On Tuesday, Oct. 9, over 60 students, professors, alumni and community members filled Moyer Hall’s Millers Forum to listen to a lecture titled “State and Local Political Coverage in Pennsylvania: Perspectives on a Changing Media Landscape from WHYY’s Dave Davies” sponsored by The Muhlenberg College Political Science Department. As a part of the lecture series leading up to the Midterm elections, Davies’ lecture reflected on the current political landscape, the state of journalism today and his own career in political reporting.
Raised in Texas, Davies is senior reporter for WHYY, a public radio station serving the Delaware Valley, as well as a contributor and fill-in host for the show Fresh Air with Terry Gross. According to his WHYY profile, before working with the station, Davies spent 19 years as a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and prior to that, he was city hall bureau chief for KYW News Radio and city hall correspondent for WHYY.
With political science professor Christopher Borick moderating, Davies spoke to the changes he has noticed after the 2016 elections, particularly in respect to the media.
“It is extremely disturbing to be in an environment where large parts of the population believe that news organizations like the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer and public radio make stuff up”
“It is extremely disturbing to be in an environment where large parts of the population believe that news organizations like the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer and public radio make stuff up,” said Davies.
“It is one of the byproducts of this bitter partisanship which has been building for years and years where people will do anything for partisanship, including poison peoples trust of news organizations that largely are certainly imperfect, which try to get it right, and which can be sued if they get it wrong,” he added.
He also spoke about the decline of thorough investigative reporting in the era of the internet and its effects on the American public and democracy.
“TV stations have also lost their news departments,” said Davies, “the content tends to be really driven by ratings. It tends to be shootings, stabbings or fires or human interest stuff that may or may not be very consequential, and I think one result of that is to decrease voter turnout.”
Davies addressed the current issue facing American media concerning anonymous sources. In the wake of the controversial, anonymous New York Times article titled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” the credibility of anonymous sources on a larger scale have come into question.
“I think in political reporting in particular, you have to have conversations where people can get the ability to speak candidly about things that they can’t speak publicly about”
“I think in political reporting in particular, you have to have conversations where people can get the ability to speak candidly about things that they can’t speak publicly about,” said Davies. “There have been times I have called people up and said, ‘I would love this off the records I don’t want you to tell me what you would say for public consumption’ and that’s a case when I am not willing to quote them as an anonymous source trashing somebody. I want them to inform me. I want to understand what’s going on about a particular political candidate”
Davies was critical, however, of the extensive use of these sources in newspapers recently, and argued that the Washington D.C. press in particular is guilty of their overuse.
“I feel like when the New York Times does it and the Washington Post does it, reporters everywhere feel empowered to do it, in fact kind of have to do it … It creates the suspicion about what we do,” said Davies.
Davies also spoke about the ‘watchdog role’ taken up by the media and how it feeds into cynicism and distrust of government within the American public.
“When you are [reporting] in government you want to find people who are abusing their offices, wasting their taxes doing political work on the taxpayer’s dime,” says Davies.
“I do worry sometimes that the cumulative impact of stories like that is that people come to believe that everybody that works for the government is lazy and that’s just not true. Over the years, I have just found so many people that are smart dedicated public servants,” he added.
However, Davies explained that good public servants do not make for interesting news.
“That’s a little bit of a concern that, [the media] have created an unrealistic thought that everybody on the payroll is a jerk.”
Davies shared some of his own insight and expectations for the upcoming Midterm elections. A key point of discussion was the so called ‘blue wave’ and the recent, unprecedented success of democratic candidates in Pennsylvania elections. Davies credits some of these changes to the recent redrawing of Pennsylvania’s Congressional map in 2018 which took effect this year and left Democrats in better shape than with the heavily gerrymandered districts before.
“The truly seismic change that we have had here, is that we redrew all the congressional boundaries in January. It was just astonishing to see,” said Davies.
He also spoke about the effects of national organizations stepping in to influence competitive elections and their use of dubious campaign tactics.
“When there is a competitive congressional race. . .national organizations will come in and just will say anything,” said Davies, mentioning efforts by the National Republican Congressional Committee to upend Democratic candidate Scott Wallace’s campaign for a seat in Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District through the use of political advertisements.
Both Professor Borick and Davies made note that currently, there are zero women in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, but that there are a number of women on ballots for the midterms.
Finally, Davies spoke about his work for the talk radio show, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, the rigorous preparation involved and his favorite interviewee so far: Jerry Seinfeld.
Dave Davies’ insightful lecture was both enlightening and timely, addressing many of the concerns affecting the current role of media in America, the upcoming midterm elections and the state of journalism under the current presidential administration.
Photo courtesy of Muhlenberg College Public Relations.