Saturday, Oct. 8, Associate Vice President for Student Engagement and Leadership Drew Stelljes Ph.D. ’07 moderated an alumni panel on democracy and the media as part of the College of William and Mary’s annual Homecoming weekend.
Alumni journalists David Culver ’09, Brendan Hoffman ’02, Valerie Hopkins ’09 and Weijia Jiang ’05 virtually participated in a discussion on the role of the media in the event, titled “Presidential Conversation: Democracy and the Media.”
The event started with an introductory discussion between President Katherine Rowe and Stelljes.
“The human beings who founded this university, and together our country, grew their ideas here,” Rowe said. “Not as expansively or as perfectly as we want, but it is our business to expand them and make them more perfect.”
Stelljes talked about the Democracy Initiative, a comprehensive program aimed to make the College “a place where respectful dialogue takes place on challenging topics,” the College’s website says. A similar program exists at the University of Virginia.
He detailed the College’s partnership with the Constructive Dialogue Institute, a non-profit organization that “operates to help us understand both the mindset and the behaviors of individuals across the world and across cultures, when they are met with stimuli that are challenging.”
“So the ambition here is to become known in this country where open debate thrives… We sometimes offend each other, and we can correct that,” Rowe said.
Dean of Students Stacey Harris elaborated on how the Democracy Initiative is a part of the strategic plan.
“So one piece is going to be, kind of saying, ‘Here are these incredible opportunities for the free exchange of ideas,’ and we’re going to say, ‘Here’s where they all are. They already exist,’” Harris said.
After the introductory discussion, Stelljes introduced the panelists, who were all participating virtually.
Hopkins, a New York Times international correspondent, is based in Moscow, Russia. She covers the war in Ukraine, Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. While at the College, she served as Student Assembly president and also worked for The Flat Hat.
Hopkins discussed her experiences in Russia as it relates to the media and the freedom of the press.
“It’s the basis upon which people’s ideas and opinions are formed,” Hopkins said of the role that the media plays in democracy in the United States and internationally. “I arrived yesterday and was met by someone who didn’t know that Ukraine, Russian and Belarusian activists had won the Nobel Peace Prize.”
She said there is a very severe shortage of unbiased information in Russia, which has been going on for two decades.
“I think I don’t need to say very much more than without the media, we don’t have a democracy, and you may actually wind up with a more warmongering authoritarian leader,” she said.
“I think I don’t need to say very much more than without the media, we don’t have a democracy, and you may actually wind up with a more warmongering authoritarian leader.”
Culver added that citizens and professionals are needed to sustain a democracy.
“You have citizen journalists and you have those of us who are career journalists“but all have become equally important,” Culver said. “The challenge is going to be, going forward, breaking through that voice, because there’s a lot of it, and making sense of it all.”
Culver is a CNN correspondent based in Los Angeles. He graduated from the College with a major in Hispanic studies and a minor in Middle Eastern studies. His video report on the COVID-19 pandemic in China in January 2020 received more than 211 million views on Facebook.
Hoffman is a freelance photographer based in Kyiv, Ukraine. He is a co-founder of Prime, a global collective of photographers. Its clients include major outlets such as The Washington Post, NPR, Politico and the BBC.
Hoffman said the media is similar to the structure of the United States government, in that it is representative of the people.
“It’s often thought of as a monolithic institution, But the media itself is also a mechanism to stand in for the public interest and then for the constituents that these politicians are representing.”
“It’s often thought of as a monolithic institution,” Hoffman said. “But the media itself is also a mechanism to stand in for the public interest and then for the constituents that these politicians are representing.”
Jiang has been the Senior White House Correspondent for CBS News since July 2018. She had several notable clashes with former President Donald Trump, with one instance of him calling her question “nasty.”
“As members of the media,” Jiang said, “I think it is our duty to provide the tools and the information to the public to be able to engage in that way, so that they can process arguments and make informed decisions.”
Jiang said people often look to the media for confirmation of their own biases instead of looking for information. Because of that, she thinks journalists have to provide the best and most accurate information so that people can get closer to making their own objective thoughts, a necessary process to sustain democracy.
Jiang, who graduated from the College as a philosophy major, said nothing could have prepared her more for her journalism career than a philosophy degree. A philosophy education, she said, helped her to “sift through all the noise” and “to present all sides of an argument and leave it to the public to make up their own minds” about life-changing decisions.
Hopkins also discussed her conversations on American democracy with some Kosovan people while she was living in the partially-recognized European state. She said while they were shocked when Trump won the 2016 presidential election, they were still confident in the strength of American institutions. Six years later, however, they are worried about the state of American democracy, and for their own state as well.
“‘This country that we looked up to for so long,’ you know, ‘what can happen to us when this is happening in one of the oldest democracies in the world?’” she said.
Hopkins cited the College as being a source of preparation for her journalism career. She said she volunteered in Romania as part of the College’s service programs and received a grant from the College to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
During the discussion, Hoffman presented some of his photographs relating to the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution and the war in Ukraine. He explained that one of the protestors in the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution came to him and told him to leave.
“‘You should move back, this is a war now,’” Hoffman said, recalling what a protester said to him. “It was a protest that turned into a revolution, and this was the moment it became a war.”
After the discussion, the panel took questions and comments from the audience. One member of the audience was Frank Shatz, a weekly columnist for The Virginia Gazette. Shatz said he was very impressed by the work of the distinguished alumni, and asked them to fight to preserve the right to tell the truth.
Shatz thought the panel was a wonderful program.
“That they didn’t appear in person, I thought it would be a hindrance,” Shatz said, “but it wasn’t. It was technologically wonderfully done.”
He added there should be more events like this.
“William and Mary is really an incubator for new ideas, and not just for the College, but also for the whole community. It has a distinguished name. People listen to it. And it was [the case] for 328 years, and I hope it will be 300 more years.”
“William and Mary is really an incubator for new ideas, and not just for the College, but also for the whole community,” Shatz said. “It has a distinguished name. People listen to it. And it was [the case] for 328 years, and I hope it will be 300 more years.”
His advice to journalists today, he said, is “to fight nail and teeth for the right to tell the truth.”
As a foreign correspondent for Hungarian newspapers in communist Czechoslovakia, Shatz had to weigh every word that he wrote down because it was very dangerous to tell the truth.
“So I know what free press means. … Since I came to [the] United States … I was never told what I should write or shouldn’t write,” Shatz said.
Chief Marketing Officer Heather Golden agreed that the panel effectively highlighted the significance of media.
“I think it’s a fantastic way to bring the democracy initiative to life and to demonstrate how our alumni, our faculty and our students are actively engaged in this [process],” Golden said.