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Thursday, April 14, 2011

New Republic editor decries state of media


In print | Published April 13, 2006

This past Monday, Jason Zengerle ‘96, senior editor of The New Republic Magazine, discussed “The Polarization of Political Media.” The Forum for Free Speech Committee welcomed Zengerle, who was a co-founder of Swarthmore’s humor magazine Spike and has since been published in publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek and Slate.

Zengerle talked about applying his Swarthmore training to writing and journalism, although he discovered that writing seminar papers and magazine articles presented very different challenges.

“When writing magazine articles, you couldn’t get away with something confusing, because your editor would call you out,” Zengerle said. “It takes a real genius to condense things down to that level.”

Zengerle also issued advice for beginner journalists. “When you’re starting, pick simple topics,” he said. “Pick topics that people aren’t really paying attention to, and that helps you build credibility.”

Zengerle noted that one of his first jobs at the New Republic was as a fact-checker. Ironically, one of the articles he had to research was written by Stephen Glass, the infamous New Republic reporter who fabricated dozens of stories and was the subject of the film Shattered Glass.

Zengerle criticized the conservative right for what he called “working the refs,” or bullying and de-legitimizing the media by questioning its objectivity. By continually undermining many news sources, Zengerle argued that conservatives are responsible for the lack of political magazines like the New Republic. “There is more of a tendency to do stories that are significant and have a direct bearing on that month’s, day’s issue of the moment,” he said. “There is not much long-view perspective, and that’s descriptive of journalism in general.”

On the other hand, Zengerle highlighted examples of media coverage that have angered many liberals. When describing the factors that led to the left being angry at the media, Zengerle noted the impeachment of President Clinton, the 2000 election and the war in Iraq as three events that created anger amongst the left towards the media.

When speaking about the 2000 election, Zengerle noted that the press did a very bad job reporting what was true and what was not. “The media did not call Bush out when he wasn’t truthful, for example, his tax cuts,” he said. “It was a completely dishonest model, and reporters didn’t feel comfortable reporting it.”

However, Zengerle saved his harshest criticism for bloggers, saying that their criticism of newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post was completely unnecessary and unfounded. “The press-bashing on blogs is so mindless and over the top,” he said. “I am just stunned. I hate to say it’s mindless animosity, but I think it’s an accurate term.”

With the Internet, Zengerle said the news cycle had become so fast-paced that magazines like the New Republic could no longer keep up with the bloggers, which served to further polarize the media. “Blogs have sped up the news cycle,” he said. “There is no considered thought, only instant reaction, and that’s what people expect. People discount objective journalism now and want partisan publications.”

In the end, however, Zengerle still provided some hope that this polarization could be reversed by those who were aware of the problem. “I would love to see someone put the brakes on these things. Maybe through persuasive argument, we can convince them that this is not the way to go,” he said. “I think the only hope is that the standard and quality of journalism by The New York Times and Washington Post is so much better than what you get on the Internet and that people will recognize it.”

The lecture was well-received by the organizers and those who attended it. “I thought Zengerle could attract a broad audience by talking about how he could become a journalist,” Albert Chang ’06, a member of the Forum for Free Speech Committee and the chief organizer of the lecture, said. “Lots of people here want to be writers, and Jason as an alumnus has clearly had success being one.”

The content of the lecture generated many ideas for future discussion. “I thought it was interesting how he presented the role that blogging plays in setting the political environment,” Bess Ritter ’09 said.

Zengerle was also praised for his down-to-earth manner. “Jason had all the qualities of a good speaker,” Chang said. “He was witty, intellectually sharp … it’s hard to find someone with his kind of effortless humility.”

So welcomed was Zengerle’s lecture that there was talk of Zengerle being invited back to speak again very shortly. “I told Jason that some people on Forum saw this as a tryout for a graduation speech, and that’d he’d be back again someday,” Chang said.


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