It was an unconventional assignment in a unique class that convinced 20-year-old University of Toronto student Sukaina Kazim to completely change her career plans. About a month ago in her fourth-year “Trump and the media” class, she was tasked with crafting five tweets written in the style of the U.S. President. Kazim got full marks on the assignment and she says it was a pivotal moment.
“A few months ago, I wanted to go to law school. But now, I realize that when it comes to Trump, it’s a lot of human rights abuse, a lot of political agendas, which is what interests me which is why I want to do journalism now,” says Kazim (pictured above). She hopes to graduate in June with a double major in international relations and history, then attend a journalism program at another school, as the next step.
That realization is one that several of her fellow classmates share. This half-credit course is a one-time offering at U of T, taught by American political journalist and historian Sam Tanenhaus who is a former New York Times editor. The 62-year-old visiting prof says he’s pleasantly surprised so many of his 200 students are now contemplating a career in media. “Me, I’m just the old guy that once interviewed Steve Bannon,” he laughs. “I’m the world’s least intimidating person and when they see that I can do this, they figure they can, too.”
The class has a flexible syllabus that tries to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle. The format during the two-hour session alternates between Tanenhaus lecturing and recent media clips from Canadian and international news organizations. There is student participation throughout, and there are more people looking to engage in the discussion than there is time in the class.
Tanenhaus (pictured below) credits the “special environment” created in the weekly gathering, which is permeated with “a very powerful sense of respect.” He describes himself as more of a “ringmaster” than a lecturer. “I’ve seen a lot of students on different campuses, including the Ivy leagues and I’ve never seen this kind of civic or civil maturity.”
Together, he and his class dissect and analyze how Trump handles his media coverage, and how his relationship with the media has devolved as his use of the term “fake news” has increased. Twenty-one-year-old political science student Kieran McMurchy says he’s shocked at how quickly Trump supporters have “lost faith in pillars of free speech like the Washington Post and the New York Times.”
A few months ago, he was planning to go to law school. Now, he says he’s fired up to be a journalist. “It’s definitely concerning the way Trump has made mainstream media ‘the other’ in the country, essentially the enemy from within.”
This isn’t the first time in modern history that a U.S. president’s acrimonious relationship with the media has stoked interest in joining the press. In 1970, when two Washington Post reporters exposed then-president Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, the number of American journalism majors was about 33,000. By 1979, there were 71,000. Columbia University, the University of Southern California and Northwestern report double-digit jumps in applications to their journalism programs this year.
Alfred Hermida is the director of the School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia. “There’s no doubt that because of Trump there’s increased interest in journalism in the U.S. with more reader-funded media: The New York Times increasing its subscriptions. A lot of people donating to journalism organizations. It’s been very pronounced in the States. We haven’t seen the same kind of trend in Canada.”
Interest in working in the media as a career however, is happening at journalism schools across the country. UBC has seen a 13 percent increase in applications to its Masters of Journalism program since 2016 and a 23 percent bump in admissions. “Is it correlation or causation? Clearly, the fact that there has been increased discussion about the value of journalism and what journalists bring to public life does help journalism schools,” says Hermida.
Enrollment at Ryerson University’s journalism program has been trending higher since Trump began campaigning, too, while the number of admissions to Carleton University’s undergraduate program is steady because of a cap on the number of students.
If the students in Tanenhaus’ class are any indication, about half of those who decide to pursue journalism will do so by enrolling in a formal program next year, and the other half will try to get experience working in the field, without a journalism degree.
Tanenhaus says it gives him hope to see students regard journalism as an important element of a functioning democracy. “There’s a lot of hostility towards the media. It’s being attacked for all sorts of reasons and some of them are valid,” he says. “But they actually think journalism is a way to make things better and that’s a great feeling to an old legacy journalist like me. I’ve been doing this for a really long time. There’s so much cynicism.”
In last week’s class, they covered Trump and the media’s reaction to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the “false flag” rhetoric surrounding the pipe-bomb mail incidents. Students provide recaps of what happened, and share personal insight. One young woman, whose family is currently in Saudi Arabia, tells the class that her parents know that Khashoggi is dead, but weren’t aware of the controversy surrounding his death because local media doesn’t cover that.
The class ends with a video circa 1968 of the historic Democratic National Convention in Chicago that sparked violent clashes involving police. This will dovetail into this week’s overarching theme, which is a look at how rhetoric can lead to action, in light of the deadly synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh this past weekend. “Now we’re talking about a different kind of violence that’s been brewing for a long time,” says Tanenhaus. “It’s come up before, on some of the extreme websites: 4chan, 8chan, the alt-right.” There is also time allotted to discuss upcoming U.S. midterm elections.
As difficult as some of the topics may be, many students agree that one thing they would change about the class are the time constraints. Two hours doesn’t quite seem like enough for such all-encompassing discussions. “In other classes, I’d be watching the clock tick down to the last ten minutes,” says McMurchy. “But here, everyone is engaged until the very end because the content is so interesting. We just run out of time and I wish we wouldn’t.”
Cover image of Sukaina Kazim courtesy of Sukaina Kazim.