Historian Jon Meacham says challenges facing free press could be fixed with empathy and understanding history

(Paighten Harkins | The Salt Lake Tribune) Presidential historian Jon Meacham speaks to a packed auditorium Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, at Salt Lake City's Rowland Hall. He was lecturing as part of the McCarthey Family Foundation Lecture Series: In Praise of Independent Journalism.

As partisan and so-called fake news abounds, there are three things that will save the free press in the U.S. and, serendipitously, they’re what in these politically tumultuous times will save us all: healthy curiosity, skepticism that isn’t cynicism and the belief that what has gotten the nation this far will continue to get us further.

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Or so presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham told an audience of more than 600 packed into Rowland Hall’s basketball gym-turned-auditorium Saturday night.

He was in Salt Lake City for the annual McCarthey Family Foundation Lecture Series to speak on past and present challenges facing the free press in the U.S. The lecture coincided with the foundation’s essay competition, and winners were also honored Saturday.

In his hourlong lecture, Meacham took audience members on a journey from the ideological foundations of the U.S. to present day to make the point that while everyone, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, is “wildly unhappy,” there is a way out and forward — and it’s where we’ve been before. Approaching the world with good information and an understanding of history is key.

The U.S. was founded on the idea that all people could reason and rationalize and, thus, could make the right decisions for themselves most of the time if they had all the details.

Now, Meacham said, many pick a worldview and choose to believe “facts” that support it.

He said people need to return to what “truly made America great.”

“What’s made America great,” he said, “is the insight that reason has a role. That information has a role. That the life of a mind has a role in the life of the nation.”

People can be reasonable with a functioning and free press that gives them a clear view of the world around them and the lives of other people, Meacham said.

Throughout the lecture, the historian interjected asides from time spent with former President George H.W. Bush, whom he profiled extensively for his book, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.”

Like how Bush called him shortly after a 2017 letter Meacham wrote to President Donald Trump was published on the front page of The Tennessean newspaper. Meacham wrote that if Trump wished to emulate Andrew Jackson as president, he should aim for more than the man’s “caricature” and embrace the other aspects of his character.

Bush called Meacham afterward to say he’d read Meacham’s letter to Jackson, and Meacham corrected him: “You know, actually that was a letter to Trump about Jackson.”

And Bush, who was then 92 years old, said, “Yeah, but Jackson will pay more attention to it.”

But Meacham’s last anecdote about the late president was told less for the punchline than for the moral: The country is best when its people are understanding.

He brought the audience back to the fall of the Berlin Wall — 30 years ago to the day he was speaking, Meacham reminded.

When the wall fell, Bush was chastised by other politicians for not speaking out in triumph. But what was going on behind the scenes was why the Cold War ended peacefully for the U.S.: empathy.

Bush knew that Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev was being heavily scrutinized by the right wing in his country for the fall of communist East Germany, and Bush didn’t want to damage diplomatic relations by celebrating it.

And his approach worked. The Cold War ended without American military intervention in 1991.

“And if he can do it at that level, in a nuclear standoff, can’t we listen to each other a little bit more?” Meacham asked.

You may still disagree, he said, but maybe you’ll realize you weren’t as right — and they weren’t as wrong — as you thought.

He closed by saying, “I would suggest to you the best of America happens when you think, ‘Huh ... maybe they have a point.’”

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