Monday 19 March 2018

Critical thinking is needed to help us challenge Trump

TWO-PRONGED APPROACH: Actress Alfre Woodard speaking at the women’s march protest in Los Angeles last week
TWO-PRONGED APPROACH: Actress Alfre Woodard speaking at the women’s march protest in Los Angeles last week

Gina London

Hard to believe it's only been a week. A dizzying swirl of executive orders on healthcare, Asian trade, oil pipelines, abortion and immigration. A visit scrapped by Mexico's president followed by a press conference with Britain's prime minister.

A call for a "major investigation" of millions of apparently non-existent fraudulent voters. Gag orders on federal employees. The jaw-dropping new term of art, "alternative facts", and a declaration that the "media, not the Democrats, are the opposition".

"I don't think journalists have ever seen anything like this," said David Ottalini, senior communications manager for the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

His grandfather's family worked in granite quarries near Milan but his mother's family name was O'Connor, "definitely Irish". Before he was a journalism teacher, David was a journalism professional as a producer with CNN for 20 years. He went to Cuba with Pope John Paul II. He covered the State Department, the Pentagon and, yes, the White House.

"It's not like we didn't see this during Donald Trump's election process," David said, "but it's a dangerous time now. What can you believe and what can't you believe? Even if he's talking to you face to face. How do we know?

"Having a sitting president telling obvious falsehoods and having his staff do it too tells journalists they need to do their jobs better. They need to ask better questions."

As the university's new term starts tomorrow, one of the journalism classes is on the Trump administration's first 100 days. "We're going to focus on how the media is covering Trump," David explained.

"But we are focusing on how to provide tools not only for our journalism school students but also for a wider group. We want to create a general education course to help critical thinking. To help all people use news better.

"Outreach beyond academia is important too. We're working to create speakers' bureaus on a state-by-state basis to have reporters not just talk to students about their jobs but to listen to what the kids may be asking. Making it a two-way street.

"Journalism is not dead. This may be the point in our history where it is reinvigorated; it's an opportunity for us to become more relevant. We can teach people to become better thinkers. How we reach across the US is crucial."

Across the US, and even the world, the Trump "opposition" stretches beyond the media.

So, as I write about it only being a week since President Trump took office, it's also hard to believe it's only been a week since every continent witnessed anti-Trump demonstrations under the "Women's March" banner.

Men took part too, of course. Alfre Woodard, who spoke at the Los Angeles march, enthused to me over the phone last Friday how, "The Edge played a song and everybody went nuts!"

Alfre is a four-time Emmy winner and Academy Award nominee. She currently has roles in not one, but two Netflix series: Luke Cage and A Series of Unfortunate Events. Her latest movies include Knucklehead and So B. It.

In addition to acting, she told me that growing up as a "young woman of colour in Oklahoma" made her an "activist" early on.

"I've always stood for progressive issues," she said. "What you're fighting for is the ability and the space to change the quality of people's lives. It's reaching forward for what is possible." She also told me her great-grandfather was an Irishman named Hugh Cooper, and added: "My Scottish husband spent the first five or six years of his life in Ireland. I have friends all over the island."

Alfre has a kind of friendship, too, with David, as she echoes his sentiments of reawakening. "This strange feeling that we're in a twilight zone nightmare on steroids with the new administration makes us fired up and energised," she said.

"It reignites our passion. We have to stand and deliver and be on the move."

"This fascist serpent is raising its head but I feel that we are going to be OK as long as the people are awake and are willing to stand up. We know the character of the nation as long as we can see active people stand up for each other."

Since the march, Alfre said the network stays connected through house parties and social media.

"We are going to do this two-pronged approach to stay informed and mobilize," she told me, after more than 4,000 people RSVP'd on Facebook to protest against the GOP retreat in Philadelphia.

"We are constantly in contact to know what is coming up and if, for instance, our issue is economic justice, we will show up anyway for climate change," she said.

"Because numbers matter. Especially for this president.

"The one great thing in all of this is it has reminded us we need to work in a way that connects us all. The marches were a mixed bag. We are a mixed bag. We have to stand together. When we take that away, there is no America.

"If you feel despair, that's when you need to get active. That's the power you have."

Gina London is an award-winning US journalist who is now living in Ireland.

Sunday Independent

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