August 14, 2018

Right off the top, let me say that I wish the president would knock it off with the fake news is the "enemy of the people" nonsense.

It is unpresidential, unproductive and untrue.

And if you agree with him, what I just said will ricochet off your eyeballs and never enter your brain.

On Thursday, a hundred or more newspapers will take a coordinated crack at President Trump's characterization of journalism/journalists by publishing editorials on the same topic on the same day.

We will protest again that we are really good for democracy, that we are vital to the nation … and the people who agree with the president won't give a damn what 200-plus newspaper editorials or a thousand editorials have to say.

But that should not stop you journalists from saying it.

There is old saying I heard growing up in Kentucky: "There’s no use beating a dead horse, but if the horse is dead, it doesn't mind being hit."

Go ahead and say what's on your mind.

The president has a method or instinct (I don't know which) of reducing complexities to soundbites. Critics understand his positions to be "Tariffs are good, immigrants are bad, Hillary is crooked, Cruz is a liar."

Scholars say that prejudice begins with reducing humans to categories. We learn prejudice by watching our authority figures, including parents and, I suppose, presidents. The authority figure convinces the followers that the categories of people they should hate cause them harm. The authority figure then hardens the hatred by repeatedly reminding the followers of the connection between the "threat" and the "category."  

I really do not believe that President Trump believes the press is the enemy of the people. I believe he is softening the target the way battleships blast away before a boots-on-the-ground invasion. I don't like what Trump says about journalists, but I am more concerned about how his toxic statements about journalism are seeping into the mouths of despot leaders globally who really do hate the press. There, when journalists write something unpopular, they die.

Why won't sound reasoning change the public's mind?

Last fall, I led a workshop for journalists at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos was supposed to come by at lunch one day and "howdy" the journalists. He delivered a 45-minute talk so moving that I took notes and keep them in my wallet to this day: the four smartest things I heard anybody say in 2017. I am attaching a photo of the notes I took.

Al's notes
Al's notes from that 2017 speech by Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos

He said:

  • It is important for you to know what you believe, but it is more important for you to ask yourself regularly, "Why do I believe what I believe?"

  • We may be in danger of becoming a people who are not changed by discourse.

  • Part of the value of a university and living in a residence hall is that we are like Southwest Airlines: We connect people with those they might not choose.

  • Education is prenatal to death.

Let me drill down on that second point, because if we are a society that is no longer changed by discourse, then the most eloquent editorials Thursday will just be wasted ink, paper and pixels.

Somehow it has become a sign of weakness for Donald Trump supporters to say anything critical of their choice for president, just as Trump opponents cannot find one good thing to say about him.

The strong economy, the low unemployment rate, the hint of something other than nuclear war with North Korea — Trump opponents stick with to their opposition as if driven by biblical advice to "give no place to the devil." (Ephesians 4:27)

I hold journalists partly responsible for intractable politicians who dig in their heels and won't change their minds about important issues. Politicians know when they change positions that we will label them as flip-floppers and their opponents will run ads against them for not taking a stand. We punish politicians who, confronted with better evidence, change their minds. It is a rare politician who once denied climate change and now sees overwhelming evidence and says, "You know, I see things differently now."

Barack Obama changed his stance on same-sex marriage and it was such a rare event to see such a transformation that Time built a timeline of his public positions. When Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio announced he was no longer opposed to abortion, he felt compelled to write a commentary in the Akron Beacon Journal to explain how he came to this new position. He said he was raised Catholic and tried to live by Catholic teachings. But as he matured, he heard real-life stories that made him reconsider his hard stance.

It reminds me of that first point Chancellor Zeppos offered us: "Why do I believe what I believe?"

This week Politico mentioned that Ryan might run in 2020 for president or house speaker, or both.

A New York Times Magazine piece once suggested that politicians rarely change their minds as openly as Ryan did; they must slowly "evolve."  The Times piece included this passage:

In the 1988 Democratic primaries, the candidate Richard Gephardt was subjected to merciless ridicule by opponents for his switches on several key issues — an assault capped off by a brutal ad from Michael Dukakis that depicted Gephardt as a gymnast, somersaulting back and forth. The ad became a perfect dramatization of what a supposed flip-flopper does, and a perfect lesson to politicians about the dangers of changing their minds.

Intractability is a sign of fear and weakness. I think the Chancellor was saying was that when we fear our flawed thinking might be exposed, we dig in deeper, no matter what.

Thoughtful people want to hear evidence that is contrary to their current notions. They weigh the evidence and when the new evidence is more compelling, they adapt to the new thinking.

We have to make it safe to change your mind.

Muhammad Ali said, "A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did when he was 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”  

So the editorials Thursday will create a lot of chatter. Trump backers will call journalists whiners and journalists will counter-attack. Twitter and cable news will have a ball with it all.

And Friday morning we will be right where we were this morning. Divided.

Unless you and I are brave enough to listen to a point of view we didn't wake up with this morning, seriously consider that view and weigh it.

The Chancellor used the Southwest Airlines metaphor so wisely. He wondered how often we sit next to somebody we didn't choose. How often do you purposely listen to an opinion you disagree with just to gain the wisdom of another point of view?

In his book "7 Habits of Highly Effective People," Stephen Covey wrote, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply … If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

Lots of journalists were surprised after the 2016 election. We vowed to listen to the public more, to find out why we were so surprised to hear that the public didn't love journalists and a growing number didn't believe us.

Before you publish your editorials extolling the virtues of journalism, ask yourself: How are you doing with that listening tour? How have you changed because of what you learned? How willing are you to be changed by discourse?

Whatever you write in your editorials, are you willing to listen, too?


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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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