Dean of Columbia Journalism School Jelani Cobb speaks on “The half-life of freedom: Notes on race, media and democracy” at Rackham Auditorium Tuesday night. Maria Deckmann/Daily. Buy this photo.

The Ford School of Public Policy hosted Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, for a conversation with Celeste Watkins-Hayes, dean of the Public Policy School, in the University of Michigan’s Rackham Auditorium Tuesday night. 

The event was part of a series titled “Democracy in Crisis,” which is hosted by the Public Policy School in collaboration with the Wallace House Center for Journalists and the University’s Democracy & Debate initiative. Cobb’s lecture examined the role that the media plays in democracies in an effort to create a more just world. 

Cobb was contributing author for The New Yorker before becoming a staff writer for the magazine in 2015 — a job he’s held since then. That same year, Cobb received the Sidney Hillman Award for Opinion and Analysis writing. Cobb frequently writes about topics such as race, politics, history and culture. 

Cobb began the conversation by questioning the authenticity of American democracy, emphasizing that slavery was still legal when the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Cobb argued that the U.S. was not truly democratic until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices following the Civil Rights movement. According to Cobb’s definition, American democracy is less than 70 years old.

“If you ask most people when American democracy begins, they’ll say 1776,” Cobb said. “But … you can’t be a democracy while buying and selling human beings … It was really not until 1965 that this country can actually call itself a democracy. And so if we look at it in that context, we see freedom as a much more fragile state.” 

In an interview with The Michigan Daily before the event, Cobb said growing up in New York City informed his understanding of inequity and social justice.

“I grew up in Queens, which … is an incredibly diverse place,” Cobb said. “I had neighbors from all over, I had classmates in school from all over. What that gave me was a broader perspective on how something (that) affects one community may not (have) the same as the impact it has on another community.”

Watkins-Hayes and Cobb also discussed contemporary challenges in the field of journalism, highlighting the increase in misinformation — false information spread either purposefully or accidentally — during and after former U.S. President Donald Trump’s term. A study done by researchers at Cornell University analyzed 38 million articles and found that mentions of Trump made up about 38 percent of the overall misinformation conversation involving the COVID-19 pandemic. Cobb said a free, trustworthy press is necessary to have an informed electorate and a successful democracy.

“(The media is) here in service of democracy,” Cobb said. “But we seldom grapple with what exactly that means. And the way you know that was just how uncoordinated and flustered many outlets were in dealing with the last presidential administration and dealing with the blatantly anti-democratic violation of norms.”

Cobb continued explaining the complex relationship between the media, capitalism and democracy by comparing Trump with former U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. Cobb pointed out similarities between “Trumpism” and McCarthyism, which refers to McCarthy’s false public accusations of treason and collusion with the Communist Party against U.S. government officials. In both cases, Cobb said political officials were spreading misinformation to support ulterior motives.

“So Trump, and Trumpism, is simply a new iteration of a revanchist, reactionary movement (McCarthyism), concerned with demographic totals and the society interested in preserving the already inordinate power of white people in the United States,” Cobb said.

LSA freshman Edra Timmerman, one of the event’s attendees, told The Daily she found the comparisons Cobb made between Trump and McCarthy fascinating. 

“I really liked the comparison between McCarthyism and Trumpism, and it made me more optimistic that (Trumpism) will go away eventually,” Timmerman said.

Watkins-Hayes then asked Cobb to share his thoughts on the police system and whether or not he thinks it should be reformed. In response, Cobb noted that police brutality disproportionately impacts Black Americans. He mentioned the recent death of Tyre Nichols who was killed on Jan.10 by Memphis police officers, all of whom were Black. Cobb said the fact that Black police officers had killed Nichos still pointed to the systematic issues with police brutality. He said hiring more Black officers will not fix the problem.

“The fact of it is that this is institutional behavior, and the victims are disproportionately likely to be Black,” Cobb said. “(But) you can have a system that’s composed of Black people and still behave on the principles of white supremacy.”

Cobb finished the talk by discussing the role of race in education and explained the concept of critical race theory (CRT)— the idea that race is a social and institutionalized concept rather than a biological one — with reference to Derrick Bell, a lawyer and civil rights activist credited as one of the originators of CRT. Cobb said Republican lawmakers’ attempts to ban the practice have proved Bell’s point that racial advantages are ingrained in American society.

“Derrick Bell was arguing in an allegedly colorblind society that the language of anti-discrimination would be deployed toward the means of bolstering discrimination,” Cobb said. “That is exactly what has happened.”

In an interview with The Daily following the event, Watkins-Hayes said she felt the event went well and expressed how grateful she was to have Cobb speak at the University.

“I felt really good about it,” Watkins-Hayes said. “Dean Cobb’s breadth of knowledge is so expansive and what he writes about is so expansive … Getting an opportunity to hear him talk about the breadth of topics is what made this event so special.”

At the event, Cobb said he wants to continue working toward a more just world for the sake of his children and their future lives. 

“What I care most about is that I have two daughters and I have two sons,” Cobb said. “And I never want to embarrass them by saying that there was this world that they were going to inherit, and I didn’t do everything that I could to make it a more simple place for them to live.

Daily Staff Reporters Luke Jacobson and Miles Anderson can be reached at lukejac@umich.edu and milesand@umich.edu.