• CNN's David Gergen kicks off Civic Discourse Series


CNN senior political analyst David Gergen, a familiar face to television viewers during the presidential election campaign, came to Suffolk University’s C. Walsh Theatre Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009 to deliver the inaugural lecture of the Civic Discourse Series, a new partnership between Suffolk University College of Arts and Sciences and the Boston Athenaeum.

Civic Discourse

The series, an annual collaboration of free public lectures, film screenings, and panel discussions on a topic of national significance, explores the theme of ‘Media and Democracy’ for spring 2009.

“This is a great historic moment,” said Kenneth Greenberg, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, introducing the kick-off event. “The Athenaeum is celebrating its 200-year anniversary and Suffolk University recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. These are two institutions rooted in different parts of Boston history, both with a commitment to democratic values.”

Rachael Cobb, assistant professor of government at Suffolk University, introduced the evening’s speaker, David Gergen. “The title of tonight’s talk—‘Turning Foe into Friend’—illuminates the presumed adversarial relationship presidents have had with the press,” said Cobb. “How does a president develop an appropriate working relationship with the press such that — on the one hand — the press has the access it needs, while — on the other hand — the president can govern effectively without viewing the press as an oppositional institution worthy of being held at arm’s length?”

From newsroom to White House to CNN

Gergen is uniquely qualified to answer these questions, having served as White House advisor to Presidents Nixon and Ford, as President Reagan’s Director of Communication and as Counselor to the President and then as Special Adviser to the President and to Secretary of State Warren Christopher during the Clinton administration. He has worked as a journalist, as editor of U.S. News, and as a political analyst on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

“Great presidents have always been vilified unfairly by the press,” said Gergen, citing how tough reporters were on Lincoln, and recalling Jody Powell, press secretary for Jimmy Carter, who used to say that when it rains in Washington, the press blames it on the president. Reagan had a good relationship with the press, he said, but on the other hand, “I worked for Richard Nixon, and cannot remember a kind word from him about the press.”

“The press is not one of our most admired institutions,” said Gergen. “Over the last three years, trust in the leadership of our country has dropped. All of us have questions. How is this relationship between media and democracy working itself out?”

Asking the tough questions

“Are we in the media unfair?” he asked. “Yes,” he ventures. As objective as they want to be, individuals, networks and newspapers present the news through a lens of different biases. “No one is perfectly fair and unbiased,” said Gergen. “You will get to fairness. [But] It’s up to you to get there.” If you’re lazy about your viewing and reading habits, you’re going to find a biased view because people tend to view what shares their bias, he said. “You can find fairness if you’re willing to invest time on your own.” He also added that the press now has nowhere near the kind of persuasiveness it had when there were only three networks and no Internet.

“Are we an informant?” he asked. “The record on that is mixed. If you read three newspapers in the morning, for example The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times, you can get a pretty good idea about what is going on in the country and the world.” The editorials in the NYT and the WSJ balance each other, he said, with the WSJ as right leaning as the NYT is left leaning, and the Financial Times offering a perspective from beyond the U.S.

“In terms of television, we are not as informative as we could be,” he said. “I keep asking, how can we go deeper? In a 24/7 world, there is enormous pressure within the television business. We all suffer from ADD on television. It used to be that a sitcom writer could have 40-50 seconds to set up the first joke of a show; now the joke has to come in the first 15 seconds, because people won’t wait.”

“Do we encourage conflict?” he asked. “Yes, we have to find someone from the left, and pit them against someone from the right, because conflict is interesting.” When President-elect Obama picked Rick Warren to give the invocation at the presidential inauguration, the press wanted to talk about it as a conflict problem, he said, but Warren has taken on important issues like poverty, the third world, global warming, and care of the planet. He has important messages that connect people. But the press doesn’t want to look at it as bridge building.

“Do we rush to judgment?” he asked. Yes, because everyone in the media wants to be the first to make the provocative statement, he said. “We need to be patient, but we’re not a patient industry. We live in an impatient country.” He described the press as much like birds on a wire: one lights there and a flutter of others follow. “We put a searchlight over here, illuminating one thing, such as the economic crisis, but leaving other issues in the dark, for example, global warming. Future generations may look back and say, ‘yes that must have been hard what you were dealing with economically, but why did you take your eyes off the ball of global warming?’”

“Are we too American-centric?” he asked. “Guilty as charged,” he said. “We’re trying to emerge from a very insular culture.” The younger generation has started to be more global, he noted, but the media is nowhere near that in how it covers things. He said it’s important for students to spend time overseas, in other cultures, to develop an alternative perspective on who we are and how we behave. “Yes, we’re Americans, but there has to be global loyalty as well.”

Posing his final question, he asked, “Do we cater to our audience? Yes. That is the fundamental driving force of programming.” He emphasized that where you go online, what you read, watch and are willing to pay for influences what is available. For example, live blogging during the Anderson Cooper show is an increasingly interactive part of the show and producers pay a lot of attention to that. “The viewer is increasingly becoming the King,” said Gergen. “It makes a difference what you watch, what you say.”

Looking ahead

“We are becoming a more serious people again because of what we face,” said Gergen. He noted the confluence of the economic crisis and a new president. “A lot of people are coming to hear and watch that and read about it.”

“Obama is off to a very good start with the press,” said Gergen. “There has been too much spin in Washington in recent years. If the president can be educator-in-chief, the press will be supportive of that. When FDR had his fireside chats, people listened intently.” If there is a good tone, an accessible tone, candor and frankness, and if a leader uses the bully pulpit for educational purposes, the press tends to follow, he said. “That is what has been missing for so long: being candid about how things are going.”

Gergen frequently lectures in the U.S. and overseas and holds 17 honorary degrees, including a recent honorary degree from Suffolk University in 2006. He is a professor of public service at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, director of its Center for Public Leadership, and author of the best-selling book, Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton.

For more information about the Civic Discourse Series and a schedule of upcoming events, please visit the Web site here.

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