World Voices: Frank Bruni on Politics & the Media

(AP / Yanina Manolova)
(AP / Yanina Manolova)

Frank Bruni, a world-renowned journalist and writer, spoke to The Oracle recently about a variety of issues, including politics, education, and his life as a journalist. Early in his career he worked for the New York Post and then the Detroit Free Press. Since then, he has worked for the New York Times as the Rome Bureau Chief, the Times restaurant critic, and, currently, an Op-Ed columnist. He has published several books ranging in subject matter from sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to his personal struggle with food. In 2002, Bruni published his book Ambling Into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush, describing his time reporting on the 2000 Bush campaign and as the Times’ White House correspondent. Bruni has written extensively about modern politics in his Times column, and his opinions on media, balance, and even issues like the Supreme Court, which we’ve discussed in our Election Seminars, provide perspective from a seasoned political analyst.

 

Tys Sweeney: In your book Ambling into History, you mention that Bush wasn’t very prepared for his debates.Do you notice any key differences or similarities between Bush’s preparedness and Trump’s?

Frank Bruni: Oh yeah. When I say that I thought at that time [that] Bush didn’t seem that prepared for his debates,he was insufficiently prepared in a sort of broad and vague sense. [He]  never boned up on or learned to absorb the issues in a deep way that a lot of candidates do.

But there’s no comparison between George W. Bush and Donald Trump. I mean Donald Trump’s clear desire to wing that first debate– his clear belief that he could just wing it– that was a level of crazy confidence and irresponsibility and lack of preparation that totally eclipsed and was in a totally different league than George W. Bush.

 

Janice Negvesky: Here at Blair we’re holding Election Seminars throughout the fall, and our most recent one was about how this election could affect the Supreme Court. You wrote in September that the majority of Americans support LGBT rights. Do you think Justices appointed by Trump could overturn the 2015 Hodges decision? [For more on Hodges see goo.gl/2ZptC9 and goo.gl/14SP7H]

Frank Bruni: Sure, …when you change the composition of the Supreme Court, anything can happen. So let’s say Donald Trump were elected president. Let’s say there were two or three Supreme Court vacancies. Let’s say he followed through on his pledge to appoint justices in the image of Antonin Scalia. If the right kind of case reaches the court, of course same sex marriage can be overturned.

What that decision did was [make] states like Mississippi or Louisiana … recognize same sex marriage. [A] conservative court might not really flip the thing and say, “Okay, no one can have same sex marriage,” but what they would probably go to is the system that existed before, which in my opinion was unjust and not enlightened enough, which was states could decide [to allow] same sex marriage, but other states have the right not to recognize it.

 

Chris Liu: In your recent article, “Sympathy for the Donald,” you used a really humorous and satirical approach to critique current politics. Do you think there’s a problem with a lot of  millennials getting their news mostly from comedy sources?

Frank Bruni: I haven’t thought about that; that’s a great question. You’re telling me something I guess I’ve heard, but that I don’t know and don’t have documentation of, which is a lot of millennials get their news that way. I assume you’re referring to stuff like [Full Frontal with] Samantha Bee, or The Daily Show, or John Oliver’s show.

Do I think it’s a problem to get all of your news that way? Yes. But to get some of your news that way? No. I mean there is a lot of substance in those shows, it just kind of comes at you sideways.

I think the bigger problem problem with how younger generations get news today, but it’s a problem with the way everybody gets news…. Now you can use the internet or the bevy of TV options to curate your newsfeed. Most people are getting their information through partisan sources, through ideological sources, that already filter it, so they are not necessarily get an objective set of facts. They’re getting a spin that matches what they already believe, and I think the great concern I have and a great challenge is what do we do when people receive their news in ways that merely confirm their existing biases or amplify their existing convictions without challenging them to consider other viewpoints. I think it’s one of the things that has made our politics too partisan and has made us all so polarized as a country.

 

Tys Sweeney: How do you try to avoid that spin in your more satirical pieces?

Frank Bruni: It’s really not about avoiding it in satirical pieces, but avoiding it in life. Until the last ten years, the news universe– where you have gazillion blogs and most of them flying an illogical flag, and you have Facebook and Twitter– that’s not the news universe that I grew up in.

I grew up in a news universe where it was the general-interest TV newscast and the general-interest newspaper, so the majority of the news sources for most of my life [were] sources that at least tried to deliver you an objective account of events. I was never trained in this way of joining a tribe of like-minded thinkers, all sort of screaming louder and louder about what we believe.

What I do today…write opinion… is not objective because that’s not my job description right now, but my reading is ideologically polyglot, and that’s by design. I think everybody can do that. I read some conservative journals; I read the National Review; I go to websites that aggregate things that are deliberately ideologically diverse, like the RealClearPolitics website, which, if you look at their recommended pieces every morning and every afternoon, it is some from the right, some from the left, and some from the center. I make a point of doing that… because no matter what I end up thinking, I want to be informed by people … making all sorts of different arguments.

And you all can do that too. It’s just not the way that most people use the internet, and it’s not the way most people set up their social media feeds.

 

Chriss Liu: How do you think the responsibility and the power of media has changed in the environment of comedianized politics and satirical pieces?

Frank Bruni: I think you’re crediting comedy and satire with way too much of the news universe.

I think the power of the media has changed, and here I’m speaking of all news media, not just comedy and satire, which as I said is a very, very tiny sliver of the overall thing. The way I think the power has changed has been much more dispersed, which is not necessary a bad thing. It’s probably a good thing.

In the old days, the three network newscasts– and the old days of only fifteen, twenty years ago– NBC, CBS and ABC, had huge, huge audiences, [and] the New York Times didn’t have many competitors online, because there weren’t all these online publication like there are now, so a handful of news organizations and a handful of editors can no longer set and determine the agenda.

That’s in most ways a good thing, but as I said, the problem is that small group of editors did consider themselves beholden to a sort of objective truth and to an absence of bias that is no longer the guiding ethos of all of the blogs on the internet, of all of the tweeters, of all of the places on Facebook, which you know come at things from a much more biased way. So people end up getting news that match their biases.

 

Tys Sweeney: You mentioned getting your news from well-rounded sources. How would you suggest students, especially us who try to be student journalists here,  approach that and get those well-rounded sources?

Frank Bruni: It’s very simple: you probably do what I do: you probably have certain Twitter feeds that your follow, you have Facebook pages that you like, certain things you get in your Facebook feed based on what you’ve liked, what you’ve become a fan of. When you are figuring out who to follow on Twitter, or when you’re figuring out how to behave on Facebook, if you just pause and say to yourself,  “I don’t want to just check off things that echo me, things that I already agree with. I want to try to check off things so that I have a patchwork of stuff coming at me,” you can set up your social media feed that way. You just have to pause and decide to do it.

Same thing with bookmarks. Most people will bookmark the Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, ThinkProgress, and that’s the end of the day for them. But those are all left-of-center or very far left-leaning sources. Ditto on the other side, people will bookmark RedState.com, The National Review, and something else along those lines. You can decide to bookmark things from both sides of political divide. You can decide to identify those vehicles like RealClearPolitics.com, like The Week, that pride themselves on giving you a hodgepodge of right, left, and center.

You just have to make the decision and decide it’s your priority to see the full spectrum of opinion, and not to just be constantly affirmed in what you already think. Because if you are only affirmed in what you already think, you are going to begin to think that more intractably, and that may not bear any relation to reality, and it certainly doesn’t help you talk to people unlike yourself.

When you look at our Congress and its inability to pass legislation, and when you look at some of the suppression of free speech on college campuses, that’s the fruit of people only knowing how to talk to people who already believe just as they do. That’s the enemy of democracy, and I think it is the enemy of progress.

***

In this election cycle specifically, Frank Bruni’s advice on how to learn about and communicate with people who disagree with you on an ideological level can prove to be important.

Our subsequent Q & A columns with Frank Bruni will cover his life in journalism, education, and food writing. The Oracle is excited to be able to share more opinions and advice from a world-renowned journalist and writer with the Blair community in the coming days.

(Copyright 2016 The Blair Oracle. This is the first in a series of three interview pieces with Frank Bruni. This piece is a collaboration between Tys Sweeney (principal author), Chriss Liu, and Janice Negvesky.)

Tys Sweeney

Founder & Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Tys Sweeney '17 founded the Blair Oracle in April 2015. He wrote news, fiction, poetry, and announcements for the publication until he graduated in 2017. He served as Editor-in-Chief until 2016 and was succeeded by Seth Kim.