Washington Post columnist talks Trump presidency, social media’s influence

Eugene Robinson spoke as part of an annual lecture series.


Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson speaks to the crowd in the Boca campus Student Union auditorium Thursday. Joshua Giron | Photo Editor

Rachel Gavilan and Katrina Scales


Editor’s note: A Q&A with Eugene Robinson appears at the bottom of this story. And of the 10 students from the School of Communication who asked Robinson questions following his lecture, four were University Press writers: Ryan Lynch, Katrina Scales, Nicole Pujazon, and Cameren Boatner.  


Political columnist Eugene Robinson visited FAU Thursday to discuss the media’s role in covering a presidency in the internet-age.


Robinson is known for his twice-a-week opinion column in the Washington Post and his frequent appearances on MSNBC. His three-decade career with the Post and coverage of the 2008 election earned him a Pulitzer Prize a year later.


“It’s like having royalty among us,” moderator and history professor Stephen Engle said at the event held in the Boca campus Student Union auditorium.


Robinson is eighth in a series of speakers for the “Alan B. and Charna Larkin Symposium on the American Presidency,” a program coordinated by Engle since 2010.


The columnist told the audience that it was “good to be away from Washington,” noting that the 24/7 news cycle around the president can be “exhausting.”


He talked about how the age of smartphones and social media has made it difficult to filter fact from fiction.


“We used to be the gatekeepers of information,” he said. “But we’re just not anymore.”


Robinson compared Obama’s attentiveness to the press to Trump’s disregard for the media.


“Trump doesn’t think he needs the press at all,” Robinson said. “He uses social media to communicate directly with the American people.”


Robinson called this administration, “a pivotal moment between the presidency and the free press.”


He posed the idea that social media platforms should, perhaps, consider taking on the responsibilities of a publisher.


Following his presentation, a panel of 10 FAU communications students asked Robinson questions on stage. The columnist shared his thoughts on bipartisanship, the oversaturation of Trump in the media, and advice for aspiring journalists.


Ten students from the School of Communication asked Robinson questions on stage following his lecture. Joshua Giron | Photo Editor


Robinson said he believes it is a great time for young people to go into journalism.  


“It gives you a front row seat to the most amazing events and amazing people,” he said. “People will always need news, since the days of the town crier.”


Following the symposium, Robinson signed copies of his new book, “Disintegration: the Splintering of Black America.”


Rachel Gavilan is a contributing writer with the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected].


A Q&A with Eugene Robinson

The University Press had the chance to speak with Robinson for a half hour ahead of his symposium lecture. Here’s what he had to say.


Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for clarity.


Q: It’s no secret that most college-age people are getting the news from social media or online platforms and aren’t getting their news from a newspaper. What is the Washington Post doing to reach this “generation” and where does media literacy come into coverage of the office of the president?


A: First of all, we had newspaper and we had broadcast — you didn’t have anything else — none of the sort of variety we have now. Newspapers were very much a mass market medium. The sense we had, as journalists, was that we were writing for a mass audience. And I frankly think we’ve lost a bit of that.


In part, that’s due to the fact that larger societal trends and the way people have self segregated into like-minded communities. And I think we need to find ways to reach people. There are no gatekeepers anymore. A very surprisingly high percentage of people don’t get their news filtered down from media organizations. They sort of get it sideways from their friends.


We’re not the gatekeepers anymore and I don’t think anybody is. I worry about this specific segment of the population and I don’t think anyone has figured out how, in this new landscape, to reach people from the top to the bottom.


Q: How should reporters deal with the effects of having a president who is dismissive of the press especially when the country seems to trust the mass media less than ever?


A: I was in college in the Nixon years and there was a very contentious relationship between the press and the presidency then. But it was different, it wasn’t quite the way it is now.


Back then, if they wanted to get a message out, they had to come through the media and President Trump doesn’t need us to get a message out. It allows him to get his pure message to millions and millions of people and then of course we, because he is the president of the U.S. and whatever he says is by definition important, we then amplify that message by covering his tweets.


I certainly don’t have any allusions that we’ll ever go back to the way things used to be. And that’s OK. We should always feel we have to prove ourselves. In that sense, I don’t mind that people view us with skepticism. I mean, it’s our job to view the world with skepticism so why should we be exempt from that?


Q: Many news outlets now require subscriptions to see stories that, for a long time, were free. Do you think the print media business will only reach a certain class of readers?


A: I think that is a concern. I mean, paper costs money. We cost a quarter when I started at the Post. Our business model was selling ads not selling paper. Classified advertising revenue, which was 40 percent of our revenue, disappeared almost overnight because of Craigslist.


So you have to have a web-based business model. And web advertisers won’t pay enough. But we’ve been selling a lot of subscriptions. I think we don’t exist unless we charge for the news. And yes, that probably does make it unacceptable to some. So I don’t really know how to answer that question yet.

Katrina Scales is the managing editor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected]