Tackling “hard choices ahead” at Tate Student Forum

Journalists Jim Lehrer (left), George Stephanopoulous and David Gergen discussed the challenges facing their industry, the next president and the country during the Turner Construction Student Forum Sept. 18.

“We meet in a momentous time for the United States – with an election that’s moving quickly, even though it feels it’s been going on forever; we’re at war in Iraq and Afghanistan; we have an economy that’s closer to the edge than some would like and the Federal Reserve took action today to head off a recession,” said Gergen, a news analyst, former White House adviser and longtime Tate Series favorite. Read more.

Gergen moderated the discussion with Lehrer, anchor and executive editor of “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS who began his journalism career in Dallas in the 1960s, and George Stephanopoulos, ABC News’ chief Washington correspondent, anchor of “This Week” and former senior adviser in the Clinton administration.

Here are highlights of the question-and-answer session with SMU and area high school students before their panel discussion as part of the Willis M. Tate Distinguished Lecture Series.

How is the Internet affecting the way Americans get news, and how are conventional news outlets adapting?

Stephanopoulos: As a producer of news, it makes for a lot more work. You file many more times a day. On the one hand, it’s fresh; on the other hand, less time goes into analysis that you might otherwise do.

As a consumer of news, it’s hard to figure out where to go if you really want to get all sides. I find myself checking out a wide variety of blogs and sites on the right and left to create my own balance. My fear is that people tend to only go to the sites where they already agree with what they’re going to get. The responsibility of the broadcast industry is to create that meeting place where people can hear a civil discussion.

Lehrer: We’re in mid-revolution right now in terms of this proliferation of news sources and information – of how we’re getting it and how we’re going to handle it.

What are the repercussions of such a long and strenuous election?

Lehrer: I think this long campaign is good for our country. This next election is one of the most important we will have had in a long time. We can’t afford to make any mistakes, and if you have a campaign that moves too quickly, you end up with folks you didn’t really get to know that well. Every time these people get up there and talk, you hear something about them, you learn something about them.

Stephanopoulos: At ABC we ask in our national polls, “Are you paying close attention to the campaign?” Going back as far as March, the number was coming back between 65 and 70 percent yes. So far at least, the country is encouraging this, they’re paying attention, they think it’s important. Going forward, it’s hard to know what this is all going to feel like next spring.

Are we yet hearing from the candidates about the hard choices that will be coming, and the sacrifices?

Lehrer: I don’t think we’re there at all yet. They’re still circling around, trying to find out where they can get some traction.

Stephanopoulos: Sometimes avoiding answering is a more responsible course. I think you’ve seen Senator Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards trying to say as little as possible about what Iraq is going to look like in three or four years because in their hearts they know it’s going to require 50,000 to 60,000 troops to allow and maintain stability. The less they say, the more they preserve the possibility of doing that.

Gergen: That may be true about Iraq, but it’s not true about climate change. There are hard choices ahead on climate change. The dilemma the candidates face is that if they tell the truth about the hard choices ahead, they may not get elected; but if they don’t tell the truth before the election, then they won’t be able to govern very easily once they get elected.

What are this campaign’s big issues?

Lehrer: It’s hard for me to imagine a presidential campaign that is not driven by Iraq. It’s going to be the big elephant, and it’s not going to go away. It’s going to be about how we exercise our military power, about what the hell is terrorism, and what did we do right and wrong about it to get where we are today.

Stephanopoulos: I don’t think it’s going to be about issues at all. The terrain is already set; we know what this election is about: Who is the most credible agent of change? The country has said they want something different from the last eight years. Weighed against that: Can the Republican candidate make the Democratic candidate someone you can’t trust with the power of the office? It’s an overwhelming move for change versus the personal qualities of the Democratic candidate.

The next Student Forum, set for Oct. 16, will feature business analyst and author Marcus Buckingham. Learn more at smu.edu/tateseries.