Feature Hunting… with Journalism and Humanity on My Mind

For the past two weeks, I have been scouring newspapers and websites for an event to cover for my photojournalism course. The goal was to depict slices of a life, to get creative while capturing interesting moments in time. But I had some of my own criteria to fulfill too. While it is true that there are lessons to be gleaned from every interview, every event, every story, it always helps when a journalist can cover things of interest to her.

I also wanted to learn something new, to encounter ideas that might help me see the world in a different way. Indeed, as the political and ideological divides deepen in this country, journalists (and all people for that matter) have an increasing responsibility to expose themselves to foreign viewpoints. When I discovered the lecture “The Press and the Presidency”  Tuesday at Wayne State, I knew my search was over. This event, according to WSU President Irvin Reid, would explore “the fluid, often tense, relationship between the presidency and the nation’s press.”

Irvin Reid, Wayne State’s president, addresses the crowd and panel speakers, Steve Cortes (left), Joy-Ann Reid and Eugene Robinson, Tuesday at the WSU Community Arts Auditorium.

It didn’t hurt that a few esteemed journalists happened to be the guest speakers: MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post and Fox News contributor Steve Cortes; moderators were Devin Scillian of WDIV and Vickie Thomas of WWJ/CBS Radio. Still, I knew this event, as intellectually stimulating as it promised to be, would present challenges for my feature photo assignment.

For one thing, speaker panels, lectures, etc., are often visually bland. And it can be difficult to capture an animated speaker. (Sometimes facial expressions translate differently for the camera.) Aside from these challenges, this event forced me to consider different angles, to move around the room. And I appreciated that, as a photojournalist, I had to pay laser-like focus to the speakers, even if their views weren’t all that novel.

While I didn’t leave the auditorium on that blustery Tuesday feeling particularly enlightened from the discussion, I did walk away with some thoughts about decorum and civility.

Before the panel discussion ensued, the speakers each took to the podium to outline their positions on President Donald Trump’s treatment of the media. Much to my chagrin, right out of the gates, the audience could not suppress their disapproval for Cortes. The moans and groans began when the Fox contributor took to the podium and the audience continued their heckling through the panel discussion.

Whether one agrees with Cortes’s beliefs about “fake news” and how it is allegedly targeted at Trump is irrelevant. This is a lesson about respect that extends back to grade school. Indeed, it is interesting that some of the same people who decry Trump’s tirades against his detractors are quick to deliver the same treatment to someone they do not agree with.

Fox News’s Steve Cortes responds to a disapproving audience.

In contrast, when Joy-Ann Reid took the stage, the auditorium showered her with adulation. Now, anyone who has spoken in front of an audience knows how daunting or, alternatively, pleasant public speaking can be depending on the crowd’s response. Yes, Reid’s message resonated with the crowd, which perhaps made it easier for her to be eloquent and insightful. Hers was an important assessment of the crisis we’re facing in America: “When news becomes just another weapon in politics then there is no way to clean this up,” she said.

Joy-Ann Reid, author and national correspondent for MSNBC, takes the stage. A Detroit audience welcomed her with open arms.

It is true that Trump’s demonization of the media is a direct attack on democracy. And perhaps that is why audience members had a hard time digesting words from Cortes, a member of the media who tirelessly defends the president. Still, the onus was on the audience to simply… listen.

Cortes, Reid and Robinson discuss Trump and the media for a full auditorium Tuesday at Wayne State.

As I surveyed the hissing crowd, I decided moderators Scillian and Thomas were remiss too; they certainly could have demanded respect from the audience. The other fault of the moderators, at least Scillian anyway, was a failure to remain in the center. Sure, I agreed with Scillian’s assessment of Trump: “The president lied right out of the gates about his inauguration size. When journalists get something wrong they get fired,” he said, referring to three journalists at CNN. “When the White House gets something wrong, nothing happens.” But as the moderator, he should foster discussion, I decided, not simply inject his own views into the conversation.

The person I found myself relating with, unsurprisingly, was the newspaper man: The Washington Post’s Robinson because he tried to find common ground with Cortes when he could (which wasn’t often), but also because of his clear-eyed assessments. In response to the astonishing number of Americans who think mainstream media just “make up” the news—46 percent, according to one poll—Robinson said, “We just have to do good work.”

“Unfortunately,” he continued, “this is happening at a time when newspaper employment is falling dramatically. And who was the first to go? Copy editors and that’s a problem. We do make mistakes and if a mistake means you can’t trust the media then we are doomed.”

The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson delivered clear-eyed assessments of the newspaper industry in the age of Trump.

Shuffling out of the auditorium, I thought about Robinson’s words. Perhaps “doing good work” as he said, also means working a little harder to treat each other better, to go to greater lengths considering viewpoints in stark contrast to our own.