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VideoAlumnae/i Journalists Discuss Media at a Crossroad

Four alumnae/i journalists recently engaged in a lively Zoom panel discussion, which 948 members of the extended Vassar Community signed up to attend. “American Democracy at a Crossroad: Views from the Media,” presented by the Office of Regional and International Programs, was moderated by Chip Reid ’77, National Correspondent for CBS News. He was joined by Natasha Bertrand ’14, National Security Correspondent for Politico; Jasmine Brown ’10, Producer for ABC News’ Nightline; and Phil Griffin ’79, President of MSNBC.

“American Democracy at a Crossroad: Views from the Media” featured alumnae/i journalists Chip Reid ’77 of CBS, Natasha Bertrand ’14 of Politico, Jasmine Brown ’10 of ABC News, and Phil Griffin ’79 of MSNBC. Photo: Courtesy of the subjects, except Brown, courtesy of the Nieman Foundation; Griffin: Evan Abramson.

The alums were welcomed by President Elizabeth Bradley, who highlighted Vassar’s “very long history of closely examining media and how it affects everybody’s lives”—stretching all the way back to a course taught by Helen Lockwood, class of 1912, and continuing today with a full-fledged Media Studies Program. “As illustrated by tonight’s panel, so many people from our College have had and are having just distinguished careers in media,” Bradley said. She also noted that Reid had been “the first male graduate to give the commencement address at Vassar College.”

After Bradley’s introduction, Reid asked the panelists if the 2020 presidential election is, in fact, bringing American—and American journalism—to a crossroads.

“In all honesty, I think we’ve passed the crossroads,” said Brown. “We’re in a realm in which we have to completely recalibrate how we do the news, how we regain people’s trust. There’s a fundamental breakdown of trust in this nation and I don’t know how we get that back.”

“We’ve never had a president call the media, at least in my lifetime, the enemy of the people,” noted Griffin. “We’ve never had a president who has been caught, in sort of a daily way, telling things that are factually just wrong. The media hasn’t figured out how to cover Donald Trump.”

Griffin said the media developed a credibility issue, particularly among Trump supporters, after failing to accurately judge where the last presidential election was heading.

“I think we were embarrassed in 2016,” he said. “Not only did we miss the story, there was a sort of funeral dirge on every network that night that showed the feelings of the people delivering the news. That played into the notion that many have about the media that they’re not honest brokers and fed into this Trump sensibility that you can’t trust them, and we’ve been divided since.”

All expressed concerns about a looming, unavoidable delay in the media’s ability to accurately report the winner of the 2020 presidential election to an impatient and increasingly distrustful public come November 3.

 

Bertrand said the profession would undoubtedly be challenged as never before during what’s sure to be a prolonged ballot count. “It’s going to be a real test,” she said, “in not allowing the president to set that narrative early and then use that to potentially try to contest the legitimacy of the entire election.”

Reid then asked the panelists what they would change about journalism today “if you had a magic wand.”

Griffin said he would eliminate the “both side-ism” that compels journalists to give equal time to two sides, even with the knowledge that one is offering falsehoods.

Brown said she’d take that position one step further: “I think also it’s the notion of objectivity, which is already starting to break down but I think really needs to go away, the fact that we as journalists can’t have hearts,” she said. “When we are telling stories about our own communities and what is happening, a person being killed in cold blood by a police officer—that’s not an objective story. There is no both side-ism on that.”

“I would change the ability of anyone to call themselves a journalist,” replied Bertrand. “A lot of the disinformation that we see, on the Internet especially, comes from the ability of certain bad actors to self-publish and present themselves as journalists when, in fact, they’re not.”

Reid at one point asked the panelists how they had decided to enter the field of journalism and whether their time at Vassar had influenced this decision. For Brown, the answer was a resounding “yes.” Back in 2005, while watching news coverage of Hurricane Katrina as a high school sophomore, she was struck by the amount of airtime given to footage of looting. “My family is from outside of Baton Rouge, we visit New Orleans quite frequently, and for me there was really a cognitive dissonance from what I was seeing and from what I know about the people of New Orleans, who are just the most loving, caring, supportive, take-the-shirt-off-their-back-to-help-you [kind of people]. ” Then she noticed that the same footage was being shown on a loop, exaggerating the prevalence of looting. When she got to Vassar, she majored in American culture and studied with professors William Hoynes (now Dean of the Faculty) and Adelaide Villmoare. They helped her investigate media bias in the coverage of Katrina for her senior thesis. “I felt galvanized, having taken classes with Bill Hoynes and learning about the way minorities are represented in the media and that’s honestly why I got in—to be able to represent communities of color in a way that is human.”

Said Bertrand, “my passion really was about justice, and I always viewed truth and people’s truths as a form of justice. I wanted to go into a career that allowed me to pursue that.” At Vassar, she majored in philosophy “because it’s something that prepares you to make very strong, thought-out arguments and really think through complicated issues.”

Griffin said a turning point in his life came in 8th grade, when his mother took him shopping at an urban grocery store and showed him how inferior the food was compared to what was available at the suburban market where the family usually shopped. “I said, ‘It’s just not right.’” That moment, he said, reinforced his desire to understand why the world works the way it does. “It was very simple. I was going to be a journalist,” he declared. At Vassar, he studied English under Eamon Grennan, whom he called “the greatest professor ever.”

Reid said he had tried a variety of academic fields at Vassar before settling on psychology. “I just wanted to learn about everything I could possibly learn about,” he said. “That’s the great thing about journalism—every day you’re learning about something new.”