What journalists can learn from the Parkland teens
I graduated from school years ago and so did most of you, but boy, we have a lot to learn from the teenage survivors of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
I don’t just mean their eloquence; they’re a generation raised on YouTube, Instagram, and selfie videos, so poise before cameras is baked into their DNA. What astounds me is their ability to call BS on politicians and powerful interests, and their persistence in the face of ugly, false conspiracies meant to bully them into silence. These kids are fearless, media savvy, able to defend themselves against Internet attacks, immune to canned talking points, and they aren’t taking no for an answer.
As someone who’s questioned powerful officials for a living, I’m thunderstruck by how calmly and effectively the students interrogated some of the most powerful people in American before millions on live TV. Under the hot glare of questioning by teens at a CNN town hall, Sen. Marco Rubio, struggling to hold onto his A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, lost his footing and made news, shifting some positions on gun restrictions. The teens went for the jugular, without fear of losing access to sources or being insufficiently deferential. Journalists should learn from this.
The power of the teens’ questions lies partly in their first-hand experience. They are activists in ways that reporters cannot be. But we can all question the vice-grip that any monied interest groups have on our political system.
The NRA backs gun-rights advocates in both parties, but it has found more hard-liners in the GOP, where 90 percent of its money goes. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA and partner groups spent $54 million in 2016 ensuring Republican victory in Congress and the White House. Yet with 5 million members, according to its own figures, the NRA represents a tiny fraction of the 40 percent of Americans who say they have a gun in their home, and it doesn’t represent the views of most of them.
Surveys consistently show overwhelming support among Americans for tighter gun laws: 70 percent in favor, according to a CNN poll released Sunday. More than 60 percent in a USA Today/Suffolk University survey, out Sunday, support tighter background checks, a ban on semiautomatic weapons, and a ban on guns for people treated for mental illness. Gun owners backed those measures, too, yet only 19 percent of Americans surveyed by USA Today/Suffolk were optimistic that Congress would toughen gun laws. In contrast, the Parkland teens haven’t resigned themselves to “business as usual;” they are taking on the swamp of money in politics.
What has made the teens’ questioning so effective? Simplicity and repetition. Cameron Kasky, a Stoneman Douglas High junior who survived the shooting, calmly hammered away at Rubio: “Can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA in the future?” Rubio bobbed and weaved and Kasky persisted, restating the question a half-dozen times, exposing Rubio’s failure to answer. Emma Gonzalez, a senior, refused to let the NRA’s paid spokeswoman, Dana Loesch, change the subject: “I’m going to interrupt you and remind you that the question was, ‘Do you think it should be harder to obtain semiautomatic weapons and modifications to make them fully automatic such as bump stocks?’ ”
The student novices are giving a master class in holding politicians’ feet to the fire. Be an expert: Know what to ask and when officials are lying. Be direct: Ask simple questions that demand clear answers. Be relentless: Don’t let them change the subject. Be a truth-teller: Don’t be afraid to call them out on their lies.
Thanks to the Parkland teens, we’ve been schooled.
This column first appeared in the Boston Globe.