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Jonathan Karl discusses watchdog role of journalists in Media Studies guest lecture

ABC News Chief White House Correspondent spoke as a guest in Prof. Wyatt Andrews “The News Media” course

<p>Karl talked about how he covered presidential administrations in the past with the goal of holding those in power accountable.</p>

Karl talked about how he covered presidential administrations in the past with the goal of holding those in power accountable.

Jonathan Karl, ABC News Chief White House Correspondent, delivered a talk Monday morning on his experiences reporting on the Trump administration to students in The News Media — a Media Studies course taught by Prof. of Practice Wyatt Andrews.

Before becoming ABC News’ Chief White House Correspondent in 2012, Karl reported for CNN, the New York Post and the New Republic. He is also the current vice president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. 

Andrews facilitated a conversation with Karl for a group of around 50 students in a Physics Building classroom, showing various clips of White House correspondents interviewing Trump and other political figures. Andrews began the talk by asking his students to think about how Karl plays a role in monitoring and holding government officials accountable through journalism — what is known as “watchdog media.”

Early on his his talk, Karl explored how he has covered presidential administrations in the past, such as the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations, with the goal of holding those in power accountable without appearing to be their political enemy. Karl discussed the difficulties of covering Trump in an era where the President himself has labeled the news media “the enemy of the American people.” 

“When you’re interviewing a president, this President particularly, it’s incredibly challenging because you don’t know what he’s going to throw back at you,” Karl said. “You need to do your fact checking in real time and be prepared with that material.” 

Karl continued on to discuss the linguistic nuances involved in not appearing as a political enemy to a presidential administration. He said he tries to be objective in a non-adversarial way when asking questions in the White House press room or out on the road with the President. 

“I don’t use the word lie, I don’t say the President lied — I say, ‘that’s not true, that’s inaccurate, that’s not factual,” Karl said. “A lot of people say the word lie, but I know that sometimes when people hear me say the word lie that they think I am making a judgement about the President’s state of mind and not simply what he’s saying. So I just try and keep it as even-keeled as I can.” 

Later in the class, Andrews shifted the conversation to CNN’s White House Correspondent Jim Acosta — who spoke at the University last month as part of the Batten School and the Center for Politics’ National Symposium Series on Democracy. Trump called Acosta a “rude, terrible person” and stripped him of his White House press credentials after a heated exchange with the President at a news conference in November 2018.

Karl does not agree with Acosta’s aggressive manner when questioning Trump, but believes Acosta has a right and responsibility to ask tough questions without being revoked of his press credentials. 

As the vice president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Karl went to ask the White House to give Acosta back his credentials. Karl spoke a bit on the White House Correspondents’ Association’s responsibilities. 

“The real purpose of the organization is to stand for press freedom — the First Amendment,” Karl said. “I might not agree with how Jim Acosta upholded himself, but I will defend his right to do what he did and his right to have access to that complex 100 percent.” 

At one point in the talk, Andrews opened the floor for students to ask questions. One student asked about potential apprehension to engage in investigative reporting because of the fear of legal consequences or ruined reputations. Karl responded by stressing the importance of the role of investigative reporters, as well as the ramifications to a free press if mistakes are made. 

“The consequences now are higher than they have ever been because you have a president who is trying to undermine the notion of objective journalism by saying it’s fake news,” Karl said. “So any mistake we make is magnified and used as evidence to undercut everything.” 

When asked about why he invited Karl to speak, Andrews alluded to his course syllabus for The News Media. His class is at the point in the semester where they are analyzing the distinction between the idea of the liberal media and the press as doing its job of holding leaders accountable and being the “watchdog” of the country. He praised Karl’s methods of investigative reporting and used them as examples of the press doing its job. 

“He is not a fan of overly aggressive questioning of the President, but he does think the press needs to call out the President when he’s wrong or when his policies are failing,” Andrews said. “That’s the basic job that most White House reporters take to their everyday jobs that’s very different from the dangerous language that we’re hearing about the press being the enemy of the people.” 

Andrews added that Karl understands the concerns and rumors about the press engaging with fake news and continues to stress the importance of objectivity and fairness when holding those in power accountable for their words and actions. He said he brought Karl into his class in hopes of showing his students how an experienced correspondent can press the President on his lies, and ultimately play his necessary role in the news media. 

“I wanted Jon to give them an in-person reality check,” Andrews said. “Most mainstream news reporters are honest and report things as factually as they know how to do.”