While President Obama (who has yet to give an in-depth interview to Chicago media since moving into the White House) was a few blocks away on Michigan Avenue on Friday at a fundraiser at the Cultural Center, the venerable Carol Marin wasn't lying in wait to hound him for some face time. Marin, busy as a political editor at NBC 5 News, contributor to Chicago Tonight on WTTW and Sun-Times columnist, took time to mentor young professionals at the Roosevelt Institute's GenLead conference and reflect on the state of politics and the media.
Marin touched on topical issues (including the now-viral rant by Illinois Rep. Mike Bost against a last-minute scheme in the pension reform bill) and timeless ones (such as the relationship between the press and the public). She began by noting that most people "talk about social engagement and power. I'm here to talk to you about powerlessness."
As an example, she mentioned how two landfill owners and waste processors, Waste Management and Republic Services, were fighting for a parcel of land in Chicago that could be annexed to nearby Dolton to start a new landfill. Both companies tried to influence lawmakers and bussed in claques of supporters to rally for their cause. Yet lost in the debate were the residents of Dolton, many of whom are against the annexation. It is those powerless people whom the millennial generation can help give a voice to and support, Marin said. The old saw is that journalists comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and Marin would agree.
She saw similar distraction from the issues that actually matter to citizens in the Illinois legislature's move to ban flavored blunt wraps, often used to roll marijuana and other drugs, but sometimes just enjoyed with tobacco. Marin noted that before the bill was eventually defeated in the House, lawmakers were going to make an exception for menthol cigars to appease the tobacco industry. People's preferences went unnoticed. "There are real people behind the actual numbers," she said.
Media matters were also on Marin's mind. "I don't think media is asking enough of the soul-searching questions," she said. Too often TV news and newspapers play to the most common denominator and dumb down for their audience. "We are so abbreviating our conversations that we are almost reaching a point that we are becoming incapacitated in conversations longer than a paragraph," she said disgustedly. She explored how there is new tension emerging between the battle against bias and the false equivalence effect. News organizations do not want to appear to favor one side of an issue, thus tarnishing their prized objectivity, but they also do not want to inflate dubious arguments just for the sake of balance. "The struggle for the facts spans the whole demographic spectrum," she said. This is why she doesn't like to take sides even in her personal life, refusing to lead fundraising efforts, sign petitions or join a political party.
Reflecting on her own career, Marin realized that there has been a revolution in technology every ten years (going from film and tape to microwave trucks and satellites and eventually digital in her TV days) and told the young people listening to expect even more revolutions to come in whatever field they enter. Her best advice to young journalists is, "You need to cover who you're not," in order to learn more about new topics and be as impartial as possible.
Marin's maxim could apply well to the well-educated 20-somethings in attendance for the two day networking and policy workshop at Roosevelt University, where most of the discussion topics centered around low-income, inner city, developing world and working class issues. These are probably far from their everyday experiences yet motivate them to make a difference. One of the first in a series of events the Roosevelt Institute hopes to take to other cities around the country, the conference also featured economics blogger Mike Konczal, John Gaudette of Citizen Action/Illinois and other Roosevelt Institute fellows.
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