I’ll always have a vivid memory of the day after the 2016 presidential election. I was still a senior in high school in a small town in New Hampshire, and I remember the palpable sense of division that was apparent as soon as a walked through my school’s front doors. There were kids wearing Trump flags around their necks like capes, proudly displaying “Trump Pence 2016” buttons on their backpacks, and initiating chants of “build that wall.” There were also kids who spent the entire day crying, overcome by their fear of what would happen next. I’ll be upfront and say that I was one of the kids who had tears streaming down their face for most of the day–I was terrified of what being a gay woman would mean in this new America.
These polar extremes are not unique to my high school. For a country with the word “united” in its name, it’s incredible how much our lives are now governed by division. It’s also incredible how much we’ve struggled to bridge this divide.
This challenge was the subject of the 2019 Kenner Lecture on Cultural Understanding, an annual endowed lecture series by Lehigh’s College of Arts & Sciences established by Jeffrey L. Kenner in 1997. Judy Woodruff, anchor and managing editor of PBS NewsHour, delivered this year’s lecture, entitled “Speaking Across Political Differences Today in America.” Baker Hall was filled to capacity with students, faculty, and community members who hoped that maybe Woodruff would have some answers–maybe she’d seen how we could overcome this seemingly invincible chasm.
Woodruff was blunt from the beginning: during the entirety of her 40+ years as a reporter, she’s never seen anything like what we’re witnessing today. Even through some of the most polarizing times (the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assasination, Vietnam, etc.), we’ve always managed to find our way through. Woodruff admitted that she assumed we’d do the same after 2016. She also admitted she was wrong. With the rising inequality along economic, racial, ethnic, and gender lines, there’s no sign of slowing down for the impending wave of division, especially with such an incendiary president in the White House.
Cries of fake news have been ringing through the air long before Trump took office, and Woodruff sought to defend the media from this unwarranted onslaught. She acknowledged that some in the media do contribute to increased polarization by taking sides (everyone wave at Fox News and MSNBC), but she was also firm in her declaration that journalists are not the enemies of the people. Yes, they do make mistakes, but they’re human–their job is to serve their readers and viewers. They can only do so when they strive to get the news straight. That means owning those mistakes, and that also means holding the president and our other elected officials accountable.
Under the current administration, dissent has become unpatriotic. Speaking out against the president has been labeled as treasonous, as un-American. However, Woodruff viewed dissent differently: patriotic, wholly American, and the lifeblood of democracy. Democracy can’t function without an informed, active, and critical thinking citizenry, and it’s the media’s job to give that citizenry a voice.
It’s the media’s job to give us a voice–especially when we’re standing for what we believe is right.
So, where does that leave us? There’s always going to be disagreement and differences in opinion–Woodruff acknowledged that we’ll never be living in kumbaya-singing America entirely free from conflict. But, we have to ask ourselves what level of disagreement can we live with? When does it become too much? And what do we do when it gets there?
For Woodruff, we can begin to answer these questions by ceasing to view those who disagree with us as enemies. She implored us to be strengthened by debate instead of running away from it. Engaging with those who think differently than you forces you to confront why you hold your own beliefs in the first place–we can never have productive discussions if we don’t even understand where our mindset comes from.
Woodruff also emphasized the importance of calling for the end of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Facts are facts. That’s it. Plain and simple. The media has a responsibility to be an entity that we, the American public, can trust, and it can start by committing to investigative journalistic practices so that it’s always committed to giving us the full truth.
The media isn’t alone in taking responsibility–Woodruff reminded us that we have to start taking responsibility for this divide ourselves. While it would be great if the media committed to always presenting whole and unbiased facts, those facts mean nothing if there aren’t people there to listen. Every single one of us is responsible for bringing all of us through this time of divide. We have to start talking. We have to show up.
If the 2018 midterms are any indicator, more and more of us are starting to do our part. We’re standing up to fight, and we’re showing no signs of backing down.
2020 is going to be a boxing match, but we’re more than capable of holding our own in the ring.
*Feature image courtesy of Judy Woodruff’s public Facebook page*