For an entire day, this past Saturday, I was edified and inspired by a series of panels and conversations at HISTORYTalks, an event held by A+E Networks at Carnegie Hall.
With an over-arching theme of how history allows us to examine the past to better shape the future, the daylong event, the brainchild of A+E Networks’ group president, Paul Buccieri, was held in occasion of HISTORY’s 25th anniversary. HISTORYTalks presented a wide range of topics—from women’s rights to the hallmarks of good leadership, and from journalism today to conversations with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and actor Matthew McConaughey.
What follows is a summary of my impressions of the day, not extensive reporting of all the sessions. That would not be possible for the space I have here. Also, the final session during which historian Doris Kearns Goodwin led a conversation with two former presidents was strictly off the record. Sorry, I’m forced to keep those gems of wisdom to myself!
There were plenty of moments throughout the day of insight, learning, humor, solemnity and highly emotional ones, too. I was moved to tears by the West Point Band’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” (that hymn always gets to me) and then “America the Beautiful” (which led me to wonder, what’s happening to America today?).
When former chief White House photographer Pete Souza, who served for presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, shared pictures he had taken, my emotions swung from one extreme to another. I delighted in looking at images of President Obama’s interaction with children, his expression after having calmed a crying baby better than First Lady Michelle Obama was priceless. I felt extreme sadness seeing pictures of what Souza labeled as the worst day of Obama’s presidency: December 14, 2012, when 26 people, of which 20 little children were brutally massacred in a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Those images reopened wounds and rekindled fury. Souza also showed a clip of Obama’s speech that day when he was fighting back tears. There was hardly a dry eye in Carnegie Hall.
Some of the public figures I admire most took the stage on Saturday. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronan Farrow moderated the panel Women Changing the Conversation, which was particularly timely given the recent guilty verdicts against Harvey Weinstein.
The discussions reminded us of strides made in the women’s movement but also how much remains to be done.
Gloria Steinem, one of the first political activists and feminist organizers, set the tone with, “democracy begins with the ability to control ourselves. Women have not lived in a democracy.” She pointed out that in country after country, controlling women’s bodies means controlling the population and maintaining racism. “If we didn’t have wombs, we’d be fine.” In a patriarchy, they control wombs to control society.
She gave us a shocking reminder that one of the first things Hitler did was padlock family clinics and proclaim abortion a crime against the state, with the death penalty for the doctor and prison for the women.
Former tennis champion Billie Jean King, who has long championed women’s sports and fought for pay equality, said that sports are a platform to help change things, starting with how girls view themselves. Girls are taught to be perfect, and therefore never feel good enough, while boys are taught to be brave. Sports and dance, she said, teach women to trust their bodies. Success in sports leads to visibility, which provides opportunities that very few people have. It also leads to money, which King assured the audience is a good thing. “It’s what you do with it; get the money, it gives you power.”
A moment of levity came with Variety‘s editor in chief, Claudia Eller, recounting how, at the Cannes Film Festival, an usher tried to stop her from entering the Palais des Festivals because, although she was in black-tie attire, she was wearing flats, not high heels. The misogynist message: flat shoes are not sexy.
And while the #MeToo movement has shown a light on discrimination and prompted calls for equality and inclusion riders in Hollywood—and the women on the panel applauded Farrow’s game-changing reporting— Hollywood remains a male-dominated culture. No female is running a major talent agency, only one runs a studio, and Sherry Lansing is the only female movie mogul.
Television host, executive producer and activist Padma Lakshmi drew attention to the misogyny in healthcare. Demands for access to abortion, birth control and childcare are perceived as challenges to power. She also pointed out that the first place where gender roles get put in place is in the home.
This led to Steinem wrapping up the panel, saying we need to realize that women’s issues are fundamental to absolutely everything. The biggest indicator of whether any country is violent within itself or will be willing to use military violence against another country is not poverty, religion or access to natural resources. It’s violence against females because, in a patriarchy, it’s what we see first—even in our families. It deeply convinces everybody that there is a natural hierarchy, and that’s just the way it is. She added that we should be using this as an instrument of our foreign policy.
The next session, The Alchemy of Leadership, focused on foreign policy as it examined whether a person is born a great leader or becomes one. General Stanley McChrystal cited his experience as commander of U.S. Forces and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. He said that leadership is the result of the leaders interacting with the people they lead and reacting to the moment. He finds it imperative to listen to individuals and understand their issues. You don’t need a leader who has the answers. You need a leader who brings together teams that can find the right answers. Susan Rice, former U.S. National Security Advisor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, stressed the importance of personal relationships, which matter enormously in diplomacy.
Michael Powell, former chairman of the FCC, pointed out that as the U.S. is losing its position of leadership on the world stage, advances in technology have deeply tied the world together. He reminded us that privacy is one of the most seminal issues of our day and that the U.S. Congress won’t focus on it. Meanwhile, Europe, with its General Data Protection Regulation, has become the de-facto standard-bearer. All panelists agreed that the U.S. has to reaffirm its values. It can pursue its interests but must respect our values.
The panel A Check on Power: Journalists, Late Night TV Hosts and the Presidency tackled some of the most pressing issues facing journalism today. Moderator Dan Abrams, CEO and founder of Abrams Media and host of Live PD on A&E, kicked off the discussion by stating that, according to a 2019 study, only 41 percent of Americans trust American media. In contrast, in 1976, 72 percent trusted the media. He asked what the media can do to regain the public’s trust. Legendary news anchor Ted Koppel answered that in 1976 there was no internet. You wouldn’t hire a lawyer or a doctor who didn’t have a degree or a plumber or roofer who didn’t have the requisite training, he explained, but these days anyone who has access to a laptop or even an iPhone can become a journalist. Also, the more outrageous the material posted on websites, the more hits it gets. These factors inevitably erode trust in the media.
He went on to say that where he faults his former colleagues at the networks is that network newscasts are now run by a collection of producers who are watching what’s trending now. They are giving viewers what they perceive viewers want to see and hear. Koppel pointed out that journalists of his generation gave people what they needed to hear. He admitted there was an amount of arrogance attached to that, but that he and his colleagues spent 10, 12, 16 hours a day sifting through material trying to determine what was important.
Another fundamental change in journalism emerged when news started to generate profits for the networks. As Koppel explained, 50 years ago, the FCC required ABC, CBS and NBC to operate in the public interest, necessity and convenience. In the process, “nobody expected us to make money. Then in 1968 came 60 Minutes, it became a successful program, it began making money—all of a sudden the networks realized news could be monetized.”
The profit imperative changed the nature of newsgathering. As Koppel pointed out, in the 1970s, ABC News had some 40 foreign correspondents dispersed in bureaus around the world. CBS and NBC had some 50 or 60 each. Today, ABC has 5. “It costs a ton of money to keep 150 correspondents overseas 50 years. It costs nothing to bring people to a panel on cable TV.”
Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, poked fun at all the talking heads on cable news, often yelling and talking over each other, and only proffering opinions.
Nancy Gibbs, former editor in chief of TIME and today on faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School, pointed out that journalists should spend less time on what hasn’t happened yet and predicting what’s going to happen. The media was blamed for getting the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections wrong, which assumes that it is the job of reporters to predict. “There is much to be said for writing about what has happened and what that means. No wonder people don’t trust us, of course, we don’t know what will happen nine months from now when we go vote.”
Noah added that “every day, for everything I do, I ask who am I and what do I want to be? The media business should ask the same question: are they in the business of journalism in the business of informing people, or are they just in business? What is the main story that needs to be told? Let’s tell it properly.”
Gibbs closed the discussion on a positive note. Despite the many criticisms that can be made of journalism, in the last few years, there has been extraordinary investigative reporting, which is the reason we know so much about the current administration.
On Saturday, we also heard from author Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose book Between the World and Me takes the form of a letter to his son and examines the most pressing issues of race in America, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015. Coates spoke candidly about the jump in social classes he has experienced and his journey from an impoverished neighborhood in West Baltimore to working at The New York Times and hearing the late media columnist David Carr tell him “you got it” as a journalist. Coates says that today, as he walks through parts of Manhattan and sees the poor, he feels personally ashamed to be without want and see so much want around him.
Coates urges all of us to engage in a type of politics that goes beyond voting. I took that to heart. In this election year, it’s not enough to vote; we need to become involved in our communities or causes, or both.
Actor Matthew McConaughey talked about paying it forward with his philanthropic foundation, just keep livin, and how he is helping aspiring screenwriters as a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
HISTORYTalks was an extraordinary event, and there will be more. It’s a traveling speaker series and marks HISTORY’s evolution into experiential experiences. Quality television opens our minds, and so does brilliant conversation.