Eugene Robinson on the state and future of journalism and our polarized society

Feb 22, 2019

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Washington Post Columnist, and MSNBC contributor Eugene Robinson visited MSU on February 21 to talk about the interconnections between politics and culture as part as the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicines 2019 Dr. William G. Anderson lecture series, Slavery to Freedom.

He spoke about “diversity in America and the sort of evolution of it. We seem to be in a moment of tension to put it mildly.” He discussed recent history and tried to analyze why things seem so scratchy right now.

On the state and future of journalism?

“The threat, and I do call it a threat, that comes from the highest office in the land right now is an urgent problem that we need to deal with. I mean a coast guard lieutenant was arrested for stock piling this amazing arsenal of weapons with which he was going to use to kill Democrats and journalists. We do have a president who refers to us as the enemy of the people using a Stalin-ist era phrase that's popular among dictators and tyrants. So that's an urgent problem. We will get past that, and I hope nobody gets hurt.

“The larger problem of the business model of journalism and sustainability is really something that deeply concerns me. We've had certainly in print media and broadcast media as well an advertising-based model that sustained us for a long time. That model is dead. It can't be replicated in that form on the web, or it doesn't seem to be possible. I'm less worried about the Washington Post, which is owned by the richest man in the world, who has given us so much investment and allowed us to grow. He's allowed us to become profitable. We're making money. We're going to be fine. The New York Times is going to be fine. The Wall Street Journal is going to be fine.

“There's a business model for the Los Angeles Times, I think, and maybe for the Chicago Tribune and a couple of other papers. But there are a lot of major metropolitan newspapers in this country for which I can't come up with a business model and they can't either. They're shrinking, they're losing readers, and they're losing advertising revenue. It's a viscous cycle. Somehow we have to figure this out or we're going to have major cities without a newspaper.

“There's a similar disruption happening in for-profit broadcast media as well. Again, it's something we're going to have to figure out. Maybe it's subscriptions, or maybe more go to a non-profit model, like ProPublica.”

So what skills do today’s journalism students need to hone in order to be successful?

“Flexibility, resilience, determination. With all that I've just said, the upside is that it is an amazingly exciting time to be in journalism. You might have noticed there's certainly no lack of news. The big shift in terms of the way we work is that the news cycle is now 24/7, and so I look around at the news room at the Post and it's growing. We have a whole lot of people with job titles that I don't even understand, much less understand what they're doing.

“I meet people and they say, ‘Oh I'm with the social media team or I'm with the audience engagement team.’ I don't know what that is, but they're bright and they're enthusiastic and they're getting an amazing job done.

“I just think there is a lot of opportunity, but we don't know what this profession is going to look like five years from now. It's going to be different from what it is today and five years after that it's going to be different again. But I think it's a great time to be a journalist.”

And on our deeply polarized society? Has our country ever been this divided?

“The time leading up to the Civil War is the period some compare these times to. That didn't end very well so I hope it's not as bad as it was then. I certainly cannot recall a time in my lifetime, and as I talk a little bit about growing up in the south at the end of Jim Crow segregation, we were polarized then. But now there seems to be a combination of forces.

“It's not just political polarization, but it's economic dislocation. It's demographic change. There are a lot of things happening that have driven people into their own camps and their own tribes. It's exacerbated by the fact that there are media echo systems that are separate and apart.

“It's the blurring of the line of fact and fiction. The lack of agreement on a chronical of events or an encyclopedia of facts that we can then argue about. But you can't have a constructive argument if you can't agree on what happened yesterday. That's a real problem. I have conversations with people who live in that other sort of information sphere and it's impossible. They just say, ‘Well you know this is not the other.’ I say, ‘But that didn't happen. It actually didn't. Let me show you that it actually didn't happen.’ But it's very difficult. It's a huge problem. That's a new problem that has been enabled by technology, and we have to figure that out.

Is Robinson optimistic about the future of journalism and the United States of America?

“Oh yes. I'm an optimistic person, and I think we've got a job ahead of us. But I think we will figure it out. We may try all the alternatives before we eventually do the right thing, but I do think we'll get there. If you want to take a really big picture, you look at how people live today versus how they lived 50 years ago or 100 years ago and you see stronger, healthier, better educated people who are living more fulfilling lives who have a sort of different set of wants and needs now. Some of those are a little quieted and we're going to have some conflict, but we're going to get past it.”

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.