At UNH law school, ‘Face the Nation’ host talks hope, challenges for political news

  • Journalists and politicians take part in a panel discussion at a Concord award ceremony for CBS news host John Dickerson. From left are NHPR host Laura Knoy, “Washington Post” reporter Dan Balz, CBS “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson, and former New Hampshire attorney general Tom Rath. Ethan DeWitt / Monitor staff

  • “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson (left) and “Washington Post” columnist Dan Balz pose at an award ceremony for Dickerson at the University of New Hampshire School of Law on Tuesday. Ethan DeWitt / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Thursday, December 07, 2017

John Dickerson holds few illusions about the plight of political journalism. The CBS correspondent and Face the Nation host helms an industry whose esteem has plunged, whose practitioners face revulsion and disbelief, even as subscriptions spike and viewership hits record highs.

But speaking before a Concord audience Tuesday, the veteran political campaign reporter said he sees a chance for renewal.

“I think one of the bits of hope in the moment of destabilization is the incredible amount of engagement people have with the news,” Dickerson said. “People are getting involved.”

“The question is,” he added, “what do they become, these newcomers to politics?”

Dickerson, whose career has careened from Time magazine to television, had come to the University of New Hampshire School of Law to accept the David Broder Award, a newly formed honor for journalism in the public interest. But in remarks to the audience, he kept a focus on the profession he loves – and the hurdles in its way.

“There are two big forces facing journalism today,” he told the lecture hall. “One is the questioning and debate of facts: what a fact is, whether we believe in them.”

The other, he said, is tribalism.

The symptoms are near-universal, Dickerson continued: political parties ignoring nonpartisan tax analyses, once-purple states turning deep red and blue, past voter-to-voter disagreements evolving to present cultural animosities.

In sunnier days, political extremism had a powerful counterforce, Dickerson said: the process. Outside of legislative chambers, partisan loudmouths could throw out screeds and bombast; inside, however, cooperation and compromise were essential.

Now, an electorate hardened by political scandal has cast aside the trust necessary to keep the system afloat, Dickerson said. Politicians were the first to fall out of favor – recently, institutions have followed suit.

It didn’t take long for the media to fragment as well. Preference in journalistic outlets is now as emotionally driven as choice in political parties, Dickerson told the crowd.

Much of this may be out of anyone’s control, Dickerson said. But tempering it, he argued, should be humility.

“The press makes a lot of mistakes,” he said. “And we need to be honest about that, and really recognize that it’s a rich part of our tradition.”

Also not helping, Dickerson said: the hyperbolic headlines, the giddy, opinion-laden tweets, the wall-to-wall frenetic broadcast coverage.

Dickerson has his own strategy – decency. A broadcast personality who honed his skills in the rough-and-tumble of print journalism, Dickerson has the instincts to press for the information he needs. But on air he lets out an infectiously genial air, quick with a laugh or comforting remark.

Presenting the award Tuesday, longtime Washington Post columnist Dan Balz said it’s a personality trait that’s established Dickerson as a favorite among the political press.

“He’s admired for his brainpower, his sense of history, his sharp analyses, and also for his civility and respect that he brings to everything that he does,” said Balz, who himself won the honor in 2015.

In accepting the biennial award – established in 2015 – Dickerson follows Balz as the second recipient. Jordan Budd, director of the school’s Warren B. Rudman center, said the award was created as a way to celebrate civic engagement and public service, and to inspire students.

The accolade honors the late Post columnist David Broder, who was himself a giant of political writing and a fixture of the New Hampshire primary campaign trail.

Speaking to the room, Dickerson said Broder, who died in 2011, would hold today’s politics in special contempt. Many of the living already do. But he said the example Broder set – of patience, persistence and grace – could go a ways toward guiding the journalism business though the howling storm.

“I think at some point people are going to get sick of the daily, vinegary conversation. The question is whether they opt out entirely or seek some new location,” he said. “What we try to do on Sunday is be that location for context. When everybody’s drinking from the fire hydrant, you just give them one distilled glass.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)