Alex Wagner on the Media’s “Biggest Wakeup Call”

 /  Jan. 2, 2017, 8:37 p.m.


With over a decade of experience in the journalism field, Alex Wagner was the host of the Emmy-nominated "Now With Alex Wagner" on MSNBC from 2011-2015, and also served as a senior editor at The Atlantic. Previously, Wagner worked for The Huffington Post and as the White House correspondent for Politics Daily. In November, it was announced that Wagner will be co-hosting "CBS This Morning: Saturday" and will be a correspondent for CBS News, in addition to continuing her work with The Atlantic as a contributing editor. Wagner recently visited the University of Chicago Institute of Politics to join Republican strategist Mark McKinnon in conversation about her involvement in the documentary series, The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth. Wagner also sat down with the Gate’s Saisha Talwar and Riddhi Sangam for a conversation about politics, the media, and Wagner’s career in journalism.

The Gate: How would you characterize the shift in public trust in the media over the years? How do you think the presidential election changed that, if at all? How have you dealt with this challenge in your thirteen years of journalistic experience?

Alex Wagner: This is a fairly involved question so you'll pardon me if this is a long-winded answer. I think the internet changed everything. From this election, the media is coming to terms with the notion that an information hierarchy does not exist. I think that's been one of the biggest wakeup calls in all of this. To some degree, I think my generation of reporters are the canaries in the coal mine: we started out in an analog world, and we are forced to rapidly adjust to a digital world. So, there are the broader technological changes. Then, there are the pressures that all those changes have put on journalists to file incredibly fast: the metricsin terms of audience, in terms of clicks, in terms of things going viralthe pressure to consider those things when you pitch stories and write them is real. And that changes the kind of coverage, too. So you have stories that are geared to faster consumption, that are more sensational. And that, I think, is problematic. I will say, in defense of [publications], I think there was great reporting at The Atlantic, there was great reporting at The Washington Post, there was great reporting at The New York Times. There was also great investigative journalism this election season, but it was not consumed en masse. The frenzy of the cycle prevented people from doing that. You know, there was a New York Times headline about debts that Donald Trump owes to various foreign banks that was literally in the news for less than a day. It's so hard to make an impact with stories now. And that's hard, because some stories deserve more time and consideration and should be more disruptive to the information landscape than they necessarily are.

The last piece of it is that the way we're writing stories, the way we're distributing stories, the way people are consuming them is different. And then the advent of fake news, which is something that people are talking about after the election, is incredibly disturbing, and not just because people are apparently either unable to tell the difference between vetted, reported news stories, or don't want vetted and reported news stories. When media becomes a place for validation and catharsis, and not necessarily a place for the exchange of facts and information, I think that's where it gets really dangerous. And the internet has made it really easy for people to dig foxholes of their own making and live in them. And the president talked about this tooyou cannot have a common conversation if the entire public landscape is dotted with people in foxholes. (The foxhole metaphor is mine, not his.) It makes governance nearly impossible.

Gate: In the media coverage of the presidential election, many said that one reason Hillary Clinton lost was because the media exaggerated her email scandal. Can you describe the link between sensationalism and coverage of Clinton's email scandal?

Wagner: I think there was and there remains a lot to explore in Donald Trump's background, and his investments, and his ideology. There is not nearly as much to explore around Hillary Clinton, in part because she's been on the public stage for decades, but also because of the way the Clinton world operates. The Clintons are, I think, to her own detriment, hyper-aware of not making quote-unquote mistakes. And I think they were in information lockdown for most of the campaign, and she's operated like that for much of her public life. So there's just more fuel for Trump coverage. I think at a point there was probably a real concern that the coverage was just imbalanced. And that there was a feeling that there was just so much constant Trump coverage, a lot of it was really negative, in part because a lot of the things he has said in his career are controversial. The email scandal, I think, provided people in the media withand I don't know that this is fair or righta way to try and tip the scale back and say, "OK, but we're covering this, too." And is the private server on the level of Trump University or any other myriad Trump scandals? That's up to the public to decide, but it was the thing that the media had to go to in what was seen as an uneven landscape. And I will also say I think the Clinton campaign handled it abysmally. There was a much better way to handle this if they didn't want the story to be ongoing. I'm not blaming her for James Comey reopening the case, but at the beginning of this, it was very clear it was going to be a big problem, and they were incredibly reluctant to tackle it, which just is media catnip.

Gate: In your recent article in The Atlantic, "Chambers of Pain," you note how the Trump victory may lay a foundation for future Democratic optimism and perhaps a victory in 2020. However, on the University of Chicago campus, the results of the election brought a sense of great embitterment, followed by worrisome complacency. What advice you would give to our student body to avoid this sense of complacency and keep in mind what the election means for the future?

Wagner: Okay, so I think it's easy to lapse into complacency between an election and an inauguration, because practically, right now, what we're talking about are appointments in the administration. It's hard to be indignant about who the national security advisor isI mean, you can be indignant over who the national security advisor is. But I think if Donald Trump follows through on a lot of his campaign proposals to build a wall, to create a registry for Muslims, to deport the DREAMers, he will engender a fair amount of activism. Unless and until those things happen, I can understand people being confused about where they want to channel their energies. The important thing to understand is that elections have consequences, and there will be consequences to this. And maybe the consequences won't be as dramatic as the deportation of 11 million men and women. But the consequences could be written in policy, and they could be financial policy, they could be tax policy, but there are massive implications for all of that, and some of those steps will be not greeted with the same immediate indignation that others will.

So the trick is for people on the campus to really pay attention. And to the degree that the course that is set by the president does not dovetail with the interests of the campus population, young people are the agents of change, in part because you guys are in a place where you can exchange ideas freely, where you have infrastructure to organize, you have the time to, and the enthusiasm and the energy. You are going to be affected more than any of us by what happens in the next four to eight years. And so I think it is to some degree about taking responsibility for that, but you should also be excited about the fact that you can be agents of change. I really do believe that it mattersactivism matters, engagement matters, the exchange of information matters. And this might be a harder lesson to learn, and I think this is something that Democrats and progressives need to learn more broadly, which is that I think liberalism has in many ways been too much enthralled to the self and the individual, and I think this election teaches us that we need to think more collectively about who we are. And I think campus politics specifically have been very self-oriented, and this is a real time to think beyond the individual and individual aggressions and think more broadly about community. That's the work, I think, that’s needed in this moment.

Gate: You were covering the Democratic side for the documentary series The Circus. Can you describe generally your experiences covering Democrats in red states? And also, as a representative of the media, how do you think the media shapes public trust in those regions?

Wagner: I was with Sanders and Clinton, and there were huge difference between those campaignsin style, substance, audience. Bernie Sanders, to be honest, was a lot more fun to cover than Hillary Clinton, in part because Sanders gave amazing acess and his crowds were just massive. If you're covering an event, the event you want to be at is the big show. His events always had some mixed qualities of religious revival, sporting events, and campfire singalongs. In fact, one of the takeaways from this election is that the narrative that crowds don't matter is not true. Trump’s crowds were representative of grassroots enthusiasm for him that was unrecorded. Bernie Sanders’s crowds were evidence of the enthusiasm of his supporters and of the real problem Hillary Clinton was having among the footsoldiers of the Democratic Party. I think more attention should have been paid both to Trump and Sanders and the problems they represented for Clinton.

How does the media shape the public trust? I’m of two minds about it. On one hand, there is a group of people who read newspapers and listen to the radio and read investigative journalism and who were incredibly shocked and disappointed and angry at the result of this election because they felt that, to some degree, if not lied to, they had not been given the full picture. There was a sense that the public trust had been manipulated because the media had either missed the story or had dismissed it. But then there is a whole section of the country that elected Donald Trump that was not reading that stuff. Clearly, for a sizeable chunk of the country, the media is not that powerful. I think there is going to be a lot of soul-searching in the next year. It’s going to be interesting to see how people handle 2020 coverage because we did not get the story in 2016.

Gate: You said that the Trump and Sanders crowds indicated problems for Clinton. What would you say those problems were?

Wagner: I think Clinton’s fundamental problem was her inability to seem like a genuine, normal, authentic person, which is a problem in American politics. Authenticity matters and is often dismissed as, “who cares if someone is authenticit matters what kind of leader they are.” But inherent in authenticity is the sense that people can believe what you say. I think if you look at the policies of Clinton’s husband, with whom she was theatrically on the same page, the Democratic Party has changed a lot since then. There is a whole generation of younger progressives and even middle-aged progressives who didn’t believe that she really was the person she said she was on the campaign trail. I think there were foundational problems in terms of her character and the way in which she represented herself as a candidate. But then I also think there is a real pernicious aspect to all of this that has nothing to do with Clinton’s faults: the way we exchange information and the way we think about leaders in the twenty-first century is very much driven by celebrity—an ability to command a crowd. Barack Obama was absolutely a celebrity, and Bernie Sanders became a celebrity, and Donald Trump started out as a celebrity. Hillary Clinton was never a celebrity.  She was surrounded by celebrities, but star power doesn't work like that. I don't necessarily think that is a good thing that is of value, but, as it turns out, in American politics it really matters.

Gate: You were recently named a co-host of CBS News: Saturday and a correspondent on CBS News, and you are also continuing on at The Atlantic. What type of dialogues do you hope to cultivate at this pivotal moment in our nation’s history?

Wagner: We think of politics in a vacuum and something that happens in Washington DC, but of course, it doesn’t. And it's tied to American culture. There are all types of indicators about where we are going as a country and who we are that are made manifest in art, culture, writing, technologyin any number of things. One of the things that I'm excited to do is to look at a cross-section of fields and talk to people, whether they are musicians, chefs, writers, directorsI’m working on a big Hollywood piece for The Atlantic for next yearto find out what their American story is. Because collectively those narratives are bound together and that’s who we are as a country. It’s important to understand the fabric of our democracy in a more holistic sense because I’d like to think that if we were more in touch with what was happening at large in the country, we wouldn’t have found ourselves where we are right now. I’m hoping to be on the road more, but you will also see a lot more stories from me that are not about what’s happening inside the beltway, which I’m really excited about.  

Gate: Does that relate to what you studied in college at Brown University?

Wager: I studied everything in collegeI started out as an Egyptology majornot something I talk about with great regularity, for obvious reasons. I was editing a music magazine for four years, and I wanted an anti-genocide advocacy and grant-making nonprofit with a bunch of Hollywood guys for several years—George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt. I feel like I’m feline in my nine career lives. The world is a big place and it’s changing really fast, and I think the only way that you can honestly try and tell people what’s going on is to try and sample as much of it as you can.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Saisha Talwar & Riddhi Sangam


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