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‘A war against facts’: ‘An Evening with Cokie and Steve Roberts’ discusses journalism challenges

By Staff | Aug 2, 2019

From left, moderator Ray Smock talks with journalists Cokie Roberts and Steve Roberts, during "An Evening with Cokie and Steve Roberts" on July 22. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — “An Evening with Cokie and Steve Roberts” drew a full crowd to the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education’s auditorium on July 22, anticipating an evening full of interesting conversation and good food.

The event, which was the center’s second annual fundraiser, raised money to pay next summer’s interns. According to event moderator and Director Emeritus Ray Smock, Cokie and Steve have been friends with him since the beginning of his career as the former historian of the United States House of Representatives.

“I invited them to come and speak,” Smock said, mentioning he met Cokie through working with her mother, former U.S. Representative Lindy Boggs. “We’re delighted they’re here — there’s nobody better in national journalism than these two.”

Cokie’s career has encompassed print, television and radio journalism, with some of its highest points being as a National Public Radio commentator, ABC News commentator and analyst and roundtable analyst for the current This Week With George Stephanopoulos. Her long career has given her a different perspective on Americans’ fear that they are being duped by reading “fake news.”

“I actually think people are working harder and trying to get it right, now more than in recent years,” Cokie said. “The Trump presidency has made us more aware. You have to, in the end, say, ‘the president said falsely.’ It’s a challenge of having to tell the news, straight on.”

When Steve and Cokie met over 50 years ago, Steve encouraged Cokie to try to have a career in journalism, like he was doing. While both gained major success in the field, Steve has now moved on to teaching journalism at George Washington University. In his classes, Steve said he teaches his students to focus on the facts, and not get swept away by their emotional reactions to news.

“I teach a course in media ethics, and I don’t think there is any irony in that,” Steve said. “The independent press has to be the arbiter of fact. It is more important than ever that we be aggressive, that we be belligerent, that we be resilient.

“In September 2016, I picked up the New York Times, and there was a story that candidate Trump had finally admitted that his claims that President Obama was not born in America weren’t true. It said, ‘Trump Lies,'” Steve said. “I knew, when I saw that, that it was a change in our role.

“We have to do journalism with impeccable standards of fairness and accuracy,” Steve said, before explaining how fake news develops. “One of the most dangerous things you can do as a journalist, is want a story to be true. You winnow out information to make something true, and that is an enormous failure.

“There is, in this country, a war against facts. Journalists are only a part of this theme,” Steve said. “There’s this larger idea of alternative facts — that facts themselves don’t matter, that they are all subjective and transitory. Identifying facts — I believe that is still possible.”

But in spite of fake news and the current political situation, Cokie said the U.S. isn’t in quite as much of a state of turmoil as it has been in the past.

“People ask me many times, ‘is this the most partisan time ever?’ And I say, ‘No! We’re not killing each other,'” Cokie said. “There have been many more polarized moments in American history. Aaron Burr was the sitting president of the United States when he murdered his political opponent.”