T.H. White Seminar discusses press’s role, responsibility

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Elaine Kamarck and Dan Balz.
Elaine Kamarck and Dan Balz.

November 13, 2009 — The 2009 Theodore H. White Seminar on Press and Politics took place the morning after Taylor Branch‘s T.H. White lecture, and brought together a distinguished group of panelists. Included were Dan Balz, political correspondent, The Washington Post; Elaine Kamarck, Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Alex Keyssar, Matthew W. Stirling Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; and Renee Loth, columnist and former editorial page editor for The Boston Globe. The seminar was moderated by Alex S. Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center.

The seminar began with the panelists reacting to Branch’s lecture the night before. Balz asserted that the press’s treatment of the issue of gays in the military “illustrates the difference between [Clinton’s] being a candidate and being a president elect.” He also noted that at that time, the mainstream media was still dominant. “We are more scattered today, there is more emphasis on process than policy.”

Kamarck said that the coverage wasn’t misplaced, and that “you had to be female to understand what a mess this man was.” For Loth, the proliferation of such stories created “an additional burden on the citizenry, to self-educate, because there’s this undifferentiated mass of information out there.”

Taking a historical view, Keyssar felt that there wasn’t much new about the press’s obsession with trivial matters. He recalled that during the late 1800s, a time of great economic turmoil, The Boston Globe ran a large number of stories on a certain Colonel Breckenridge, spotted in New Hampshire with a woman who was “not his wife,” Keyssar said. “I don’t think this started in the 1990s. I don’t think it’s brand new.”

This article was written by Leighton Walter Kille of the Shorenstein Center. The photo was taken by Martha Stewart.