Whitaker ’73 Talks TV News, Media Landscape – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
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Whitaker ’73 Talks TV News, Media Landscape

From the impact of the 24-hour news cycle to audience engagement on social media, HWS Trustee Bill Whitaker ’73, L.H.D. ’97, an Emmy award-winning veteran of CBS News and a correspondent for “60 Minutes,” shared his perspective on today’s ever-changing media landscape as the guest of the President’s Forum Series. Drawing a standing-room-only crowd to Albright Auditorium, the conversation was facilitated by President Mark D. Gearan and HWS Presidential Fellow and Ithaca Mayor Svante L. Myrick as part of Homecoming and Family Weekend‘s lineup of events.

“Today, we are very fortunate to have Bill Whitaker back on campus,” Gearan said. “He is a graduate, he serves on our Board of Trustees and he spends time in volunteer leadership in service to Hobart and William Smith. … He takes his trusteeship very seriously, for which we’re grateful. Today we’ve invited him to reflect on his own personal journey and on the state of journalism today.”

Whitaker has covered major national and international news stories throughout his extensive career. In 2014, he joined acclaimed CBS television news program, “60 Minutes,” recently covering race relations in Cleveland following the shooting of Tamir Rice, the biggest leak in Swiss banking history, and the American Ballet Theatre’s first black principal dancer, Misty Copeland. He won an Emmy Award for a segment he did for “48 Hours” and was honored at the Minorities in Broadcasting Program seventh annual “Striving for Excellence Awards.”  

In reaching his heights of success in television news, Whitaker said, during his opening remarks, that it was HWS – and the opportunity to connect with HWS faculty that changed his life.

“You have access to professors who are smart, brilliant people, and you can pick their brains,” Whitaker said. “They’ll invite you into their office and they will tell you about the books they’re working on and what they are reading. They make you part of their lives and get you engaged in the life of the mind. Not only are they your mentors and teachers, but they can also be your angels. I had a professor here who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

Whitaker’s successful career in television journalism has led him around the world, where he has covered many of the major breaking news events and issues of the day, including the pro-democracy uprising in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the Persian Gulf War, the Unabomber case, the O.J. Simpson murder and civil trials, the Columbine school shootings, and the presidential campaign of George W. Bush. Whitaker also has covered many of the recent events such the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti and immigration issues on the United States-Mexico border.

During the dialogue, Myrick asked Whitaker how he would advise students about how they might consider the ways in which they’re engaging with news outlets and other media.

“We have more information available to us now than we have had at any time in human history,” Whitaker said. “That should be a good thing. The downside is that we feel bombarded and barraged with this information. We don’t know what to do with it. And it’s all been politicized. You don’t know what to believe: Is this one right? Is this one wrong? Is this one biased? And we end up going into our comfort zone. We go to the sites and broadcasts that reinforce our beliefs. … I try my best to get out of my comfort zone and see what everyone else is talking about and what everyone else is thinking.”

Gearan asked about Whitaker’s view on the demand for the analysis of news coverage in today’s fast-paced media landscape. Whitaker explained that with cable news providing constant analysis of the latest issues, an increasing number of media outlets join the pack in offering their own editorial standpoints. The line between news and opinion is becoming less distinct, he said.

“I work for a company that is broadcasting to the country,” Whitaker said. “My personal beliefs have no place in that. I’ve covered Democrats and Republicans, and my personal politics, I believe, have no place in my presentation. … An editorialist, ‘absolutely;’ an analyst, ‘yes;’ a daily news journalist, ‘no.'”

Myrick also asked Whitaker to reflect not only on how social media is influencing news media, but also how newsmakers themselves are able to immediately join the conversation on platforms such as Twitter.

“In this fractured mediascape that we have today, with so many sources of information it seems that the old-style network news operations are still sort of the anchor. …” Whitaker said. “With everybody all over the place, the one place where more people still get their news is from broadcast news.”

Noting that while the audience for television news has dropped by half since the 1970s, Whitaker says the total daily viewership of all network news stations today remains in the millions. He said that traditional media remains important, especially through those organizations that can send journalists on location around the world to where the news is breaking.

“The world is a much more dangerous place today,” Whitaker said. “We need to know what’s going on and it can’t be the opinion of someone who is sitting in their bathrobe writing a blog.”

At the end of the forum during a “lightning round,” Gearan asked Whitaker and Myrick who they predict will become the nominees for the 2016 presidential election. Both Whitaker and Myrick said they believed Hillary Rodham Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State; and Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida, would receive the Democratic and Republican party nominations, respectively.

The program also featured a video showcasing highlights from Whitaker’s extensive career covering the major breaking news events and national and international issues of the day. There was also an opportunity for members of the audience to ask questions, with topics ranging from the quality of news content to accountability in reporting.

Whitaker is a graduate of Hobart College and has been a member of the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Board of Trustees for 14 years. He has remained closely connected to his Geneva alma mater, advising students and hosting events. In 1997, he was awarded an honorary degree by the Colleges for his service. He holds a master’s degree from Boston University in African-American studies and also attended the master of journalism program at the University of California at Berkeley.

Myrick, himself a recent President’s Forum speaker, was sworn into office in 2012 as the City of Ithaca’s youngest mayor and first mayor of color. When he took office as mayor, he inherited a $3 million deficit. His first budget included a major overhaul of city government that merged departments and streamlined processes, all while delivering Ithaca’s lowest tax increase since 2000. In his first year of office, his advocacy in Albany and in Washington, D.C., resulted in more than $20 million of grants and awards from state and federal governments. By the end of Myrick’s second year in office, his budget had successfully closed the deficit. In 2014, he was appointed the HWS Presidential Fellow for Civic Engagement.

The President’s Forum Series, established in the winter of 2000 by Gearan, is designed to bring a variety of speakers to campus to share their knowledge and ideas with students, faculty and staff of the Colleges, as well as with interested community members. The important politicians, intellectuals and social activists who visit campus as President’s Forum guest speakers expose the Colleges and the local community to a continual flow and exchange of challenging topical issues. Recent guests include Susan Brison, Mary Matalin and James Carville, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, Michael Kimmel and the Hon. Shireen Avis Fisher ’70.

In the photo above, HWS Presidential Fellow and Ithaca Mayor Svante L. Myrick discusses social media’s impact on the news with “60 Minutes” correspondent and HWS Trustee Bill Whitaker ’73, L.H.D. ’97, the guest of the President’s Forum Series during Homecoming and Family Weekend 2015.

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