On Jan. 30, Washington Post columnist Eugene Roberts gave a speech at the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation at the Bohm Theatre in downtown Albion. While he was in town, The Pleiad was given the opportunity to sit down and talk with Robinson about the future of journalism and the current political atmosphere.
Pleiad: In part of your speech title you mention the ‘New America.’ What is the new America to you? Is it a hopeful vision?
Robinson: I’m basically an optimistic person, so I’m hopeful. Change isn’t easy for everyone, and as you know, the country has gone through economic change, demographic change [and] technological change, all of which has been wrenchingly difficult for some people, and I think we saw a reflection of just how jarring all this change has been in the election last November. I think we’re in for a bumpy ride for the next few years, but assuming nothing cataclysmic happens, in the long run I’m optimistic.
P: In your article “The Trump era is a leap in the dark” you wrote that “Trump’s power is not unchecked. We, the citizens are the ultimate authority.” But when demonstrations like the Women’s March are demeaned in a few tweets from the President, how do you suggest we be heard?
R: I think there’s a long rich tradition of protest in American society, and protest has moved mountains in the past. They don’t necessarily all do so, they don’t necessarily all succeed, but they have an impact. It is easy for some to perhaps dismiss them with just a few tweets. The true test, I think, will come as we see what flows from this protest, and whether they translate into grassroots political activism of the kind that can make a difference in upcoming state legislative races, governors races, in 2018 midterm elections. Those were crowds of a size that can really make a difference if this is sustained. So we just have to see.
P: Has Trump’s campaign and presidency diminished our ability as a nation to discuss traditional conservative ideas, like limited government, for instance?
R: I think we are probably seeing a political realignment in which the sort of mental map that we have of liberal to conservative. I certainly know that President Trump doesn’t really fit anywhere along that traditional spectrum. He’s not into small government, he’s not into balanced budgets or any of that. He seems very conservative on some issues and not conservative at all on others. He’s more of a populist and nationalist. So maybe we’re reorganizing ourselves along a different axis. I haven’t quite figured out what it is yet, which is why I haven’t tried to write that in a column because I don’t know what the new axis is.
P: It is widely thought that newsrooms ought to be more diverse in terms of race, yet journalism salaries are relatively low. How do you propose news organizations compete with higher paying employers for minorities?
R: In the sort of great and grand institutions of journalism, we pay well, so [salary] is much less of an issue in national newspaper and in big media than it is at metro dailies and smaller papers. I just don’t know how you solve that. When I got into journalism many years ago, no one was getting into journalism to be rich, and I think that’s probably still going to be true. I also think that there is a sort of special responsibility and also potential for [a] student newspaper to work on that diversity issue that you raised. One of the issues is that [student journalism] takes a lot of time, and so if you’re able to devote the time you really need to devote, you won’t have time to work. So if you don’t have a lot of money and if you need to work–as many minority students do–you have to make a choice. And so I think universities have to look for ways to make it economically possible for all students to participate in student journalism.
P: Yeah, I know what you mean. If The Pleiad didn’t pay there’s no way I’d be able to manage this job and classes. We’re a very lucky staff.
R: That’s good!
P: Do you believe there is a misconception in the public between an opinion piece and a news piece, especially when covering politics? Or is the public choosing to disregard the line between opinion and fact? Do you have any suggestions for how to fix these problems if you believe they exist?
R: I think people don’t get the difference, and you know, at this point why should they? Because a lot more people read my column online than read it in print, and of those who read it online, a growing majority read it on their phones, and on a phone, it all looks the same. So I get people who write me and say ‘you’re always taking the liberal viewpoint, you’re supposed to be objective’ and I write back that actually, I’m an opinion columnist. If I don’t have opinions, I don’t have a job, but I do understand why people get confused. We have a sort of wall between editorial and news and we try to respect it scrupulously, but it is simply true that as we’ve all moved into the online space where news is essentially unlimited and where there’s a demand to fill it with a profusion of things. An event happens and it seems within a a few hours we have three news stories and two pieces by staff opinion writers.
P: Regular citizens can only spend so much time taking in information. What kind of a daily ‘media diet’ do you recommend?
R: It’s hard to recommend, you know. I believe in newspapers. I believe in local newspaper[s] and national newspapers. I guess I grew up as [a] print person, and I believe in it. And I think it’s a good thing to take some time to read and catch up on what’s going on. The issue for me is trying to unplug from the sort of minute-to-minute news flow which is increasingly difficult. For me, I have to consciously tell myself that I’m just going to leave the phone alone in the other room and interact with other human beings for awhile, and it’s a rewarding thing to do.
Photo by Emily Miller