“If Trump starts trying to sue the newspapers, it will not go well for him,” Wall Street Journal foreign affairs columnist, Bret Stephens, told the crowd of approximately 300 people gathered for the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at the Anderson School of Management on Feb. 16. Stephens, who served as editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004, addressed the president’s disparaging attitude toward the media in his speech, entitled, “Maintaining Intellectual Integrity in the Age of Trump.”
Each year, the Daniel Pearl Foundation, in conjunction with Hillel at UCLA and the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, invites a speaker whose career has focused on analyzing or taking part in international policy. Journalists and politicians have primarily delivered the lecture; most recently, former CIA Director, Leon Panetta, and US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, have been invited to speak. The lecture is named after journalist, Daniel Pearl, an American Jew who was kidnapped and murdered on a trip to Karachi, Pakistan in February of 2002.
Pearl was going to interview Sheik Mubarak Gilani, the leader of “Muslims of America,” to investigate whether the group had any connection to the “shoe-bomber,” Richard Reid, following a Boston Globe news story. The Pearl Project, a journalism project at Georgetown University, put out an in-depth report on the case in 2010, which is available online.
Stephens, a conservative, writes the weekly column, “Global View,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2013. He and Pearl were colleagues at the Wall Street Journal.
“When you work at the Wall Street Journal, the coins of the realm are truth and trust—the latter flowing exclusively from the former,” he said.
Journalists, he explained, dedicate themselves to making sure that the news they report is factual and accurate.
President Donald Trump and the rest of the executive branch have been openly antagonistic to the press, Stephens said. Trump’s strategy is to use argumentum ad populum, the rhetorical fallacy that if many people believe something, then it is true. For example, if someone said that there were fewer people at Trump’s inauguration than there were at Obama’s, Trump would say something like, “there are many people who say that my inauguration crowd was the biggest ever,” as if that settled the matter. Stephens argued that Trump is not denying the facts, but denying that the facts matter.
In summary, Stephens said, Trump’s view is that “truth is what you can get away with.” Rather than by suing newspapers, Trump poses the greatest danger to political discourse in the U.S. through his questioning of the very relevance of facts.
As a conservative commentator who has criticized President Barack Obama for the past eight years, Stephens said he has recently become popular among his liberal peers, which is awkward for him because his own political beliefs have not changed at all.
Stephens compared some conservatives’ movement to support Trump to the manner in which intellectuals in Poland’s post-war Communist regime went over to Stalinism, citing Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz. They betrayed their values, Stephens claimed, due to a combination of desire for political influence, belief that they could do more good from the inside and cultural pressure not to be identified as reactionaries.
Trump is a political figure who divides people, according to Stephens. With both the GOP and Democrats becoming increasingly radicalized in response to Trump, Trump brings the fringe opinions to the center of the discussion, impeding a thoughtful exchange of ideas.
At a reception prior to the lecture, Stephens asked Jewish students at UCLA whether the campus atmosphere allows for free exchange of ideas. Hillel at UCLA invited about 15 student leaders to the reception, including representatives from Bruins for Israel, J Street at UCLA, and the Hillel student board.
One student informed Stephens that the Daily Bruin had published an anti-Semitic cartoon just two days before and that the newspaper had quickly issued an apology for the cartoon, in response to community backlash.
Stephens responded to the cartoon, saying “Jews can borrow a page from African Americans.” Black people fought (and continue to fight) to make racism a cultural taboo, he said, and Jews should do the same for anti-Semitism. He said that, in a way, the Jewish people have been too tolerant for their own good.
“As soon as a cartoon like that comes out, we have arguments over whether it’s really anti-Semitism,” he said. “The Jewish community needs to be more in-your-face.”