau chief in Dublin and in London. He was part of the Globe spotlight team that won a Pulitzer for exposing priest abuse in the Catholic church, and a Harvard Nieman fellow in 2003. He’s the recipient of the Mike Royko Prize for best columnist which is given by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He’s the only two-time winner of that association’s Batten Medal, given to a journalist writing about those on the margins of society. And yes, he’s dug into organized crime. He’s coauthor of the New York Times bestseller, Whitey Bulger. It’s my honor to introduce this year’s winner of the David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism, Kevin Cullen. (Applause)
Kevin Cullen: Thanks, Tom. Very humbled. Great to be here with David’s family and Olivia especially. After Nicco called me to tell me that I had been selected to receive the Nyhan Prize I went onto the Shorenstein website and looked up the past winners and felt terribly inadequate and unworthy. Molly Ivins. David Rogers. Dana Priest. Bob Herbert. Leonard Pitts, Jr. Cynthia Tucker. Gary Younge. Thomas Frank. And my First Amendment hero, Nat Hentoff. These are great journalists, people whose work I deeply admire.
But then I possess one distinction. Of all the people who have received this award I am the only one who has been chased out of a gymnasium by the man for whom this award is named. (Applause) Dave and I were part of the Boston Globe newsroom crew that used to head over to the Boys and Girls Club in the Savin Hill section of Dorchester to play allegedly lunchtime hoop. It was mostly a mix of Globe guys and neighborhood kids. And one day I drove to the basket and Dave clipped me on the head while he was blocking my shot and I called a foul. Dave looked at me and the veins on his neck bulged. (Laughter) Something that looked like smoke came out of his ears. (Laughter) And I headed for the exit. (Laughter) I bounded down two flights of stairs, ran onto the street, and Dave was in hot pursuit. When he got outside I was behind a car and he was on the other side. Every time he moved to one side I moved to the other. At some point it dawned on us how ridiculous this was. Dave stood up and the fury drained from his body and we walked back into the gym together silently, pals again. We were almost to the gym, so we could go in there and resume the game, when I felt like I had to defend myself. I said, “All I did was call a foul.” David stared straight ahead and said, “Yeah, but it was the way you called it.” (Laughter)
That Dave counted among his friends so many people whose political ideology he didn’t share says something about him as much as it says about something that we’ve lost in this country.
Dave brought to the basketball court all the passion and heart that he brought to his craft. What I remember most about playing those games all those years at the Boys and Girls Club in Dorchester was how many of those kids there that David helped. Whether it was getting them a job, giving them a contact, writing them a letter of recommendation for a college or prospective employer, Dave saw in all those kids—many of them from Cape Verde, all of them poor—himself. That working-class kid in Whiskey Point who had dreams and his dreams took him here, to Harvard.
When I was a senior in college, weeks away from starting my first job at the late lamented Holyoke Transcript Telegram, I read stories Dave filed from Belfast in the midst of the Irish Republican hunger strike. The stories were accompanied by photos by Dave’s great pal, Stan Grossfeld, and I said “that’s what I want to do.” Dave never lost sight that at the end of the day the best stories we tell are about people, whether it’s politics, or those politics that affect lives and improve or diminish those lives. Dave spent much of his journalistic career in the company of powerful people in the country, but he did so with a purpose and that was to advocate for the people whose stories he told. I’ve always tried to emulate him.
Dave’s been gone 12 years now and we miss him as a person and as a journalist. When you step back and see how pernicious and corrosive hyper-partisanship has become, like a malignant, aggressive cancer on our civic life, perhaps the biggest void is Dave’s voice of reason and decency. Dave was an unabashed liberal, but he counted many conservatives and Republicans among his friends. He took an inexplicable shine to Lamar Alexander, the Senator from Kentucky, and after Dave died one of the first calls to Olivia was from John McCain. I would pay big money to read Dave’s take on John McCain in his final days in public life, reminding us what conscience looks like. That Dave counted among his friends so many people whose political ideology he didn’t share says something about him as much as it says about something that we’ve lost in this country. For those of us in this business he set the standard. The real honor tonight for me is to be mentioned in the same breath as David Nyhan. Thank you. (Applause)
Nicco Mele: So, what is happening next Thursday? Thanksgiving. I want you to for a moment go with me to 1963, Thanksgiving. The Monday before Thanksgiving the nation buried a president. Teddy White was at the funeral covering the funeral for Life magazine. He was exhausted afterwards, and he went where? He went to his mom’s house in New York for Thanksgiving, developed a toothache and the morning after Thanksgiving went to the dentist. And he was sitting in the dentist chair the morning after Thanksgiving when the receptionist interrupted to say his mother was on the phone and needed him to come home immediately. Jackie Kennedy had called, and she wanted to see Teddy White. He jumped up out of the dentist’s chair, he ran home to his mother’s house, he started packing his bag preparing to go up to Hyannis Port to see the president’s widow. And just as he was about to walk out the door his mother collapsed with a heart attack.
What kind of people are we Americans? What do we want to become as a nation?
So just picture the scene for a minute. You have just come through a brutal and exhausting 10 days where your friend and hero, the president of the United States, has been brutally murdered, you’re at the funeral, you’re in a moment of trying to recover, the president’s widow wants you to come see her, and just as you are about to rush up to see her your mother has a heart attack. What do you do? White’s family insisted that he go see Jackie Kennedy. She saw Theodore White as a way to speak to the nation through Life magazine. She wanted her husband remembered. She wanted White to write JFK’s place in history. “Don’t leave him to the bitter old men to write about,” she pleaded. And so, Theodore White made his way from New York through a terrible storm to Hyannis Port to write a now-famous Life magazine story that memorialized JFK’s place in history as “Camelot, a magic moment in American history when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers, and poets met at the White House and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.” But years after he wrote that piece for Life magazine he decided this just wasn’t true. In fact, he wrote, “The magic Camelot of John F. Kennedy never existed. Instead, there began in Kennedy’s time an effort of government to bring reason to bear on facts, which were becoming almost too complicated for human minds to grasp. No Merlins advised John F. Kennedy, no Galahads won high place in his service. The knights of his round table were able, tough, ambitious men capable of kindness, also capable of error, but as a group more often right than wrong and astonishingly incorruptible. What made them a group and established their companionship was their leader. Of them all Kennedy was the toughest, the most intelligent, the most attractive, and inside the least romantic. He was a realistic dealer in men, a master of games who understood the importance of ideas. He assumed his responsibilities fully. He advanced the cause of America at home and abroad. But he also posed for the first time the great question of our time, what kind of people are we Americans? What do we want to become as a nation?”
To answer that question tonight we have Nancy Gibbs. She really needs no introduction. She has long been one of the best writers in the country, chronicling who we are as Americans. She joined Time in 1985 as a part-time fact checker in the international section. She became a writer in 1988 and has written more cover stories than any other writer in Time’s history, including the black-bordered special issue on the September 11th attack which won a National Magazine Award in 2002. I have spent the last few weeks reading many of these cover stories and I’m just going to quote for you from the 1995 cover story on Newt Gingrich, Man of the Year, which Nancy Gibbs wrote with Karen Tumulty. “Gingrich is suffering not only for what he has done, but also for how he did it. Without so much as a decent burial he has killed the old order of American politics. The qualities that brought Gingrich this far are also the ones that are bringing him down, militance, arrogance, and a whole lot of nerve.” A few years later Nancy Gibbs wrote the cover story for Men of the Year, this time Ken Starr and President Clinton. And it starts this way. “There was rubble everywhere around us now. Civility, long rationed, ran out first. Politicians no longer express opposition. They are expressing hatred. No action, however solemn, is judged on its merits. Everyone’s got an angle. Even if the fighting ends tomorrow it will be years before the wreckage is cleared.” Reading Nancy’s work felt prescient to me. It’s almost as if she has anticipated this moment in American politics and media. And so, it’s no surprise that in 2013 Nancy became the first woman to lead Time magazine. And tonight, she is here with us to answer the question posed by Theodore H. White: What kind of people are we Americans? Who do we want to become? I can think of no one more qualified to answer that question. Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Nancy Gibbs. (Applause)
Nancy Gibbs: Thank you so much, Nicco. It is such an honor to be back here, especially now that there are so many fewer cranes and dumpsters than when last I was here. (Laughter) And the beauty of this building, the inspiring nature of it, I think, couldn’t be better timed because the work that is done here has never been more important. It’s also an honor to be here on a night when you’re celebrating the work of a journalist like Kevin Cullen. Your career reminds us that great journalists are that rare mix of poet and pirate and preacher and professor. And so, congratulations, and thank you for all that you have taught all of us.
I’m also honored to deliver a lecture named for one of my heroes. Reading Teddy White changed for me, the way it did for so many people, the way I think about candidates and campaigns. He viewed politics and the presidency as an outsider, as somebody who had lived abroad, who had seen the emergence of nations that were not democracies and so had a different kind of appreciation, I think, for who we were and what we were becoming. It was the opposite of reporting from the bubble. Those of us who operate in a bubble, whether journalistic or academic or ideological, can easily forget that bubbles don’t conceal reality, but they distort it. And it’s so easy to imagine that they aren’t there. Bubbles can be delightful and diverting except for now when they can become dangerous.
For reasons that you all know and have been watching, we’re more divided now, or maybe divided differently, than we’ve ever been in our history. We have institutions that once unified us that are declining: Rotary Clubs and churches and even shopping malls. Values that once united us, free speech and civility and freedom and fairness, that are being shredded by tribal furies. We have a president for whom division is not just a strategy, it’s a skill. We have enemies who are looking to divide us more. And we are hooked on technologies that are making that easier and easier every day. So is it any wonder that seven out of 10 Americans say we are in a lower, more dangerous place as a country than we have been at any time since the Vietnam War. Every day we are reckoning with ways in which we’re doing this to ourselves through the choices we make, the media we consume, the platforms that we depend on but do not really understand. Power looks less and less like a fist and more like a fingertip.
I believed that core American ideas enshrined in the Bill of Rights—defended by the blood of patriots, challenged by restless waves of immigrants, tested by generations of zealots and hucksters—were more powerful than any force that could divide us. I’m no longer so sure.
So, I want to use my time tonight to talk a little bit about how we got here and what this means and where we might want to go. And I believe that that’s because the people in this room are the ones who are going to have to draw the maps. And then when I’m done let’s have a conversation, and you can tell me where I’m wrong and what I’ve missed and how we should think about our responsibilities as students and journalists and citizens.
For years I used to argue that America is a much more purple place than you would ever think by watching cable TV or listening to talk radio, that we were not really as divided as we seemed. Yes, we were a fractious federation with all sorts of regional tastes and cultural contrasts, but a nation that was forged of an idea and a faith rather than force or threat, that was more able to adapt to change than any other nation in history. I believed that core American ideas enshrined in the Bill of Rights—defended by the blood of patriots, challenged by restless waves of immigrants, tested by generations of zealots and hucksters—were more powerful than any force that could divide us. I’m no longer so sure. I still believe deeply in their cohering power, but we have also entered a period of category five disruption, so I don’t take anything for granted anymore.
Let’s take as our baseline the 1990s onward. During that time, we have seen the end of the Cold War and the rise of non-state threats. We have seen the birth of the information age and the deposit into our hands of hyper-connecting supercomputers. We have decoded the genome. We are on the way toward a majority minority society. We have seen the explosion of wealth among the already wealthy, and of course the swift and brutal deconsolidation of media. Consider just a few of the trends that rose in parallel to that. Ray Dalio from Bridgewater Associates talks about the two economies, about how those in the lower 60 percent of American society, their real incomes are flat or down since 1980, and the upper 40 percent holds 10 times the wealth. Two thirds of the lower 60 percent have no savings at all. They spend a quarter as much on education which sets their children up to fall even further behind. Families led by someone without a college degree are breaking up at twice the rate of other families. We are one of the only industrial societies in the world where premature death rates are rising. They’re up 20 percent just since the year 2000 and most of that is driven by suicide and overdoses. And it’s hard to see that any of those trends driving those developments are about to go into reverse.
So, what defines us? Our incomes, our gender, our race, our age, our enemies? For as long as Pew has been polling, since the 1990s, on 10 different issues about how the country divides on immigration, on poverty alleviation, on the environment, the gap between people of different parties was roughly the same size, 12 to 15 points, as the gap between genders and ages. Now that gap is 36 points. The partisan gap is bigger than any other divide. Then on top of that, the divide isn’t just about how we vote. It isn’t just about whether you own a gun or a passport or a collection of Cat Stevens LPs. It is about where and how you live. A large majority of Republicans and right leaning independents say, “I would rather live in a place where the houses are bigger and further apart and where schools and stores are further away.” A similar number of Democrats say, “I would rather live in a place where houses are smaller, they’re closer together, you can walk to school, you can walk to stores.”
If the adage is true that you can’t hate someone whose story you hear, then what does it mean that it’s much less likely that people are going to encounter in a coffee shop or on a playing field or in a congregation or at the PTA meeting someone who does not think or vote like them? After the 2016 election Nate Silver from FiveThirtyEight calculated that of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties, fewer than 1 in 10 were decided by less than 10 points, were actual battlegrounds. In 1992 it was more than 1,000. Meanwhile the number of counties that were blowout counties, that were decided by 50 points or more went from 93 to 1,196. We have literally sorted ourselves into comfort zones. And that’s just the literal geography. Now think about our virtual geography. My generation grew up with the press as our gateway to political understanding and whether you read Time or Newsweek or the Times or the Journal or watched Walter Cronkite or Harry Reasoner didn’t really matter. They were all gatekeepers to a common ground and how you got there didn’t matter as much as where you ended up. Now the gatekeepers face competition from people who would usher us into a different reality.
We learned quite a bit about filter bubbles in the last year. We see what algorithms want us to see and think we are most likely to share. And now I’m going to pause and offer a defense of Kellyanne Conway. When Kellyanne used the phrase, “alternative facts” on Meet the Press, she used it to describe Sean Spicer’s demonstrably wrong description of the inaugural crowds and so the phrase alternative facts became a sort of sly synonym for bald-faced lie. But there’s another meaning that she has cited at other times. Glass half full, glass half empty, partly cloudy, partly sunny. It’s not necessarily just about information. It’s about interpretation. It’s about what facts you’re exposed to and the weight that you give them. So, this means one day on Fox News the most important story of the day is a uranium deal that Hillary Clinton may or may not have had anything to do with years ago and on MSNBC the most important story of the day is that Senator Bob Corker is talking about the instability of the president of the United States.
Axios has found that 83 percent of Democrats say that Russian interference and exploitation of social media is a serious issue; 25 percent of Republicans agree. Social platforms have made this polarization easier, but outrage is a business model. There are activists from all across the political spectrum who have a financial interest in declaring a politician or a policy a threat to civilization. Yale law professor Dan Kahan calls them conflict entrepreneurs who are intent on pathologizing our politics. Journalists too, when we cover politics like sport, when we find it easier to cover polls than people, very quickly get into a who’s up, who’s down, zero sum proposition. That’s fine when you’re writing about football. Either the Patriots win this weekend, or the Raiders do. It’s less fine when you’re writing about democracy because it precludes any possibility of everyone winning through some form of conscious compromise, deliberate action. No winner, no loser. Where’s the sport in that?
Social platforms have made this polarization easier, but outrage is a business model. There are activists from all across the political spectrum who have a financial interest in declaring a politician or a policy a threat to civilization.
Finally, in a period of such mesmerizing change I think it is just human nature that we look for the stories and the storytellers that comfort us and confirm us and don’t test us, who offer a simple soothing explanation for what’s happening. But that has an actual effect on the possibility of promoting good public policy. It’s not enough to educate the public. The problem is not just giving people better information. The people who do research on cultural cognition say that people tend to be tribal in their thinking about issues like immigration or gun control or climate change. Dan Kahan says that what people believe about global warming doesn’t reflect what they know. It expresses who they are. So, to have an informed public debate on an issue like that you first have to separate the subject from the tribal connection to it in order to have any hope of having people objectively weigh evidence without feeling like it is a test of their loyalty to the people they identify with. So, what happens when the single figure who is supposed to represent the entire country, command the forces that protect us all, manage the executive [branch] that governs us all, uphold the laws that bind us all, seems to have little interest, for either practical political purposes or high-minded ones, in uniting the country?
Decades worth of political and economic and social change and trends were remapping our political landscape long before anyone saw Donald Trump coming, but it’s hard to imagine a political leader more ideally suited to fueling these forces that are changing us. And that’s an unusual place to find ourselves as a country. You remember back in 2004 Barack Obama shot into the political stratosphere at the Democratic convention that summer by asserting that there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America, there’s a United States of America. And when he was elected four years later three quarters of voters believed that he would unite the country. That’s not what happened. And in his final State of the Union President Obama said that one of the regrets of his eight years in the White House was that during that time the divisions actually deepened, the conversation turned more sour.
No president alone is responsible for the state of our national discourse, but they occupy our highest pulpit and the tone they set, the words they use, the example they live, matter. After 10 months in office this president is the most divisive in modern history and two thirds of Americans believe that he is actually doing more to divide the country than to unite it. We’re watching something we’ve never seen before. For one thing it feels like we see everything. I think over the last two years of watching him and in my interactions with this president I have never seen both a more transactional and a more transparent president. At one point, Teddy White observed that there were now so many reporters doing behind the scenes reporting that there was no room behind the scenes. (Laughter) Well, what would he make of a president who is so much the same in private and in public? No thought goes unspoken, no grudge forgiven, no reflex restrained. You won’t learn much going behind the scenes because every rift and rivalry and tantrum and tweet are right out there for all to see. News organizations that have a two-source rule for stories, or for three sources or four for a particularly sensitive one, now routinely say, “We spoke to 23 people in creating this account of what’s going on in the West Wing.” And that account almost invariably has to do with conflict: internal, external, intramural, extraterrestrial. It is the long arc of this astonishingly short rise to power.
Remember, we had never seen anyone reach the Oval Office with so little experience and exposure to the ways of Washington before this. It was very much like watching a boxer climbing the heavyweight rankings to achieve the title. Again and again and again Donald Trump picked a fight with someone who was expected to flatten him. There was a war hero, John McCain, there was Megyn Kelly and Malcolm Turnbull and Khizr Khan and Judge Curiel and Mitch McConnell and Jeff Sessions and all of Mexico and the entire Muslim world and the unelected judiciary and the NFL—and that’s before we get to Kim Jong Un. Some part of this, I think, is actually his wiring. More often than not he starts the day picking a fight. As Newt Gingrich told Michael Scherer of The Washington Post, with a certain grudging admiration from a guy who used to be seen as bare knuckled, he intuits how he can polarize. That visceral sense of grievance that the president projects I think is sincerely felt.
As it turns out, the night before he fired James Comey, my White House correspondent bureau chief and I had dinner with the president and a significant portion of that conversation was spent talking about how much he hated our coverage and everyone else’s, re-litigating the size of the inaugural crowd, talking about the reasons he feels he doesn’t get credit for what he has accomplished, doesn’t receive the loyalty he thinks that he deserves. He deplored the tone of political coverage. “There’s a great deal of meanness out there that I’m surprised at,” he said. (Laughter) But just because this serial hostility is sincere doesn’t mean that it is not also strategic. During the primaries, David Von Drehle traveled with him between campaign events, and he was watching himself on all three networks. Everywhere he looked it was all Trump all the time. [Trump] said, “You see what this is, right? It’s ratings? I go on one of these shows and the ratings double, they triple. That gives you power. It’s not the polls, it’s the ratings.” This was the insight. In an attention economy ratings are power. Not just TV ratings but Facebook likes, and Google searches, and Twitter mentions. “You have to keep people interested,” he says. Which boils down to this: Conflict commands attention, attention equals influence.
And yes, some of this is about indulging supporters who feel alienated from all kinds of elites in Washington and in the media and in places like this, but I would remind you that this also includes millions of people who are not economically marginalized, who are not uneducated or undereducated, and if we only watch him and don’t look out at one another we’re going to miss the story. He is outrageous with purpose. On the day of the election a large majority, more than 60 percent in each category, said he did not have the temperament for the office, he did not have the experience for the office, and he was not honest and trustworthy. But a similar number said that the country is on the wrong track, and for those for whom bringing about change was the most important issue at stake 82 percent voted for Donald Trump.
If he has proven nothing else he has successfully proven that he can change the rules and ever since, love him or hate him, the commander in chief has commanded the news cycle like no one before him. At times this feels like a strange kind of fixation, a rubbernecking presidency. I believe he is a human algorithm, perfectly engineered to say or do whatever we are most likely to watch. And herein lies a challenge to many of us, certainly to my profession. Donald Trump is not at war with the press, nor it with him. This is a much more complex relationship. His presidency has been great for ratings, in ways that are bad for journalism and bad for the country. For one thing, his attacks on news institutions have damaged the public trust that we need in order to function. Fully 46 percent of Americans think that reporters just make things up about this president. In January of 2016, roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans supported the role of the press as keeping leaders’ feet to the fire, holding them accountable. Remember, there was a Democrat in the White House at the time, but 74 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans reported the role of the press as a watchdog. Now nine in 10 Democrats support that role and only 42 percent of Republicans. A 47-point gap opened up about the role of the press in a single year. When the press is derided and discredited and distrusted it’s easy to ignore whatever it is investigating, even at a time when the investigative muscle and prowess of news organizations has been extraordinary. And what of what they’re investigating are all the ways in which our adversaries are waging literally a war of words, driving our division, destabilizing our institutions in support of their global agenda. We have hardly begun to reckon with what we have learned about what happened and continues to this day.
In an attention economy ratings are power. Not just TV ratings but Facebook likes, and Google searches, and Twitter mentions… Conflict commands attention, attention equals influence.
But make no mistake, the foundations of democracy were cracked by what happened and what continues to happen on our social platforms and with the way the technologies have been weaponized against us. Silicon Valley has delivered astonishing tools to share knowledge and solve problems and save lives, but also it turns out to change and control us in terrifying ways. When Facebook admitted that there were ads bought by Russian agents last year, it noted that they mainly focused on divisive social and political messages. They acted as amplifiers of outrage, gasoline on fires burning around race and gender and LGBT rights and immigration. The ads targeted both sides, remember. Their goal was not so much conversion, it was just conflict. Testifying before a belatedly interested Congress, the corporate representatives acknowledged that 126 million people were exposed to Russian content on Facebook including ads that were paid for in rubles. Really? Twitter found more than 36,000 accounts linked to Russia. Jonathan Albright at Columbia measured the interactions of just six of the public Facebook pages coming out of Russia. He counted 340 million interactions. Oxford University has a computational propaganda project which found that Twitter users got more misinformation and conspiracy theories than professionally produced news and that voters in swing states got much more misinformation than voters in other states. Freedom House this morning has released a new report showing that disinformation has played a role in 17 other countries’ elections just in the past year.
Facebook’s business model, or one of them at least, is echo chamber construction. Its beams and struts are algorithms that favor news that will connect with us and ideas that will confirm our own, and the problem is that civil discourse suffers from both the echo, which has a way of amplifying even small sordid sounds, and the chamber which walls us off from diverse opinions that might startle and discomfort us in healthy ways. Google and Twitter and Facebook share enormous civic and fiduciary responsibilities even if lawmakers appear at the moment overwhelmed by the sheer complexity and scale of what it is that we’re contending with. How do you figure out an understanding of the First Amendment? Does it protect trolls? How does it view foreign propaganda, threats and harassment, kinds of content that we have just begun to apply our most essential values to? Another Axios poll found that a majority of Americans now see social media doing more to harm than to help democracy. And these were platforms that were meant to be tremendous connectors and educators and opportunities to drive civic engagement, and now you have people who trust neither the companies nor anyone else to regulate them wisely.
I would argue that a place like the Kennedy School, Harvard more broadly, and other great research institutions have an ever more critical role to play in promoting and defending democratic values exactly because the threats are coming from new angles and new actors, and it gives urgent new meaning to something President Kennedy said presciently in his inaugural address. He said, “The world is different now, for man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” His assassination unleashed another era of intense division and as we mark the 50th anniversary next year of one of the most divisive years in our country’s history, it’s worth keeping a certain perspective about where we are, but I do believe that these challenges go beyond just partisan brawling and they seep deeper into us and into our institutions.
In 1967 65 percent of people trusted government to generally do the right thing. A pretty basic question: Do you think government will generally try to do the right thing? Now that number is 20 percent. The problem isn’t any one party or one president or one set of policies. It is a dimming faith in democracy itself and it’s not just happening here. It’s happening in ways researchers have spotted in Sweden and Britain and Australia and countries that also have great longstanding traditions in defense of liberty. Openness to strong, even authoritarian rule, is growing. Harvard’s Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa track the astonishing drop with each generation of how many people consider it essential to live in a democracy. If you were born before World War II three quarters of you believe that. If you’re under 30 it’s 30 percent. As a journalist my whole life, I’m concerned with ways in which we can, sometimes with the best intentions, play a role in undermining some of that faith. I think journalists are attracted to the profession because we believe in its accountability role, we believe in afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted and holding the powerful to account. And all of that is tremendously important, but I think that attitude may foster a bias against the positive. There is, other than a journalist who lies, perhaps no more reviled creature than the producer of a puff piece who clearly must have been in the tank or was beat sweetening or source developing. I have heard reporters that I was interviewing for jobs talk about how they were criticized by colleagues for a profile of a politician that was viewed as being uncritical. Critical stories are journalism. Anything else is just marketing. Well, the problem with that attitude is that of course it’s bound to drive cynicism in public figures if they can’t win. Why not spin and stonewall if nothing they do will ever really be right? And it drives cynicism, I think, in citizens. And if we aren’t able to write eagerly, urgently, about things that are working, about terrific solutions to problems in cities around the country, about extraordinary philanthropic efforts, about ingenious ways in which people are solving problems with exactly the same technologies that also concern us, we’re missing an enormous story. And if we don’t show how democracy can work and if we don’t model what civil discourse looks like, then it’s hardly a surprise if people’s faith in both starts to diminish.
Facebook’s business model, or one of them at least, is echo chamber construction.
I’m encouraged that we’re seeing politicians starting to listen to this. You’ve read about the Problem Solvers Caucus that is coming together to try to work to find some common ground on all sorts of issues, about the civility pledge that a bunch of freshman lawmakers took in this Congress. You’re seeing in different corners of the political arena an attempt to address these concerns. But we need to make that easier. Even at a great university like this, how regularly do you get to encounter people of high intellect and good will who will ardently disagree about an issue without the debate descending into a challenge of motives or privilege? I was walking across another Ivy League campus two weeks ago and saw on a lamppost a sticker that said, “End free speech.” It was not at all clear if that was meant to be ironic.
And so what concerns me especially is that this is happening, this corrosion of conversation, this rise of mistrust, this questioning of faith in basic institutions, all of this is happening in a time when we are hurtling so fast toward questions that are going to test all of our instincts, all of our values, all of our intellectual and moral muscles. This is going to be around everything from whether Alexa should be allowed to testify at a murder trial, to what are the rules of robot war, and when your car is a better driver than you are, do you still have a right to drive? This is the challenge I would put to all of you. Democracy depends not just on armies, but on arguments. We need you to think boldly and creatively about how you dive in and reach out and ask hard questions to people around the table who wouldn’t be there otherwise and don’t agree with each other, and put nothing off limits. This change is accelerating and it’s essential that you are fast and fearless in keeping up.
And to the students above all, we will very soon be in your hands. Mine’s the transitional generation. We grew up in a period of historic peace and prosperity with an easy faith that freedom will always win in the end. Yours is a serially disrupted one. You grew up with more new data being created every two days than had been created in all of human history up until the day you were born. You have seen power shift from institutions to individuals at a rate unimaginable a generation ago, and you’re going to be reckoning with new ideas and new inventions that are going to test everything about even what it means to be human. We are living in large times and nothing gives me more hope than the energy and the eagerness that I see in students that I meet who would rather climb than coast, who are prepared to work hard not just for the glory but for that greater good. You’ll be the ones who restore to American politics the spirit that Teddy White loved as our binding secular faith and our noblest art. Thank you. (Applause)
Democracy depends not just on armies, but on arguments.
Nicco Mele: And so now we invite questions. So please, take your questions to the microphones and we’ll get started. I’ll start us with a question, Nancy. In your view, given what you said about how conflict equals attention, attention equals influence, how should the media cover the President’s tweets, many of which are so clearly designed to stoke conflict and drive the news cycle?
Nancy Gibbs: Maybe I’m old school, but I think anything a President says or does is news. Would you really want newsroom editors, reporters, deciding, if they could? [If news outlets did not cover them] it doesn’t mean that those tweets aren’t going to be heard, it just means that they would not be contextualized by people who can bring to bear the implications of this, what it tells us, where it aligns or does not with things the president has said before, how you might want to think about this. It is extraordinary to have the kind of visibility that the President’s Twitter feed gives us into what he cares about, and those who have autopsied that feed—who have looked at what is happening in the news, what’s happening in the world versus what he’s tweeting about—it’s extraordinary. It is revelatory about both what he’s thinking and what he wants us to be talking about. But I think to decide that we’re not going to cover it would make a challenging technology even more of a problem.
Nicco Mele: It seems like he does take advantage of almost what I would call the media’s bias towards conflict and uses that to in a sense manipulate or shape coverage.
Nancy Gibbs: He absolutely does. I mean look at the consumption of news that we have seen in the last two years. Everyone’s audiences have grown. And I routinely have people come up to me and say, “You know, I never really cared about politics, I didn’t really follow the news, now I can’t turn it off. I wake up in the morning, I turn on the radio, I turn on the morning news, I’m in my car, I’m on my phone.” There is something actually addictive in the way people talk about it, [people] who were not customarily engaged in a lot of these conversations. And I think that’s critically important. These conversations and the tools and platforms on which we’re having them affect our behavior, affect how we see the world, affect how we act in it. And he has an uncanny understanding of that. And I feel like a lot of the time we’re trying to catch up.
[Time] we did a cover, “Is Truth Dead?” And we told the White House we’d like to interview the president about lying. Sure. (Laughter) Not what we expected, but in challenging him about statements he had made that were demonstrably false, he talked about things that he had said and done that everyone had said could not happen, including him winning the nomination and then winning the White House, where he was right and everyone else was wrong. When he talked about the violence in Sweden that hadn’t occurred, he said, “The next day there were all of these”—he claimed a certain prescience—it’s not a lie if it happens after you say it. But I think that his understanding of our appetites and the way they have changed is very important to understand, not just in the immediate near term of what this presidency means. These platforms and these conversations also have enormous impact outside of politics.
So I think that the obligation of reporters is to be every bit as aggressive and devote as much energy and space to writing about policy, which is hard, and the implications of policy, and force our eyes off of the shiny object and actually look at things that are happening in the agencies, elsewhere in government, and outside of Washington. It’s never been more important exactly because we have this riveting drama unfolding in Washington and because so many news organizations have fewer and fewer resources. Where are you going to devote them? It’s really important that they are devoted beyond covering the admittedly extraordinary story that we’re seeing on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Chris: My name is Chris and your talk was brilliantly descriptive. I was wondering if I could ask you to be prescriptive for one minute and give three simple to-dos for me or as part of a local group here. What can we do to stem the tide of the trends that you talked about for the last 50 years?
Nancy Gibbs: Well, a lot of what I talked about of course has to do with media consumption, so I’ll start there. I do think we’re going to have to have a massive, to the extent that it’s possible, education campaign in news literacy and really making us all mindful of what we consume and what we share. If your doctor tells you that what you put in your body has a genuine effect on your health, what [media] you consume has a genuine effect on your mind and your soul. And so, [we should be] rigorous about our sources of information and particularly what we share, what we point the rest of our tribes to. I think everyone has increasingly a civic obligation to be a rigorous, disciplined, skeptical consumer of news.
That is one thing. I do think that there is a lot of ingenuity and energy and excitement in politics at the local level. So I would urge people: If you want to get involved directly in political life and political activity, you don’t have to look to Washington. I would look in your neighborhood, in your community. In this election two weeks ago, we saw people being elected to office, running and winning, who had no political background and I can only imagine, given the fact that we have a president who had no political background, that we are going to see that. So as we think about candidates and our own political lives, I would urge people to be expansive and creative.
And then I think we have an obligation in our own discourse to be aware that we’re probably tribal ourselves in who we listen to, who we show contempt toward. The obligation to be respectful and to be open to the possibility of uncertainty, to be willing to engage directly, it has become harder. So, actively seek out people who disagree with you, people who take some issue that you feel strongly about and have a fundamentally opposing view about the right solution. I think the only way—I’m a Hegelian in this—I really do believe that if we are not experiencing the friction that comes from encountering people who make us uncomfortable, that we are much less likely to actually come to the best solution to any problem we’re trying to figure out.
Nick Nyhan: Hi, I’m Nick Nyhan, fan of journalism. Fantastic talk. I tweeted it. I hope that’s okay. (Laughter) My question is, I’m looking for some optimism. I’m sure some people are these days. The only thing I keep telling myself is it has to sometimes get worse before it gets better and that there’s a pendulum movement to history. Am I being too optimistic?
Nancy Gibbs: No, you’re not. And I am, as my children would tell you, an egregious, inveterate, appalling optimist. So, it was actually disturbing to me to feel like I was giving a pessimistic [speech], or at least an address that has a fair amount of alarm in it. So thank you for asking that. I would point to, just as the easiest and most recent example, what we saw during Hurricane Harvey, where the same tools that can be so effective in dividing people were used to save people. You had federal, state, and local official response of government agencies and institutions, and then you had the Cajun Navy and you had neighborhood groups and churches and individuals and schools and every imaginable kind of group spontaneously deploying these tools to help each other. And no one had to pass a test—are you the right kind of person and do you think the way I do?—before having someone reach out to help them. And we’ve seen this. This was not a one-time thing. I think the challenge is, we know that we can do this. How do we do this without it taking a national tragedy or a natural disaster for us to put aside the tribal alliances and restore our sense of the human one?
Grace: Hi, my name is Grace. I’m a student here at the Kennedy School and thank you so much for coming and talking to us today. My question is, given how dominant the President’s communication style is, what would you recommend for candidates trying to oppose him in the next presidential election? Should they fight fire with fire or is there another communication style that they can use to combat the style that the president is currently using?
Nancy Gibbs: Really good question. And I, as you can imagine, long ago got out of the prediction business because really, no upside. (Laughter) But I do think that between now and 2020 we’re going to have so many extremely critical conversations about how politicians communicate. One thing that we now know about how a lot of the micro-targeting worked on Facebook is that a lot of the messages that campaigns and candidates were sending, we in this room would never see because they are only targeted at very specific people. So whether or not there is going to be a whole new kind of transparency, so that at least a candidate knows what charges are being leveled, what policies are being attacked, what positions are being targeted in that advertising, who’s paying for the ad, where is it coming from—there are a million questions that are going to be litigated urgently between now and 2020, when this challenge is only going to grow. So I think that whatever the rules are now, they’re going to be different. This is a classic case where you can’t fight the last war. The battleground is going to move, the weapons are going to change. It is all going to be different. Just as 2016 was different than anything we had ever seen before, 2020 is going to be different again.
I think one of the particular challenges for people in public life, for lawmakers certainly, and for candidates, is going to be to really school themselves in how our information infrastructure works. This is a fundamental foundation of democracy and if those informational underpinnings are eroded by some of these tools, that’s a significant problem. Any candidate and anyone looking to play a role in public life, I think we’re all going to have to go to school on this. We’re all going to have to understand things that are really complex. So that to me again is where institutions like this are going to have to take the lead. Students like you are going to have to help because people are busy, and these questions are complicated, and the answers are not going to be simple because the challenge occurs at an intersection: private companies and new technologies and political and economic imperatives and moral questions and values. Figuring out an architecture for addressing the challenges that we now are aware of, I think, is a very significant task that lies in front of all of us.
Sebastian: Hello there. I’m Sebastian. I’m a student here at the Kennedy School. I was wondering if you could explain a little more whose role you think it is to help journalists become a little less critical and a little less sensational?
Nancy Gibbs: There are actual formal groups. There’s a group called Solutions Journalism that actually has almost a curriculum to go into newsrooms and talk to journalists about, how do you cover solutions in a way that is appropriately skeptical and critical, but where you are allowing for the possibility that some problems actually can be solved, that some things actually do get better? There are organized efforts to counteract the bias towards the conflict. Look, we learn in English class that narrative runs on conflict and a story without tension feels limp and bloodless. I understand why there’s a natural desire to find where the conflict lies. But it’s also true that—if you think about stories you like to tell your friends and neighbors— if you see something really cool or really inspiring or some problem that you didn’t think could be solved that actually got fixed, it feels great to tell that story. So I don’t think we should be afraid of that. I think there is a case to be made that there is hunger for something hopeful. We know there’s a market in outrage; I think there has to be one in hope because people do not feel good about where we are. We know this too. Even as people talk about how polarized we are, as they talk about the erosion of trust, they say, “We don’t want to stay here.” It’s like being in the wilderness. If you don’t keep moving, you die. I think people want to move out of this space and so anything we can do that maps the road out I think is the best possible use of our time.
Travis: My name is Travis. Thank you for being here, Nancy. You mentioned the concept of a ratings economy and I think there’s a likelihood that in the future there will be candidates who will try and emulate what President Trump did, to say things to get the most attention. What is your advice for the media on how to cover those candidates who are going to come and try to emulate his strategy of just saying the thing to get the most tweets or the most likes?
Nancy Gibbs: The problem with news is that when things are new, again, I feel like we have an obligation to write about it, cover it. But we don’t have to write about it just as, “here’s this outrageous thing that happened.” I mean part of the job of journalism is to fact check and to contextualize and to bring accountability. I’m inclined to think—and here’s my optimism speaking—I do believe that in some ways Donald Trump is sui generis. Even though what we have seen unfolding in Alabama these last couple of weeks has been a reminder of the intensity of the tribalism, it is not as though if Donald Trump decided he wasn’t having fun anymore and he stepped down, that everything would go back to normal. There’s no going back. But I think that candidates who think that he wrote a playbook that they can follow are also likely to be surprised that it’s not going to work that way. I at least would be very surprised if outrage for the sake of outrage and giving offense for the sake of giving offense was going to be a winning strategy going forward.
Nicco Mele: Thank you very much, Nancy. (Applause)