Lydia Polgreen, editor-in-chief of news blog HuffPost, discussed her relationship with journalism and the way in which her past affects her vision of present-day America in her lecture entitled “Who gets to define American Values,” given as part of the University of Michigan’s Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.
The Wallace House program, as well as the Knight-Wallace Fellowship and Livingston Awards, sponsored Tuesday’s event. Polgreen won the Livingston Award for Journalistic Achievement in 2009 for her international reporting in a piece called “The Spoils,” a story about natural resource exploitation in Africa.
Before coming to HuffPost, Polgreen was the editorial director for NYT Global at The New York Times, as well as the West Africa and Johannesburg Bureau Chief. Polgreen officially became editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, which serves 200 million viewers per month, in December 2016, succeeding founder Arianna Huffington.
On the heels of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Polgreen drew on the reminders of King’s message in today’s society. She emphasized her multicultural background and the influence of her time in Africa on her views regarding the current political climate of the United States. With an Ethiopian mother and white Minnesotan father, Polgreen said that she thinks a lot about American identity in the age of Trump.
“But let’s be real — this isn’t a normal president, this isn’t a normal admin, this isn’t a normal time,” Polgreen said. “We have what appears to be an ethnonationalist-influenced regime in the White House … we’re seeing the rollback of protections of queer people like me, we’re witnessing a newly permissive attitude toward hate-speech and hate-crimes that has led to increase in attacks on Jews, Muslims and all kinds of marginalized peoples. We’re also seeing an increase in intolerance in some corners of the country.”
Polgreen stated that President Trump attempts to set the definition of American identity through language and policy. Whether it’s his Twitter language or his policies on immigration and health care, the current presidency concerns Polgreen as both a journalist and person.
“For me, as the daughter of an African immigrant, as a person of color, as a queer person, as an American, I am watching these conversations unfold with particular alarm,” Polgreen said.
Polgreen referenced her time as a foreign correspondent, discussing the lack of free press and the presence of government-controlled press or self-censored journalism in other countries. She told the audience she spent time reading and analyzing the political coverage of the last year, and wondered if the press did enough to recognize the views of Trump supporters. She realized the press wrote about those people rather than for them.
“As a journalist I believe that reporting has the power to change the world,” Polgreen said. “If the media ecosystem like so many other institutions has seen this extraordinary drift between the haves and the have-nots journalism has become a highly elite profession that often feels extremely distant from the experiences of the people we write about.”
Polgreen expressed concern regarding the inequality in the United States, referencing Trump’s new budget that cuts the Pell Grant fund, a grant that provides students money for college tuition and does not need to be repaid. Polgreen herself was the recipient of a Pell Grant, and credits this program with much of her success.
“Inequality feels baked into our society in a way that can’t easily be undone and climate change, her certain doing, has made it all feel super apocalyptic,” she said.
Polgreen hopes she, as a journalist and leader in the industry, can be there for those who feel that the political and economic power range is fundamentally unfair. She said she doesn't feel like the press is currently representing those voices. In an effort to expand the extent of voices represented, HuffPost went on a seven-week-long, 25-city bus tour, hitting smaller, central U.S. cities such as Fort Wayne, Ind. and Livingston, Mo.
Polgreen expected to interview about 500 people, but HuffPost ended up hearing the voices of close to 2,000, asking each person what it means to be an American. She said that almost no one talked about Trump and instead focused on the pressing local issues personally affecting them. Polgreen recognized the complexity of the struggles communities faced and how they come together to solve problems.
“The experience of traveling this country left me optimistic,” Polgreen said. “But not optimistic in the classic American sense, all of those conversations affirmed my implacable and old-fashioned beliefs that solidarity is possible.”
This discussion of solidarity encompasses the unity of people in defense of their beliefs. Polgreen categorizes solidarity as a great strength in times of hardship. LSA freshman Aniela Crayton discussed what she took away from Polgreen’s speech.
“Even if you meet someone who has a completely conflicting idea than you, it's important to listen to what they have to say and that sharing of ideas and conflicting opinions allow progress to happen in American,” Crayton said.
If the United States had an official religion, Polgreen joked that it would be amnesia. She discussed how Americans like to forget the past and focus on the future, neglecting how past historical events affect current ones. LSA freshman Taylor Mitchell said she sees this phenomenon of amnesia in reference to U.S. history.
“I think from this speech my big takeaway was just to acknowledge that the United States of America is a country that thrives from its diversity, and it’s important to acknowledge the history of this country,” Mitchell said. “We don’t like to go back to the hateful history of this country but it’s important to acknowledge that in order to strive for a more progressive future.”
However, not all audience members were as receptive to Polgreen’s ideas. During the question and answer session, a member of the community stated his belief that calling someone racist is equivalent to calling someone the “n-word.” Polgreen responded saying the two words are very different.
Following up on this question in the forum, Ann Arbor resident Shirley Backlea clarified what the definition of both words mean to her.
“Racism is a system, n—-r was a term given to our ancestors that were brought over here, that’s the difference,” Backlea said to audience applause. “Racism sounds nasty to you, but it’s the way you have run this country so you shouldn’t look at it is such a bad word and you certainly shouldn’t compare it to the word n—-r which was given to our ancestors as a derogatory term.”
Polgreen finished by discussing her hopes for the HuffPost and how America can use journalism as a way to cultivate conversation and promote solidarity.
“I want my journalistic home, HuffPost, to become a platform that speaks to a very, very, broad swath of America and frankly the world, where people can see what they have in common with people who don’t share their political beliefs, where real conversation is happening about who gets to define what it means to be an American, what the real American is and where solidarity becomes possible,” Polgreen said.