By Laura Matusheski, University of Delaware sophomore and intern for the University of Delaware Center for Political Communication
APRIL 29, 2020—It's okay to talk about politics, and the University of Delaware's National Agenda students are proving that civil dialogue enhances learning both in and out of the classroom. On April 22, National Agenda Director Lindsay Hoffman, Ph.D., hosted a Zoom “happy hour” with National Agenda students, alumni, and special guests Domenico Montanaro and Ralph Begleiter. Instead of pouring a glass, however, the past and present students shared their favorite memories of the National Agenda course, where students meet professionals in politics and media from all across the United States. Montanaro and Begleiter discussed the latest headlines, but they also wanted to know more about the students, especially their personal aspirations and challenges.
Montanaro, a 2001 UD alumnus and former student of Ralph Begleiter, is the senior political editor and correspondent for National Public Radio's Washington, DC, news desk. Montanaro joined National Agenda in September 2016, when he spoke about the upcoming presidential election as part of the Road to the Presidency series. Montanaro serves as one of the CPC's senior fellows.
Begleiter, now retired, founded UD's Center for Political Communication in 2010. When he joined UD as a professor of communication in 1999, he brought 30 years of experience in broadcast journalism, including two decades as a world affairs correspondent with CNN. Begleiter launched UD's National Agenda program in 2011.
With the current COVID-19 pandemic on everyone’s minds, Hoffman discussed President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, referring to the virus either not at all or vaguely as “the invisible enemy.” Montanaro said, “Trump needs an enemy, someone to take down. Whether left, right, or center, everybody thinks they have it worse than somebody else. Trump uses this degree of grievance to his advantage.”
Begleiter mentioned the potential impact of Trump's rhetoric on state polling for the 2020 presidential election. “State polling was a problem during the 2016 election, and it will become a problem this year, too. What's going to matter is can he turn out his base in Michigan? Can he turn out his base in Wisconsin? Can he turn it out in central Pennsylvania?"
It's important to resist the temptation to make predictions at this time, said Begleiter. “American elections are almost always volatile. If the economy bounces back [from COVID-19] by August, then I think it will be a tight race."
Begleiter asked Montanaro how the media coverage might be different during the final three months of the election season. “I don't know how different it'll be,” said Montanaro. “I hope that there's less of a reliance on sheer data and numbers. I hope there's less of a reliance on strictly anecdotal reporting because anecdotes are not scientific research, so you need a mix.”
Montanaro, a former writer for The Review, said the student-run newspaper laid the groundwork for his career and his love for journalism. He asked Rachel Sawicki, a UD senior and senior news reporter for The Review, how the publication keeps its finger on the pulse of coronavirus coverage. “We have been doing all of our interviews over the phone, and obviously, all of our news now is coronavirus related,” said Sawicki, and added that The Review continues to publish articles online, and is currently hiring managing editors. Sawicki also described challenges at UD's Student Television Network, where she is president. “It’s hard for us to go out and do any type of filming, it’s not safe for people in some areas as well. We are just trying to post whatever content we can.”
Montanaro applauded students in STN and other on-campus news resources for their resilience during the pandemic. Being able to “weave together” articles or political debates on Zoom, he said, is “really effective and pretty powerful.”
He also emphasized how important it is to be transparent in news writing: “Our role as the press is to keep everybody within the right bounds, in some way. To keep politicians accountable for seeing and adjusting to accurate facts.” Along the lines of “fake” news, he added: “The biggest predictor of the future is what people have done in the past.”
Begleiter advised senior students about career growth and opportunities as they enter the working world. “No matter how much you’ve read, watched, or absorbed in college,” said Begleiter, there is no substitute for insider knowledge that only comes from hands-on experience.
Begleiter lauded the benefits of National Agenda to students. “You will be much smarter about watching the world unfold around you, the political world and other things. There will be bells going off in your head saying, ‘We talked about this. I know how this goes.’ And you're going to have a leg up on people around you. In conversations at work, no matter what the work is about or at school, whatever the topic is. So walk away with that benefit of it for sure.”
Dr. Hoffman encouraged her students to seek out opportunities that are in their best interest, and to be open to all options that come their way. “As hard as what we’re going through right now is,” she said, “I’m finding that we’re making connections in really new and meaningful ways.”