Ever wonder what those well-dressed, well-coiffed, well-read television commentators are doing when they’re not facing a camera? Eugene Robinson, who qualifies as one of the nation’s most astute TV news personalities, presented a blunt behind-the-scenes picture at the beginning of his 75-minute lecture yesterday afternoon at Florida Atlantic University.
“Normally at this time, I’d be sitting in the green room of a television studio in Washington and New York, and I’d be waiting to go on the air,” Robinson said. “And around me would be several of my colleagues and competitors—White House reporters, columnists, Democratic and Republican ‘strategists’—I’ve never quite understood what that is.
“First, they would all look awful. They’d be slumped in their chairs in utter exhaustion, because that is the life of someone who covers this president. They all look overworked and frantic. One by one they get led into the makeup room so they can look presentable. But they’re still like rag dolls in the chairs, and they’re all doing the same thing: looking at their phones. If you were a man from Mars, and you came in and looked at this, you’d wonder if it were a mental institution. We’re not interacting with each other; we’re interacting with this little brick in our hands.”
Which isn’t to say they’re playing Angry Birds or posting Reddit memes. “We’re all checking our emails, we’re texting with sources, we’re looking up facts we might have to bring out on the air. Yes, we do believe in facts, and we do not believe in alternative facts.” Pause for applause.
“And we’re looking at Twitter to see what’s going on minute to minute to minute. When you see us on set, during the commercial breaks we’re all checking our phones. Sometimes, just when the camera’s on someone else, we’re checking our phones. Those are the defining characteristics of covering this presidency. It feels like a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job, and you can never get away with it.”
Robinson’s speech provided the candid keynote of FAU’s annual Larkin Symposium on the American Presidency, and it certainly satisfied the theme: “Covering the President in the Modern Media Age.” Though the turnout was strong, there appeared to be more students onstage—10 of FAU’s most prized communications students each asked one question to Robinson during the Q&A portion—than there were in the seats of the Kaye Auditorium.
Mostly, Robinson preached to a boomer choir of informed, MSNBC-watching liberals who appreciated jokes like, “It’s nice to have a day off from trying to get a word in edgewise with Chris Matthews,” and who joined Robinson in waxing wistfully about the Obama administration a thousand years ago, with its “quaint” protocol of direct media interfacing and moderately truthful press secretaries.
He, like much of the audience, expressed a transparent longing for the 44th president: “[Obama] understood policy and he understood issues, and he thought that was his job,” Robinson said, letting the unspoken indictment of our current president linger in the pregnant pause that followed.
Few Trump supporters would have left the Kaye Auditorium pleased, but Robinson did allow for a backhanded compliment or two about the commander-in-chief. “He has been able to communicate quite effectively, if falsely, with the American people, both those who love him and those who think he is potentially the end of American democracy.”
Recalling his own columns from Trump’s contentious campaign, Robinson understood Trump’s appeal. “The people Donald Trump was reaching disliked the people who were criticizing him so much that their criticism made them love him more,” he said. “When that happened, I wrote a column [where I] compared him to Godzilla. You know how Godzilla is stomping around and destroying things, and the poor people of Tokyo decide they’re going to kill Godzilla with electricity? So they acquire a massive voltage of electricity, and it makes Godzilla stronger.
“The point was that each traditional way of taking down a political candidate was not working on him, and they were making him stronger. [Not long after], I got a phone call from Donald Trump. It turned out he loved those columns, because I had taken him seriously as a political force. He was in his best condo-salesman mode, laying it on very thick—‘Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize, etc!’ He has not called since. Maybe it was something I said, or something I wrote.”
Robinson’s wide-ranging lecture also addressed the Russian disinformation campaign and the role social media outlets should have in the new media environment. “As we read the indictments that Robert Mueller handed out the other day, we see how a bunch of probably Cheeto-eating computer nerds in St. Petersburg were able to organize political rallies in Pennsylvania, in Wisconsin. To have that sort of impact at that sort of distance with those sort of malevolent aims, it’s very difficult to think about how to get a handle on this in a way that is consistent with the First Amendment, which obviously I believe in. I think we need to think long and deep about allowing that sort of outside interference in our national affairs. Maybe the next step is that we in a society decide that social media platforms should take on the responsibilities and liabilities of a publisher.”
And he sang a sadly familiar song about the decline of ad sales and readership in newspapers across the country. Though he painted a sunnier picture of his own employer, the Washington Post, which recently upped its staff by 200 and its number of foreign correspondents to a record 27. Of course, the Post has a billionaire backing it. “We are now returning money to Jeff Bezos,” he said. “We’re making him money, as if ne needs it; we’re like the change that gets lost in the cushions of his couch. He bought the paper with the idea that he would find a business model that would sustain the quality of journalism that democracy needs. And I think we’re doing it.”
But if a theme percolated throughout Robinson’s lecture, it was a simple one: Facts matter. And he found myriad ways to re-iterate this truth. “I believe, with every fiber of my being, that in order to have a democracy, we have to have a common chronicle of events and a common encyclopedia of facts,” he said. “We have to agree that the sky is blue, and that a bird just flew by. We can argue about what it meant that the sky was blue and that this bird went past; we can argue whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, or even what kind of bird it was. But the basic facts have to be established if we are to have any sort of dialogue.”
And then, “It is absolutely vital that the media today take a stand for truth. And I’m not talking about a stand against President Trump per se, or a stand against any political agenda. Just taking a stand for truth.”
And then, “There has to be some baseline of accuracy and fact and good faith in order to take that person seriously. I think that’s part of why the relationship between the media and President Trump is so conflict-filled. We all have obsessive-compulsive disorder in the media; that’s how we’re raised. We have to get it right. And since he rarely gets it right, every story has to be argumentative. To Trump supporters, it looks as if we have an agenda that’s different from standing up for the truth—that we want to take down President Trump. When really, we’re trying to prop up facts.
“In this age, I think our job is to plant our flag and say, ‘we intend to hold this line as best we can.’”