Pope Francis would have been interested in the keynote speech at this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner, which took place at the Washington Hilton on Saturday, April 27.
This year’s event was lacking two elements of previous traditions—remarks by the President of the United States and introductory entertainment by a comedian. Instead, the 2019 keynoter was historian Ron Chernow, whose book Alexander Hamilton served as the basis for the blockbuster Broadway musical.
Speaking to luminaries of the journalism profession and their guests, Chernow offered glimpses of past eras of tense relationships between American presidents and the press. President Trump has refused to attend the annual dinner, symbolizing the current rift between the White House and the news media and also symbolizing the broader outbreak of polarization that has disrupted communication and conversation among Americans.
Chernow’s entire speech is worth watching. Videos of his comments, which included criticisms of President Trump as an instigator of threats to the freedom of the press, abound online. I watched for those parts of Chernow’s historical analysis that echoed journalism- and media-related analyses from Pope Francis about which I have been writing since early 2018.
The pontiff’s writing in his consecutive World Communications Day messages for 2018 and 2019, plus sections of Christus Vivit, his recent Apostolic Exhortation on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, offer thought-provoking insights about the social and moral impacts of the current state of news, communication and social conversation. The pope’s reflections strike me as cogent diagnoses of, and prescriptions for, the problems in today’s turbulent information world that polarize society and harm the minds and hearts of individuals.
Chernow made galvanizing observations along these same lines. He wasn’t trying to emulate the pontiff’s references to Catholic values that can help heal our culture’s truth deficit and refocus our conversations on human dignity, fruitful personal encounters and selfless inclinations toward accompaniment of others. But I can imagine Pope Francis nodding his head in agreement with several points the smart, secular historian made.
I can also imagine Francis wanting to draw everyone’s attention to some of Chernow’s points because, nowadays, we all seem to be journalists in a sense—generators and publishers of news and opinion, as well as consumers of torrents of information, especially via social media.
Here are several parts of Chernow’s speech where I think I heard a resonance with Rome, pointing toward lessons we can learn and common ground we can cultivate.
- There is “a rising tide of misinformation masquerading as news,” Chernow told his audience. “There are so many journalistic fakes and forgeries out there that the genuine article [of fact-based reporting] can become devalued and debased. You must also deal with the pervasive world of social media, rife with self-appointed pundits who search out news outlets that only strengthen their pre-conceived views. Still this is as good a time as any to take stock and re-dedicate yourselves to the highest standards of journalistic integrity and accuracy.”
- Chernow continued his advice to those immersed in the contentious world of polarized political news: “Be humble, be skeptical, and beware of being infected by the very thing you’re fighting against. The press is a powerful weapon that must always be fired with reluctance and aimed with precision. Warren Buffet has a very handy saying: Always take the high road; it’s far less crowded there.”
- The current trend that troubles Chernow most is “the sustained assault on truth, or at least a cavalier disregard of it.” He quoted John Adams in pointing out a similarity between his life as a historian and the lives of journalists: “Facts are the foot soldiers of our respective professions. They do the hard marching and should wear no ideological coloring.” He added, “Without the facts, we cannot have an honest disagreement.”
- In the face of a “relentless campaign” against the credibility of the news media, those media can best preserve their credibility through “solid, fair-minded, accurate and energetic reporting.”
- Chernow also offered words of hope and inspiration which, like the advice he gave to the journalists in attendance, can be applied to all of us who seek renewal in conversations–communication that embodies hope and engages with diverse perspectives and wide-ranging questions for the sake of justice and freedon. He said these were urgent times in the generation and consumption of news, but he added: “We’ve always been fighting for the soul of America…. America has always been a work in progress…. It falls to each new generation to renew and rediscover our country’s lofty promise.”
- Our society feels fragile today, but Chernow said he thinks decency will prevail. He said Abraham Lincoln had once cited this quote: “There is always just enough virtue in this republic to save it—sometimes none to spare, but still enough to meet the emergency.”
- He suggested a context of respect and a sense of common cause for our flows of information through the media. “Civility has been an essential lubricant in our democratic culture.” Furthermore, “whether Republicans or Democrats, we are all bona fide members of Team USA and not members of enemy camps.”