‘Not all is lost.’ CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin talks ‘fake news,’ law and politics

Jeffrey Toobin
Jeffrey Toobin

Robert S. Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, Facebook’s growing influence, the rise of “fake news” and President Donald Trump’s reshaping of the federal judiciary are all having a profound effect on American life, said Jeffrey Toobin, one of America’s best-known and most-respected commentators.

Toobin, 57, will offer his insights in an appearance at Folsom Lake College’s Harris Center at 7 p.m. Sunday. CNN’s senior legal analyst since 2002 and a New Yorker staff writer since 1993, Toobin is currently writing a book about the Mueller investigation. His best sellers include The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court” and “The Run of His Life,” which inspired the popular mini-series about O.J. Simpson. In 2016, he appeared at The Sacramento Bee book club to discuss “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.”

Toobin takes on the most controversial issues and personalities of our times. He said he will answer plenty of questions at the Harris Center.

Q: The Harris Center has titled your speech, “Analyzing Politics, Media and the Law.” What will you focus on?

A: The Supreme Court as a window into the broader politics of the day, the final stop for most of the contentious issues, and the justices are as polarized as Congress. Why and how did that come about and who are the personalities? Obviously the big question is will Trump get to appoint any more Supreme Court justices, and no one knows. If (Ruth Bader) Ginsburg, (Stephen) Breyer or (Anthony) Kennedy leaves and is replaced by someone like (Neil) Gorsuch. It would be an earthquake, devastating for gay rights, abortion rights, voting rights.

Q: What role has the internet and social media played in the election of Donald Trump and the reshaping of the American political landscape?

A: Most Americans get their news from Facebook. The Facebook algorithm that gives you news that reinforces your convictions is a major force contributing to our politics. If you are conservative, you will get a Facebook feed of Hannity, Limbaugh, Breitbart. If you are liberal, you will get a feed from MSNBC and Rachel Maddow. People of different political views start to have a separate reality.

In the days of Walter Cronkite, the whole country gathered around him and agreed on the same facts. Today liberals and conservatives don’t have the same facts. Facebook said they’re going to address this. We’ll see what they do about it and if makes any difference.

Elections, like most events, don’t have single causes. Hillary Clinton’s skills as a candidate, economic conditions in mid-America, FBI director James Comey’s announcement on his investigation into Hillary’s emails on the eve of the election all played a role. Historians will spend decades debating how Donald Trump, who was outside the usual positions of either party, got elected.

Q: It has been reported that Russia spent huge sums of money posting stories on Facebook. Do you think that affected the outcome?

A: Facebook influences people both in terms of what people see and what people advertise. It’s very difficult to determine the precise cause of why people vote the way they do. All the major intelligence agencies agree there was a major effort by Russia to influence the outcome, and the fact that President Trump doesn’t agree with that is very troubling.

Q: Many Americans across generations still believe journalism is meant to be a noble calling based on fair, unbiased reporting. Now we see this intense polarization. What happened?

A: Objectivity is impossible, but fairness is mandatory. Even the most opinionated journalist can and should be fair to all sides, and that’s the distinction people lose sight of. There are problems with journalism, but it’s also true that this is a golden age of journalism. If you are a remotely curious journalistic consumer, you have on your phone literally millions of fantastic news sources from around the world. President Trump’s election has led to great journalism. Not all is lost, not all is bad.

Q: President Trump often calls stories from major news outlets ‘fake news.’ You also use the term. What do you mean by it?

A: Fake news is posts on the internet that are meant to look like truth but in fact are politically motivated lies. It’s important for people to be savvy news consumers and learn which sources are reliable and which aren’t. One of the problems on Facebook is every news source looks as reliable as every other. It flattens everything out, and creates confusion. In the old days if you lived in Sacramento, you had to read The Bee to get news and you had to watch the evening news and local news.

Now you have almost unlimited choices and that’s very much a mixed bag. It’s not all bad but it is a problem.

Q: On Jan. 8 you tweeted, “It’s foolish to dismiss Oprah as a presidential candidate.” What do you think about her chances?

A: I think Oprah has a very serious chance of running for president. You can’t win if you don’t run, and you can’t know if you are a good candidate until you run. Donald Trump has certainly proved an unconventional background is not a barrier to winning the presidency.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini

To go

Tickets are still available at www.HarrisCenter.net or from the Harris Center Ticket Office, 916-608-6888, for Toobin’s talk at 7 p.m. Sunday.