The Ford School of Public Policy hosted a conversation between Columbia University School of Journalism Dean Gerani Cobb and School of Public Policy Dean Celeste Watkins-Hays Tuesday night in Rackham Auditorium at the University of Michigan.
The event is part of the “Democracy in Crisis” series, hosted by the School of Public Policy in partnership with the Wallace House Journalist Center and the University’s Democracy and Debate Initiative. Cobb’s talk examines the role of the media in democracies to create a more just world.
Cobb was a staff writer for The New Yorker before becoming a staff writer at the magazine in 2015 — a job he’s held since. That same year, Cobb received the Sidney Hillman Award for Opinion and Analytical Writing. Cobb writes frequently on topics such as race, politics, history and culture.
Cobb began the conversation by questioning the authenticity of American democracy, emphasizing that slavery was still legal when the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Cobb believes that the United States was not truly democratic until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned discriminatory voting practices after the Civil Rights Movement. By Cobb’s definition, American democracy is less than 70 years old.
“If you asked most people when American democracy started, they’d say 1776,” Cobb said. “But … you can’t be a democracy while buying and selling people … This country didn’t really call itself a democracy until 1965. So if we look at it in that context, we see liberty as a more fragile state.”
In an interview with The Michigan Journal ahead of the event, Cobb said growing up in New York City taught him about inequality and social justice.
“I grew up in Queens, which … is an incredibly diverse place,” Cobb said. “I have neighbors from all over, I have classmates at school from all over. It gives me a wider perspective and allows me to see that something that affects one community might not be the same as it affects another.”
Watkins-Hayes and Cobb also discuss contemporary challenges in journalism, highlighting the increase in misinformation — the spread of false information, intentionally or not — during and after former US President Donald Trump’s tenure. A study by researchers at Cornell University analyzed 38 million articles and found that mentions of Trump accounted for about 38% of the overall misinformation conversations involving the COVID-19 pandemic. A free, trustworthy media is essential to having an informed voter and a successful democracy, Cobb said.
“(The media) is here to serve democracy,” Cobb said. “But we rarely think about what that really means. All you know is how uncoordinated and flustered a lot of the media was in dealing with the previous presidential administration and the flagrant violations of democratic norms.”
Cobb went on to explain the complex relationship between media, capitalism and democracy by comparing Trump to former U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. Cobb pointed to similarities between “Trumpism” and McCarthyism, which refers to McCarthy’s false and public accusations of treason and collusion with the Communist Party by US government officials. In both cases, Cobb said political officials were spreading misinformation in favor of ulterior motives.
“So Trump and Trumpism is just a new iteration of a revanchist, reactionary movement (McCarthyism) focused on population size and society’s interest in maintaining the already disproportionate power of white America,” Cobb said.
LSA freshman Edra Timmerman, who was one of the event attendees, told the Daily Mail she found the comparisons Cobb made to Trump and McCarthy fascinating.
“I really like the comparison between McCarthyism and Trumpism, which makes me more optimistic that (Trumpism) will eventually go away,” Timmerman said.
Watkins-Hayes then asked Cobb to share his thoughts on the policing system and whether he thinks it should be reformed. In response, Cobb pointed out that police brutality disproportionately affects black Americans. He referred to the recent death of Tire Nichols, who was killed on Jan. 10 by Memphis police officers, all of whom were black. The fact that a black police officer killed Nichols still points to a systemic problem with police brutality, Cobb said. Hiring more black officers isn’t going to solve the problem, he said.
“The truth is, this is institutional behavior, and the victims are most likely black,” Cobb said. “[But]you can have a system that’s staffed by black people and still act on the principles of white supremacy.”
Cobb discusses the role of race in education and explains the concept of Critical Race Theory (CRT) — that race is a social and institutionalized concept, not a biological one — with reference to attorney and citizen Derek Bell ( Derrick Bell is considered one of the founders of the CRT. Cobb said Republican lawmakers’ attempts to ban the practice bolster Bell’s point that racial superiority is deeply entrenched in American society.
“Derek Bell is arguing in a so-called colorblind society that anti-discrimination language will be used as a means of pro-discrimination,” Cobb said. “That’s exactly what happened.”
In an interview with The Daily after the event, Watkins-Hayes said she felt the event went well and expressed her gratitude for Cobb’s speech at the university.
“I feel really good about it,” Watkins-Hayes said. “Dean Cobb has such a breadth of knowledge and so much of what he writes about… What made this event so special was the opportunity to hear him talk about the breadth of topics.”
At the event, Cobb said he wanted to continue working to build a more just world for the sake of his children and their future lives.
“My biggest concern is that I have two daughters and two sons,” Cobb said. “And I never wanted to embarrass them by saying they were going to inherit the world and I wasn’t doing everything I could to make it easier for them to live in.
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