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Q&A: Journalists discuss the politics of working in news media

Three political journalists debated the political implications of November's midterm elections at the John Fisher Zeidman Memorial Colloquium on Politics and the Press at a Saturday event

The Chronicle's Yuexuan Chen talked to the panelists—Frank Bruni, a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, Yamiche Alcindor, PBS NewsHour White House correspondent and Katherine Miller, an editor at BuzzFeed News—about their perspectives on the future of American politics. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Yamiche Alcindor

The Chronicle: You asked President Trump in the post-election press conference about his view on the fact that some people interpret his calling himself a nationalist as a rhetoric that emboldens white nationalists. And he responded by calling your question "racist." Reflecting on that interaction with Trump, would you act differently if you had the chance? 

Yamiche Alcindor: As a journalist, you’re taught to be professional, to focus on your work. And I was focused on my work that day and I continue to be focused on my work. I followed it up with a middle class tax cuts question because at the end of the day, I had two things I wanted to get to and I got to both of them. [When I pressed on with my question], it wasn’t me pushing forward, it was me finishing my thoughts on if he thinks he is emboldening white supremacists, a question that I think is very relevant. 

TC: Are there any possible changes to the rules of White House press conferences? 

YA: The White House is apparently looking at new rules to address the press conferences so we’ll see if there are changes that are made, but I don’t know what those will be, so I’m not sure if there’s a way to change whether the president wants to interrupt journalists because he’s the President of the United States. 

I’ve been a reporter now for 15 years and I’ve interviewed a lot of people who are off-subject. People see President Trump and think he’s an anomaly, but he’s not. 

TC: In the role of a journalist, has the media environment changed since President Trump took office? 

YA: I think anybody who works on Capitol Hill knows that there are people who will go zero to 60 with you if they don’t like the premise of your question or the story you’re working on. I don’t know if it’s gotten worse—I feel the President has a more tense relationship with journalists than past presidents, but Bernie Sanders would also get mad at me if I asked him about running against Hillary Clinton or what his policies on race relations were. 

TC: How do you stay motivated when covering issues like mass shootings and police violence?

YA: I think that journalism is a public service and it’s a privilege to ask questions for a living. It's a privilege to write and it’s a privilege to sit down for work. I think that I stay motivated by thinking of it in that way—I’m doing this for other people and I’m trying to spread this info across the country. I don’t have time to be tired. I got married recently so there's more of this idea that I have a work life balance—self care, getting a massage, having a good day to yourself if you need it. 

Katherine Miller

The Chronicle: What was it like switching from working at the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet, to BuzzFeed News?

Katherine Miller: It was kind of the same job. At the conservative outlet, I was mostly writing about foreign policy and liberal donor money. Then, I moved and changed jobs to covering campaigns at BuzzFeed. I think some people’s understanding of what conservative means has changed quite a bit the last few years as a result of Trump's election.

TC: Can you talk more about BuzzFeed News shifting their image toward being a serious investigative news outlet?

KM: I would dispute that a little bit. I think it depends on which perspective you come in to. My first actual real interaction with BuzzFeed was them covering the 2012 presidential campaign, so I’ve always thought of BuzzFeed as a place that does serious work. We definitely have a large organization with BuzzFeed News and BuzzFeed Entertainment, but we also have a large journalism operation that is doing a lot of investigative work and will be covering the 2020 campaign.

The goal is to meet people where they are with quality news they can trust. Political campaigns and political journalism in general, I don’t think we’re wildly different from what you’re going to be reading in a lot of other outlets that cover politics. It’s not something like we’re trying to merge fun and serious. We’re just doing the job we would be doing at the Times, Post or Politico, just approached in a slightly different way.

Frank Bruni

The Chronicle: What is it like working with Ross Douthat on columns, as he brings a more conservative voice?

Frank Bruni: For the ones we’ve done together, we’re not really working together in a collaborative way—we’re just talking to each other in the form of a google doc. We disagree on a lot of stuff, but Ross is fundamentally respectful and I am too, so neither one of us—if we’re disagreeing with each other—is feeling any ire towards the other person. It’s not that sort of worst crossfire model. It’s collegial, easy.

TC: How do you think we can bring that level of discussion across political lines to a broader level?

FB: I think it’s the fundamental challenge in this country right now. And I think part of it is realizing that someone can disagree with you and not be an awful person. For example, I’m openly gay, I’ve written about gay rights and I’m pro-gay-marriage and all that sort of thing, so I was sort of shocked and appalled during the run up to the 2016 campaign, of the way which Democrats would vilify anyone who was opposed to same-sex marriage. They would kind of wipe the historical slate clean and forget that it wasn’t until 2012 that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were publicly for legalizing same-sex marriage. This is an example of our itch to demonize, vilify and dismiss people.

How do you go in two years from having two Democratic standard bearers who are not publicly for the legalization of same-sex marriage, to a point where if there’s a 65 year old baptist woman in Mississippi who is not with the program, she’s deplorable? We can’t do that. We have to understand that it takes time for people to find their way to—what may be in this case—the indisputably just position. You can’t just overnight expect them to be on the same page as you and dismiss them as evil if they’re not.


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