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NPR’s Liasson examines media, divisive election at JFSA event

Mara Liasson, national political correspondent for NPR, speaks at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s “Together” event on Nov. 16 at Congregation Anshei Israel. (Martha Lochert)

Historical rules work until they stop working, Mara Liasson, an award-winning political correspondent for National Public Radio, told about 1,000 people who crowded Congregation Anshei Israel on Nov. 16 for the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s 2017 Community Campaign kickoff.

President-elect Donald Trump proved that he could break all the rules and still succeed, she added.

Liasson has covered seven presidential elections during her career, and her in-depth reports are a mainstay on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.”

During the event, “Together: A Post Election Conversation with Mara Liasson,” the Federation announced that this year’s social action project will focus on Sister Jose Women’s Center, a nonprofit facility that provides shelter and services for homeless women.

Liasson told the AJP that Trump’s rhetoric about making it easier to sue the press for libel is a grave concern.

“That to me as a journalist is chilling,” Liasson said. “I think all news organizations are wondering what it means, and one of the questions we all have for Donald Trump is ‘What constitutional principles do you respect?’”

Hearing Trump state that a Mexican-American judge could not oversee a suit filed against Trump University without bias, or that Trump would potentially prosecute his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, was unprecedented, Liasson said.

“And that raises questions about his commitment to constitutional principles,” she added.

The media played a huge role in this particular election, Liasson explained, and Trump certainly dominated social media. The sheer amount of unfiltered coverage Trump got during the primaries may have been a problem and appears, in retrospect, to be unfair, she said.

Although different facets of the media cannot be lumped into one category, the major organizations in print, broadcast, radio and online news will be assessing the effectiveness of their reporting, Liasson said.

“The media isn’t one thing, but many members of the media are going to be doing a lot of soul searching after this campaign, and try to think about how we can do our jobs better,” she said.

Mara Liasson (center) with Together co-chairs Jeff Artzi and Leslie Glaze (Martha Lochert)
Mara Liasson (center) with Together co-chairs Jeff Artzi and Leslie Glaze (Martha Lochert)

One criticism that has been leveled against the media, which she believes is fair, was that many reporters at the most prestigious news outlets were isolated from Trump supporters. “I do think that if there was a failure of imagination to understand how far [Trump] could go, I think that was one of the reasons why.”

Liasson said the financial considerations of broadcast news, and Trump’s outlandish statements, afforded him about $3.2 billion in free press, according to one estimate. She noted CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves’ comment that this presidential campaign, and especially Trump, “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

“And I do think we saw this election was the result of the blurring of entertainment and politics,” she said. “Donald Trump was a reality TV celebrity. I don’t know if any other candidate, other than a billionaire reality TV celebrity, could have done what he did, and said the things that he did with impunity.”

Trump touting that he could gun down someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose voters was a prime example, she said. “He was held to a different standard.”

But it’s time for people with opposing political views to start meeting in the middle, Liasson said.

“I think this country is very polarized,” she said. “I think people tend to live near people who think like them, they listen to media that agrees with them and they live in their own silos. And I think it’s a good idea to interact with people who disagree with you.”

“On the other hand, this election has been very divisive,” she said, “[because of] the way the candidates conducted themselves.” Trump, she added, ran an “us against them” campaign.

Some of the most interesting coverage after the election has examined how this campaign has divided families, she said, adding that if a post-election event “brings people together from different parts of the political spectrum — it’s a good thing.”

One of the attendees, Howard Schwartz, said he and his wife, Trudy, have been involved with Jewish philanthropy for more than 50 years. The couple moved to Tucson from Cleveland in 2000, and they have attended every JFSA Community Campaign kickoff since relocating.

The couple attended the annual event to find out about the Federation’s social action project and hear what Liasson had to say, Schwartz said. Regarding politics, they were disappointed with both presidential hopefuls.

“The two of us were grossly unhappy with both candidates,” he said. “As we look back over our lives, we do not remember any presidential campaign which featured two lackluster candidates.”

More important, the Schwartz’s attend because they believe remaining engaged in the local Jewish community is vital. “We come to be seen and to try to help encourage other people in the community to get involved as well,” Howard Schwartz said.

Trudy Schwartz added that there’s power in numbers. “If you sit home and don’t participate,” she said, “then you’re not helping what you believe in.”