On October 19, students and faculty packed into the Moot Court Room for the 14th Media & Society Lecture. Over the years, the event has brought an array of prominent figures to the Law School, including Reed Hundt, former chairman of the FCC; Russell Lewis ’73, former chairman of The New York Times Company; renowned New York Times staffers Linda Greenhouse and Sam Roberts; and, most recently, Martin Singer, one of the most sought-after entertainment and business litigators in the nation.
This year, Joe Lockhart, Vice President of Global Communications for Facebook and former White House Press Secretary under President Bill Clinton, joined Dean Nick Allard in a conversation entitled “Campaign 2012: Who is Setting the Agenda?”
Dean Allard began by asking Lockhart to grade the media in this election cycle. Lockhart unceremoniously gave the media an “F.” In explaining why he gave the media such poor marks, he painted a picture of broadcast journalism in a different time. He described an era before the rise of the 24-hour news cycle, when most of the population tuned into one of three broadcast channels for the evening news, and when the content was a consensus of topics, determined by a small group of media elites. During this era, Lockhart explained, news broadcasts were run at a loss because networks were willing to let the news programs lose money to keep viewers. But today, with reporting available around the clock on multiple channels, losing money on the news is no longer an option. Instead, networks fill the hours with opinions, sound bites, and advertising-driven content at the expense of high-quality journalism. People tune in to the channel that offers the opinion that they want to hear, for example MSNBC versus FOX News. “It’s not serving us well,” Lockhart said.
To illustrate, Lockhart discussed coverage of the presidential debates and how most of the media coverage focused on strategy, facial expressions, and the jabs the candidates took at one another. “There was very little digging in on what the candidates actually stand for,” he said. “After the debates, reporters only want to discuss who ‘won’ or ‘lost’. The media needs to stop covering politics like a sporting event,” he said.
Switching gears to discuss social media, Dean Allard asked Lockhart how coverage of a White House scandal might differ in the Facebook era from the media that told the story of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Lockhart noted that the speed of social media today does not allow for thorough fact-checking of information, nor does it give us the ability to control the timing of news stories. Yet Lockhart pointed out that social media also allows people to validate and share each other’s information and views. “There is real power in that,” he said.
During the discussion, Lockhart and Dean Allard covered a variety of probing issues about the nature and limitations of today’s media versus the media of past eras of news coverage. They then opened the discussion to the audience for a lively Q&A session. One student asked whether, since there is so much information “out there,” people are better or worse equipped to make informed decisions in today. “There is a lot of sharing [with social media], sharing of both ignorance and knowledge,” said Lockhart. He added that although he had little faith in the rise of a professional core of centralized journalism, social media had the potential to facilitate some positive change of its own. “People can gather their own information,” he said. “You can give them tools – it’s a hope.”