Students and alumni gathered in the Kelly Writers House on Saturday for a discussion on political journalism and media coverage of the presidential election. But, as is common when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump are the topics of discussion, the conversation quickly turned to focus on emails, rallies and dishonesty.
The panel was led by Dick Polman, a national political columnist at WHYY’s NewsWorks, in honor of Penn’s Homecoming weekend. It also included two young political journalists — 2007 College graduate Jim Newell of Slate and 2011 College graduate Emily Schultheis of CBS Interactive.
The discussion began with a question about Hillary Clinton’s emails. Polman asked if his fellow panelists believed that the news that the FBI was investigating new emails could change the presidential race.
Both panelists and Polman said it was too soon to tell.
“Jim Comey seemed like he was pretty much in a ‘cover-your-ass’ kind of position,” Newell said. He explained that if there was something incriminating uncovered in this investigation, Comey would be blamed by Republicans for not releasing it before the election when it could have potentially affected the results.
Polman directed his next question at Schultheis, who has covered the Clinton campaign for over a year, asking her about her impression of Clinton.
Schultheis replied that Clinton is someone who is not particularly open and forthcoming with the press.
“You go and try to ask her a question, and you get the ‘oh, great to see you, great to see you,’ and she walks away,” Schultheis said.
Newell added that when he was at the Republican National Convention, he saw Debbie Wasserman Schultz. He discussed how he went to ask her a question, but her aide got in his way by pretending to talk to her. Newell moved around to her other side, and the exact same thing happened, he said.
Polman agreed that limited accessibility to public figures presents difficulties for journalists.
“You used to be able to get information from somebody at a bar at 11:30 at night and get all kinds of stuff on background that you could seam into your coverage later on,” Polman said. Now, however, journalists focus more on the image candidates put out, he added.
But limited accessibility gives journalists more freedom to express their own opinions, and as Polman put it, to make “snarkier” comments.
Newell said that he found it liberating to have the freedom to say what he believes to be true.
“There are times when I can maybe, like, not make that one joke and burn that bridge forever, but, you know, that’s something I’m learning to deal with more as I get a little bit older,” Newell said.
Despite the unfavorable articles Newell has written on Trump, Newell said Trump’s campaign is nice to him, especially Trump’s press secretary Hope Hicks, who he said was very good at responding to his emails and questions.
Polman recounted interviewing people at a Trump rally, and he noted that contrary to stereotype, everyone was “super nice” to him after learning he was a reporter from Philadelphia.
“There were a few that were toting their assault weapons for open-carry in Ohio,” he said. “I stood on the other side, away from them. But they were really nice one-on-one.”
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