Lessons on Journalism at the JFK Library

John Dickerson and Ann Compton talk politics in Boston

Image courtesy of the JFK Presidential Library.


Image courtesy of the JFK Presidential Library.

Sam Mitchell, Editor

Each Sunday morning, millions of Americans around the country watch John Dickerson host Face the Nation, one of his many intrepid reporting efforts on CBS. His show has hosted President Obama, Senator McCain, and dozens of other high-profile politicians and government officials. He is a brilliant and accomplished reporter and historian, who recently brought his knowledge of electoral history, his wit, and his new book to the JFK Presidential Library, in Boston, Massachusetts.

To top off an already exciting event, Dickerson was interviewed by the living-legend Ann Compton, a decades-long White House Correspondent from ABC, who has worked with every President from Ford to Obama. Her great political mind produced a multitude of intriguing questions, spanning from riveting stories about administrations from the 20th century to contemporary assessments of the soon-to-be Trump administration.

Dickerson told an especially relevant story, considering the location of the interview, when he regaled Compton with the tale of Kennedy’s efforts in the West Virginia primary in 1960. The story starts, according to Dickerson, with the Wisconsin Democratic primary a few weeks earlier. In this primary, Kennedy wins, largely due to Catholic turnout. The overwhelming narrative, then, is that Kennedy, a Catholic, can only win with Catholic voters. With the attention focused on West Virginia, a state that had a tiny percentage of Catholics among its residents, Kennedy was declared a sure loser. To combat this, Kennedy decided to forgo the traditional political advice, which was to avoid the issue, and instead embraced his Catholicism. Giving speeches across the state about his faith, Kennedy was able to convince the voters of West Virginia that he deserved their support and, turning his faith into a boon instead of a hindrance, easily won the state with 60% of the vote. Dickerson used this story as a starting point to provoke a discussion of media narratives and political decisions, and draws interesting parallels to the modern day in his book, Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History. 

Their discussion was followed by a long question-and-answer session, during which members of the public were able to ask Dickerson and Compton questions. This gave the two a number of fascinating opportunities to expound upon the role of the media and polling in the 2016 election, and the job of journalists working in an era rife with fake news. After this, both Compton and Dickerson came and talked to a group of student journalists (including four from the Chieftain Press), and answered specific questions from the group about journalistic integrity, technology, and myriad other issues.

The chief lesson from these myriad discussions is about journalistic integrity. Through the stories told, both from the lives of these journalists and the lives of others, the explanations given, and the jokes cracked, a current of truth remained constant throughout. This fundamental truth was that journalists have a solemn responsibility to uphold a standard of truth and transparency in a world where liars and obfuscators run amok with wild abandon.

This was illustrated perfectly by Ann Compton’s compelling narrative about a particularly memorable time when she was in the Press corp under President George W. Bush. Less than a year into his Presidency, Compton was one of the most senior correspondents at the White House at the time, and it happened to be her turn to fly on Air Force One on 9/11. When the President first got word of the attacks, he rushed to his plane to fly back to D.C. His staff then proceeded to throw all of the journalists off the plane, in order to maintain secrecy. However, Compton stood up for herself and told the President’s staff that it was vital, at a time of crisis more than any other, that the American people have a clear and unrestricted view of the President’s actions and decisions. Unlike every other member of the press, she was allowed to remain on the President’s jet as it flew towards the White House.

This story demonstrates the paramount principle that journalists should not be entertainers. They serve a vital role in the proper function of democracy; our vaulted institutions fall apart without a free, factual press because politicians cannot otherwise be held accountable for what they say and do. It is only by ensuring that the production of the press is held to the highest standard that there can be a genuine relationship of trust with the citizenry. It is vital to ensuring that candidates and elected officials are fact-checked and that the truth is believed.

The final note that Compton left her student-listeners with was to take time. In a political climate rife with disinformation, coded language, and “fake news”, it is vital that journalists do their due diligence and fact check information before publishing. Due to the economic pressures on news organizations, according to Compton, there has been a trend towards publishing stories first and checking them later, which only proliferate misinformation and frays the ties of trust between media and the public. Journalists have to be responsible for the information they publish, and so it is vital that they spend adequate time and care in writing and reporting stories.

For any who are interested, the full video recording of the interview and the question-and-answer segment was published by the JFK Presidential Library on their youtube channel. Pay attention to the JFK Library’s website for upcoming events like this one! Every year they bring in dozens of brilliant speakers, and the live-stream of these events is readily available from the comfort of one’s home.