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Northwestern School of Communication
Capehart and Dean E. Patrick Johnson looking at MSNBC special on television screen

Johnathan Capehart, political analyst and Pulitzer Prize-winning editor, joined SoC Dean for Dialogue with the Dean

“The biggest threat to a free press is a chief executive who threatens the press.”

Johnathan Capehart, political analyst for The PBS Newshour, Pulitzer Prize-winning associate editor of The Washington Post, and the second guest for the School of Communication’s Dialogue with the Dean series of the 23-24 academic year, issued a dire warning—and reminder—of what’s at stake in the coming months.

“A President of the United States, who on a routine basis, would call the press the enemy of the people and say that we were liars,” he continued. “That to me is the single greatest danger to American journalists.” 

There is no better time to hear from a dedicated and informed journalist than at the beginning of an election year. So, while the campaign trail is heating up, SoC dean E. Patrick Johnson sat down with Capehart on February 26 with an audience in the Louis Theater in the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts to discuss his career, what makes a good journalist, and why he loves his profession.

“When I was a kid, I was a tattletale,” said Capehart, recounting a story of how he became interested in journalism. He tuned in to the Today show one day, in hopes of seeing his uncle McKinley Branch, an electrician at 30 Rockefeller Center, waving in the background. “We turn on this news show and I'm watching these people tell other people's business. It was so interesting and exciting. That's what sparked my interest in news,” Capehart said. He decided that he’d one day sit at an anchor’s desk. 

Capehart was the news director of the radio station and news editor of the campus newspaper at Carleton College, his alma mater. But when he landed a Today internship, executive producer Steve Friedman told him that they like hiring people from print “because they know how to think and write.” So, when he got a call from the op-ed editor of the New York Daily News after graduation, he jumped at the opportunity.

To him journalism is a noble endeavor: “The point of this job is to shine a light on people who otherwise wouldn't have the light shined on them.” He cautioned students looking for time in the limelight saying, “if you are going into journalism because you want to be a star in the middle of the action, this profession is not for you. You have to be here because you want to be on the front line for the defense of democracy.”

The theme of this year’s Dialogue with the Dean series is big thinkers changing media and communication, and Capehart’s work reflects that charge. He has two MSNBC specials under his belt. His first, A Promised Land: A Conversation with Barack Obama, was nominated in 2021 for an Emmy Award for Outstanding News Discussion & Analysis; the second, Pride of the White House, won a 2022 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding TV Journalism - Long Form.

The second special touched a lot of people, including Dean Johnson. “Is there any idea that you might pitch that [the network] wouldn't allow given that current climate,” asked the Dean. “Things that are too edgy from a television perspective?”

“I mean, there's only so much edgy you're going to get from me,” Capehart laughed. “But when I was interviewing White House deputy communications director Maria ‘Pili’ del Pilar Tobar with a big Zoom wall filled with 30 other out LGBTQ+ political appointees behind her, it was one of the most moving things I had seen. As an out journalist being able to go to the network and say, ‘I want to do this,’ and have them say, ‘Absolutely’ shows just how far things have come.”

However, when asked by an online audience member if America would be open to electing a gay man in 2028, Capehart confessed that his focus was on the here and now.

“I am fixated on getting through 2024 because 2028 won't matter if 2024 doesn't go how it must,” Capehart said. “I want Joe Biden to be reelected because the guy he's most likely running against has made it clear he's not interested in democracy and maintaining America's leadership role around the world.”

One of the last questions of the night came from the audience about why the media is not covering the ‘existential threat’ of climate change. Capehart disagreed, saying coverage is robust, increasing, and being told in more novel and understandable ways.

“But one of the reasons why you might not think it's being covered is because there's so much going on that it gets it gets crowded out,” he said. “You've got a presidential election, abortion bans, and immigration. There's only so much that can be covered on television, but if you open up a newspaper or a magazine, it’s there.”

The final Dialogue with the Dean of the academic year will take place this spring.