Media and democracy in danger: Townhall takes place at NEIU


Panelists (Left to Right): Yosef Getachew, Tracy Sefl and Kerry Lester spoke to the dangers facing democracy today. | Photo by Trudy Leong

Ankush Vyas, Editor-in-Chief

Common Cause Illinois partnered with Adlai Stevenson Center for a town hall meeting to address the importance of a free and fair press at Northeastern Illinois University on June 13.

According to their official website, Common Cause Illinois is a nonpartisan grassroots organization which works to create an open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest by promoting equal rights, opportunity and representation for all.

The event featured the following speakers: former U.S. senator Adlai Stevenson III, former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, communications strategist Tracy Sefl, editor of the Center for Illinois Politics Kerry Lester and Common Cause Director of Media & Democracy programs Yosef Getachew.

Georgia Logothetis, the assistant director of Common Cause Illinois and alumni of Northeastern Illinois University and Terrie Albano, also an alumni and a member of the Alumni Advisory Board at NEIU, were the opening speakers at the town hall.

They used their past experiences working as writers for the Independent in order to prompt questions such as what the future of journalism might look like and why establishing faith in the institution of a free and fair press is important, especially today.

Logothetis asserted that the belief in a free press has waned and has put the people in a dangerous situation as a nation. She added, “It’s not just about people thinking that everything is fake news. It goes far, far deeper than that. It impacts who we are as a democracy, as a nation and more importantly, it’s about believing in the ability of journalists who are ordinary citizens just like us.”

Terrie Albano highlighted the reason for a decline in access to higher education caused by lessening in grants and an increase in student loan debt from when she started college in 1980.

This was not the only change she saw during that period in terms of limiting democratic rights. The Federal Communications Commission had also eliminated the fairness doctrine in 1987.

FCC fairness doctrine was a federal policy introduced in 1949 in the US requiring television and radio broadcasters to present differences between viewpoints on issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, fair, and balanced according to FCC’s view.

She spoke about why critical thinking skills are important more than ever today and how the student journalists are the future of journalism and a functioning democracy.

The town hall meeting was moderated by Common Cause Illinois Executive Director Jay Young. He spoke about how power was at the center of all of our affairs and holding power accountable is the only way to ensure a fully functioning media and a healthy democracy.

Former U.S. Senator Adlai Stevenson III spoke about the Adlai Stevenson Center’s Agenda for Political Reform, a platform which calls for reforming all branches and levels of government, saving democracy, abolishing the electoral college, shortening campaign and the electoral college, ending gerrymandering by non-partisan commissions and other important actions which can be found on their website.

Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps talked about how the merging of media has decimated more than half of our newsrooms since the early 2000’s.

He added, “Investigative reporters, instead of walking the beat, looking for stories, are walking the streets looking for a job.” He further discussed that media corporations need to re-establish the newsrooms and regain journalists to provide local news.

He concluded that media corporations need to stop the merging of the traditional media and new media, start investing in consumer privacy protections and restore the Federal Communications Commission, fairness doctrine, net neutrality and corporate accountability standards in order to restore faith in media and democracy.

A short video by the US Press Freedom Tracker was shown to the audience from their executive director and staff on the importance of monitoring attacks against the press in the United States.

According to the video, the message was that the journalists have been under attack and are getting stopped at the border like never before which eventually impacts the public’s right to be informed and the reason they track these issues is because it’s never been more critical for our citizens to be informed about what our government is doing and the only way to hold them accountable is to document them and publicize them to document the state of press freedoms across the US.

Kerry Lester spoke on the impact of shrinking newsrooms at Daily Herald and the Associated Press, how the industry is changing and why she joined the Center for Illinois for Politics. She said her newsroom at the Daily Herald and Associated Press got reduced, which led to fewer people having much higher workloads and eventually leaving when the internet and 24 hour news cycles became the norm.

She concluded that alternative and different news outlets like Center for Illinois for Politics are meant to offer assistance to the traditional newspaper outlets that have reduced budgets by taking political data, collecting information and creating content.

Communications strategist Tracy Sefl introduced herself and her work associated with the presidential campaign cycles. She pointed out that she had worked on five presidential campaigns and while all of them have different characteristics, they have all also had a constant thread of her interaction with the National Political Press.

She also indicated that there is no more social media, but simply digital news that hits the phones all the time impacting the current campaign which is already being shaped through those channels. Lastly, she shared her opinion about listening to a story New World Health Organization report on burnout on the radio. She said, the media should leverage the resources in the news in the media and should stop repeating stories on burnout and talk about what will sustain the United States.

Yosef Getachew surveyed the audience by a show of hands. He asked how many of them watched local news on television or radio, which was answered with a majority of hands in the air.

He then asked how many members of the audience knew what was going on in their community in regards to townhall, school board, state legislature, housing authority or less officials, far fewer hands were raised in response.

Getachew explained that this was because of the variety of reasons given by Michael Copps earlier and there is misinformation on social media platforms due to a lack of regulation policies to regulate the free flow of authentic information online. He concluded that the more people watch local news and get information, the more likely are they going to make informed decisions about democracy.

In the end, the event was opened up for questions. The audience asked about the kind of stories that are not covered in the media and what lessons were learned by the panelists during the 2016 election. The panelists responded that the media does not represent a diverse set of people and the civil rights issues that are present in their local communities.

The panelists added, the best way to repair media and democracy is to actively participate in the issues that are important by speaking up against the major conglomerates, supporting local news and by critically thinking about what is beneficial and harmful to democracy.