Politics prevailed at Reunions panel discussions this year, with lively conversations among alumni and professors on topics ranging from the dearth of conservative viewpoints on college campuses to “fake news” and the challenges of reporting on the Trump administration.
Alumni packed the aisles and spilled into the hallway outside a Frist Campus Center lecture hall to hear Princeton journalists discuss their experiences dealing with anonymous sources, covering presidential tweets, and attending Sean Spicer’s press briefings. The annual journalism panel — moderated each year by Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach ’82 — was sponsored by PAW and the Ferris journalism program of the Council of the Humanities.
Are those briefings by press secretary Spicer worthwhile? “It’s very hard to feel like you actually get any information that you didn’t already have,” said Bloomberg political reporter Jennifer Epstein ’08, who attends them. They’re short with long opening statements by the press secretary, she said, and reporters don’t have many opportunities to ask questions. “We haven’t had the chance to ask the president a question in a press conference in weeks now ... .”
“So it’s working smoothly,” Achenbach responded sarcastically.
Should journalists use the l-word — “lie” — in their coverage? Journalists are in an “uncomfortable position, because we’re not used to saying ‘this side is lying,’” said Nancy Cordes *99, who covers Congress for CBS News. Ferris professor and New York Times foreign correspondent Edward Wong noted that journalists use the word “propaganda” when writing about other countries, yet they’re reluctant to use the word at home. “Unless we’re willing to call things what they are,” he said, “I think we have an uphill battle here in the U.S.”
What about using anonymous sources? Washington Post senior national-affairs correspondent Juliet Eilperin ’92 increasingly uses documents that she can post online, which are seen as unassailable. One reason is that “people are so afraid of retaliation under this government; it’s just a fact,” she said. “We now have official government spokespeople who are not willing to have their names used. These are people with the words ‘press secretary’ in their [titles].”
“Try to identify as much as possible,” Epstein chimed in. “A good example is some of the reporting around Jared Kushner — say ‘a source sympathetic to Jared Kushner.’ You know, you can’t say it was Jared Kushner ... .”
Several of the journalists saw a silver lining for their profession. Washington Post reporter Joe Stephens, who leads the Ferris program, noted that his newspaper is profitable for the first time in years, “and I think Trump had a lot to do with that.” But Richard Just ’01, editor of The Washington Post Magazine, worried about the future, when “a quote-unquote normal politician” becomes president: The trends panelists discussed — the relationship between truth and politics, and the disaffection in the heartland, for example — will still be with us. Trump “won’t be here forever, but the trends he’s brought to the fore will outlast him,” Just said.
Similar issues came up at another panel, on “Social Media in the World of ‘Fake News.’” Tension arose between Fox News senior legal analyst Andrew Napolitano ’72 and senior national correspondent for Yahoo News Lisa Belkin ’82 when Belkin challenged Napolitano over his television report that British intelligence officers spied on Trump at the request of President Obama. Both British and American intelligence said the claim is false. Napolitano disappeared from Fox for nearly two weeks — but when he returned, he repeated the claim.
“I wasn’t lying, I believed it was right,” Napolitano responded, adding that his bosses decide what should be corrected.
“I need to follow up on that, because I’m dying to know,” Belkin said. “What was the conversation about whether or not there should be a correction on whether or not Obama wiretapped Trump’s office?”
“That I’ll discuss with you in private,” Napolitano responded. The audience laughed.
Of course, Reunions offered popular panels on a wide range of topics, from books to work-life balance, to entrepreneurship, to health care. But it seemed as though alumni could not get enough of politics, perhaps hoping the discussions would help explain what’s taking place in Washington.
One panel focused on “D.C. Dysfunction”; Erik Fatemi ’87, a Washington lobbylist and grandson of the late Sen. Robert Byrd, said recent acts by Congress and the federal courts to block some Trump initiatives show the checks and balances written into the Constitution. “Sometimes, stopping crazy stuff in Washington is a sign Washington is working,” he said.
At a forum on “The Changing Nature of Politics,” Jim Marshall ’72, a Democrat from Georgia who served in Congress from 2003 to 2011, lamented the demise of centrists in Congress. Leadership now “comes from the wings” of the far right and far left, he said, and those who stray from more extreme positions are threatened with being “primaried” by an opponent less willing to compromise.
At a discussion titled “We the People,” about politics at the local, state, and municipal levels, John Bellinger ’82 — legal adviser to the State Department during the George W. Bush administration — argued that Trump was alienating allies, undermining America’s role in the world, and making it difficult to recruit talented people to work in government.
Last summer, Bellinger drafted a letter that said Trump, if elected, would be “the most reckless president in American history.” The letter was signed by about 50 former national-security officials who had served Republican presidents. Speaking on the Reunions panel, Bellinger noted that many top government positions remained open because the president is unwilling to hire anyone who signed his letter and that many others are unwilling to serve. “It would be very difficult to go into the State Department now and have to defend some of the [Trump] policies,” he said.
One of the weekend’s most anticipated events was a conversation between Republican Sen. Ted Cruz ’92 and Professor Robert P. George, a friend and mentor. Although he was one of only a few avowed conservatives in his class, Cruz observed that “it was possible to actually be a conservative and not wear a scarlet ‘C’ around your neck.” He then criticized the “stifling fear of dissent” he sees among the left on many college campuses, citing incidents in which conservative speakers have been prevented from speaking. “If you really believe what you believe, you shouldn’t be afraid of those who disagree with you.”
Ethan Sterenfeld ’20 contributed to this story.