A panel discussion on protected speech in an election cycle invited Cal State Long Beach student-journalists, news directors and topic specialists to offer insight on today’s media issues.
Union Weekly Editor-in-Chief Alex Ramos, Kbeach Radio’s News and Sports Director Rebecca Perez and Daily 49er Editor-in-Chief Micayla Vermeeren joined the discussion yesterday in the University Student Union Auditorium at 4:30 p.m.
The student journalists were preceded by First Amendment specialist, founder and Director Emeritus of Center for First Amendment Studies, Dr. Craig Smith and current Director for Center for First Amendment Studies, Dr. Kevin Johnson. Also engaged in the conversation was News Director at KCBS/KCAL 9, Bill Dallman.
The conversation kicked off with a discussion about how rhetoric — persuasive speaking or writing — and expression has changed in recent decades and in past presidential elections. But to narrow the scope of conversation, Smith said he thinks the rhetoric has changed completely in the past five months.
“I’ve never seen anything like the candidacy of Donald Trump,” Smith said. “He’s branded his opponents… He’s got his own positive branding, ‘make America great again.’”
Smith, who says this type of campaign is unprecedented, worked full-time as a speechwriter for former President Gerald Ford.
“The genius of the phrase ‘make America great again’ is the word ‘again’,” Smith said. “It implies that America was great in some past and what you get to do is fill in what past you’re talking about.”
With this slogan, Smith said Trump has given the speech to his supporters, who express their stance and make it his.
“‘America was great before we let gay people get married, before we let all kinds of immigrants into the country, before we let women have abortions,’” Smith said. “So whatever your issue is on the right, you can fill in that premise and he doesn’t have to say it.”
Smith said a major change in campaigns is candidates can now say whatever they want and the public doesn’t seem to be holding them accountable. Yet, Johnson said a major rhetoric in this campaign is Trump accusing the media of saying whatever it wants, and filing detrimental SLAPP lawsuits against news organization.
“Donald Trump say[s] that he wants to open up libel laws, that he wants to be able to sue media companies for saying what they want,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson and other panelists, not only does Trump’s anti-media rhetoric threaten the right to free speech, but Hillary’s campaign is as well.
“Many conservative commentators, and [Edward] Snowden in addition, have drawn scepticism to Hillary Clinton’s approach to drawing on Russia as an evil empire… the fear here is she’s casting herself as this national security candidate,” Johnson said. “In eras when we appeal to national security that’s when our rights are most at stake.”
Perez said that from a student-journalist’s perspective, the nation is heading into scary territory when so many of these campaigns base themselves on propaganda.
“The whole purpose of a journalist is to check and make sure that what people are saying is factual or not,” Perez said.
Vermeeren defended the importance of quality reporting, and highlighted media’s responsibility to its audience.
“One of the hallmarks of this election is that it’s so sensationalist in nature and I think that at that point it really does comes down to the media to sort of redirect the focus on what actually needs to be talked about,” she said. “So, the impediments against the media having full access to all that information is so damaging and so terrifying.”
As a young person herself, Vermeeren said she worries about this generation, which is new to the election process, being exposed to such a sensationalized campaign season.
“For our demographic who have not yet gone through a presidential election, when this is the way we are being brought into it, if this becomes all we know, that sets a really, really scary precedent for how things are going to go from this point out,” Vermeeren said.
Finally, in an auditorium full of journalists, Ramos brought up the elephant in the room.
“The left and the right are kind of crying out, mistrusting the media and so we’re seeing now a lot more people taking to social media,” Ramos said. “Facts [are] misconstrued, and things [can go] wrong so the media now has to work extra hard to get the public’s attention and make them trust them again.”
Dallman said in a time when everyone’s a publisher, including the candidates, journalists job are becoming even harder now that the basis of trust is gone.
“Every single claim is subject to: Is this right? Is this wrong? Is it a total lie? Is there some truth to it?’” Dallman said.
The struggle for him and other journalists is in this internet age, publications have to do their best to instantaneously fact check, with full understanding that “news delayed is news denied.”
The panel wrapped up by discussing the struggle of being a well-rounded publication in a time when everyone’s voice is out there during such a sensational campaign. Smith compared it to wanting to see a full news segment during a car chase.
“I don’t get the local weather, I don’t get the sports, I don’t get the other stories, I just get the gosh-darn car chase. Now the reason we do is because if they stop covering the car chase, most people will switch to the other channel because they want to see the gosh-darned car chase,” Smith said. “So it’s the same thing with Trump, he’s a car wreck. But, if I don’t cover that car wreck that Donald Trump is with all the sensationalism, then people will tune into another channel because they want to see it.”