In Search of Common Ground

Jenna Goldman '18

From left to right, Hamna Ahamad and Robert Smith participate in the CLG discussion. Photo courtesy of Eric Hall.

From left to right, Hamna Ahamad and Robert Smith participate in the CLG discussion. Photo courtesy of Eric Hall.

Common Law Grounds’s first symposium titled “Of Bubbles and Biases: The Press and Democratic Dialogue,” took place last Friday, October 20th, in Caplin Pavilion.

Professor Deborah Hellman, faculty sponsor and founder of Common Law Grounds, began the day by quoting a portion of the organization’s mission: “To encourage discussion and debate among students and faculty across the ideological spectrum with the goal of identifying and articulating areas of agreement about core values and practices.”

She introduced Dean Risa Goluboff, who gave introductory remarks.

“How do you create dialogue across our differences?” Goluboff asked the audience. “With mutual respect.” She answered— a point woven through her speech. 

“We are in a profession that is all about dialogue, open discourse, and persuasion,” Goluboff reminded the audience. “We don’t always agree, and that’s not the assumption that will happen at the end of the day.” 

She believes that the Law School is uniquely situated to tackle difficult conversations because of the school’s reputation for collegiality and the diverse intellectual community on North Grounds.

“I think we are a place that has dialogue across difference because we are committed to each other and we are committed to our community.” 

The first panel brought together four editors and reporters to discuss “Challenges Facing Journalists.” 

Richard Leiby, senior writer at the Washington Post, started the remarks off with a satirical description of the “Fake News desk at the Washington Post,” garnering laughs as he illustrated a news room out of a Donald Trump fantasy. He went on to discuss the problem of normalizing the term “fake news.”

Quoting a Politico poll, Leiby said, “Nearly half of all voters believe that the news media fabricate news stories about President Trump.” He went on to say that even though three-quarters of the public think the media is biased, three-quarters of the public also think that the media is important in keeping politicians accountable.

Media bashing is not a new phenomenon. Leiby noted that Thomas Jefferson was not always a fan of how he was portrayed by the press during his Presidency and famously said, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” 

In that same breath, Leiby quoted a letter Jefferson wrote to Edward Carrington in 1787 on the subject of freedom of the press:

“And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

He ended his introduction with a call to action: “Report as rigorously as possible. Nothing is riding on it except the freedom of the press, the first amendment, and maybe the future of the country.”

Robert Blau, a managing editor at Bloomberg News, echoed Leiby, “The cries of fake news come daily, the very legitimacy of reporting has come into question.”  He referenced the reporter who was body-slammed by Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte and the recent murder of the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta. 

From left to right, Professor Deborah Hellman and Robert Blau, Managing Editor at Bloomberg News, speak at CLG Symposium. Photo courtesy of Eric Hall.

From left to right, Professor Deborah Hellman and Robert Blau, Managing Editor at Bloomberg News, speak at CLG Symposium. Photo courtesy of Eric Hall.

“How did this remarkable shift come about?” posed Blau. He surmised it was a building combination of mistakes of judgment, the inability to read carefully ideological shifts, and the failure to report on stories that have been hiding in plain sight for decades (like sexual harassment at the hands of public figures and the opiod epidemic). 

Paige Lavender, Senior Politics Editor and Assignment Editor at Huffington Post, focused on the problem of perception. “People have different understandings of what truth is,” said Lavender. “You can’t just say ‘Trump tweeted this’ without immediately getting pushback.” 

Lavender gave the example of the announcement by President Trump that transgender service members are no longer welcome to join the military. Soon after, CNN reported that Trump did not speak to the Joint Chiefs of Staff before issuing the ban. “Just repeating those facts directly puts into people’s minds a bias.” 

“Even when you are working in facts there will be some interpretation, and that’s something that I think about every day and am mindful of in my reporting.”

Peter Hasson, an associate editor at The Daily Caller, suggested that the most serious problem facing journalists now is the lack of trust, which he says underscores the importance to have honest journalism in all arenas.

“It’s not entirely surprising that as people segregate themselves politically, they are doing it in how they consume their news as well.” Hasson elaborated, “There are going to be people who don’t trust the Washington Post, even though it produces great journalism, and will turn to sources like Alex Jones or Breitbart, and that’s not good for anyone.” He ended with the point that it is the responsibility of right and left leaning publications to report the facts, regardless of what their audience wants to hear.

Michael Barthel, of Pew Research, and Dr. Meredith Clark, a UVa Media Studies professor, participated in the second panel called “State of the Media.” Moderated by former Time reporter and 2017 UVa Law graduate Adam Sorenson, the discussion centered on the empirics of studying the media.

Barthel shared facts discerned from Pew’s polling during the election. “There’s a fifty-seven point gap in approval ratings of the media between Democrats and Republicans, the largest gap we have seen since we began tracking in 1995.” 

Fox News was the main campaign news source for Trump voters, while no single source was as pronounced for Clinton voters. 

The way Americans consume media is dramatically changing; Barthel reported that the web is closing in on television as a source for news (going from a ninteen-point gap in 2016 to a seven-point gap in 2017). Two-thirds of US adults get news from social media. 

Dr. Clark’s research focuses on the intersection of race, media, and power. “Four out of ten black people say the news they consume does not accurately reflect their community” says Clark. “The people I interview say they don’t see their communities covered in the legacy media, so they don’t look to those outlets anymore.” 

The ideological rift grows because the default news source for many Americans is social media: “Filter bubbles and algorithms mean that we can have two distinct experiences,” making it difficult to parse fact from opinion.  

The solution? Clark says, “Reach out and build trust in those communities by covering them.”

When addressing the elephant in the room, Sorensen asked, “Even when confronted with facts that may counter what they believe, some people hold to their beliefs even more strongly. What do we do?”

A difficult question, to which Barthel replied, “Now we have access to more facts than ever before, maybe we just like to watch them wiz by?” He ended by recounting a quotation written on the wall at Pew, “Give the people the facts and let them decide.”

The event concluded in an exercise and discussion called the “Bubble Challenge.” The exercise involved reading a series of articles by different publications about Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, and ended with a long term charge to “consume media from sources students would not normally read for two weeks in an effort to get out of our bubbles.”

Keisha James ’18, who attended the event and participated in the exercise summarized it like this: “One of the main takeaways—for me—from the last presentation was that we should continue engaging in these conversations even if we don’t think we’ll be able to persuade someone else of our view.”

As for the challenge, “There are some ‘sources’ that I view as being abhorrent and will never view or read, but I do think I’ll consider looking at more conservative news sources as part of the challenge.” 

James said she particularly enjoyed learning more about Dr. Clark’s research on media coverage of communities of color. “I think one of the main challenges is getting more voices in the room, and making sure these dialogues are inclusive.” 

If you missed the event but want to watch the first panel, it will be posted on the UVa homepage in the coming days.