On a cold Wednesday night last December, we three Panel editors, accompanied by faculty advisor Ms. Zener, journeyed to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum for a timely discussion on the role of journalism in the current political climate. Treated by the Boston Globe and their student journalism outreach program, we anticipated a riveting forum led by ABC’s Chief Washington Correspondent Ann Compton and CBS News Political Director John Dickerson. With the recent Presidential campaign and the present state of journalism as a focal point of the conversation, Compton and Dickerson’s analysis found direction in Dickerson’s new book Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History before answering audience questions and conducting a special private session with student journalists.
Ann Compton covered seven consecutive presidents in the White House, travelling to all 50 states with presidents ranging from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama. The first full-time female reporter at the White House for network television, Compton also served as a panelist on two presidential debates, one in 1988 and the other in 1992. Dickerson, on the other hand, has written about American politics and the White House for Time, Slate, and CBS News. Now the moderator of CBS’s weekly Face the Nation, he has hosted Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Mike Pence, Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio, and Paul Ryan within the last year. Both were extremely qualified to comment on journalism and American elections, but even more impressively, they graciously and thoughtfully answered our own questions after the larger event.
Speaking to the crowd at the library less than a month after Donald Trump’s sensational victory, Compton and Dickerson prefaced their conversation with a rather pertinent theory from Dickerson’s Whistlestop: “If there is a constant to the American campaign story, it is that elites cannot protect the future very well.” When considering how to approach politics, Dickerson explained that he has always thought of politics the same way physicists approach physics. There is both a delight and expectation that the complicated, unknown world will consistently present surprises. Acknowledging that the press often makes faults, both conceded that news agencies are in the business of covering and publicizing surprises; however, considering these flaws, both also strongly asserted the fact that journalism is not dead. Compton reminded student writers that “journalism is not only alive, but thriving.” Commenting after an election cycle in which the media was often criticized, she stressed the importance of giving voice to conflicting opinions, minimizing sensational, “noise” stories, and emphasizing the most important (but not necessarily most exciting) news. Reporters, she believe, must employ tolerance, thoughtfulness, and an open mind, a special willingness to consider multiple perspectives on an issue.
Relating stories and anecdotes from our nation’s history with ease, both Dickerson and Compton were experts in capturing and explaining the captivating similarities and connections that have persisted throughout the United States’ complex political history. As any student of history can attest, there is something deeply compelling about hearing the thoughts of renowned individuals in person. Having spent time in our U.S. History classes this year discussing some of the very same topics, it was thrilling to be in the midst of a dynamic, animated conversation between historians, rather than just reading their words on a page. Elections from 1800 to 2008 were synthesized and analyzed before our eyes, as Compton and Dickerson examined events from the 2016 election against the backdrop of history.
While the Belmont Hill community is no stranger to national politics, the results of the recent election seemed to resonate deeply with the student body and revive school-wide debate on social issues. Both faculty and students found themselves personally investing in their politics, especially as more classes and student organizations began to unpack the election season. Noting the importance of the youth in America’s future, Compton urged students to “have an open mind” and “respect each other” when engaging with politics. In Mr. Curran’s Form V American Literature class, students commented on an evolving American identity. While The Scarlet Letter and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may have seemed outdated, students in the class began to appreciate how literary themes have transcended time while describing the complexities of society and commenting on the roots of American institutions. Mr. Curran and his class’s readiness to delve into American politics reflects the school community’s commitment to addressing real-world issues through a holistic curriculum. Ultimately, Compton ended the evening with an important truism: “History teaches us so much about not only where we’ve been, but where we are, and we can draw lessons from that on where we are headed as well.