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Abbey Speaker Series: A Conversation with Frank Bruni and Bari Weiss

January 22, 2024 


By Eric Johnson 


Avoiding an ideological echo chamber is a challenge for readers and journalists alike, said Free Press founder and former New York Times opinion columnist Bari Weiss. As part of a wide-ranging conversation with UNC alumnus and New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, Weiss talked about the problem of “audience capture” and the difficulty of offering diverse viewpoints when so many news consumers want to see their opinions affirmed. 


“It’s incredibly important to sharpen your position by reading the best proponents from the other side,” Weiss said. She founded her own news outlet to “inform readers, treat them like adults, and allow them to make their own choices.” 


Weiss resigned from the Times in 2020 over what she called an “illiberal environment” and a growing trend of self-censorship on sensitive topics. If ‘sense-making’ institutions like the media and universities give in to ideological conformity, Weiss warned, they lose claims to public trust. “Americans still hunger for news that is accurate, opinions that are vital, and debate that is sincere,” she wrote in her Times resignation letter, and that’s the case she made to an audience of students, faculty, and community members at the Carolina Union.


The audience also included a vocal cadre of protestors who objected to Weiss’s views about Israel’s war in Gaza, which Weiss sees as a legitimate exercise in self-defense. About twenty minutes into the discussion, a group of protestors began shouting over the speakers and were asked to leave. 


After the brief interruption, Weiss said she wished the protestors had chosen to stay and have the kind of challenging dialogue her work promotes. She offered her own nuanced take on Israeli policy, the wrenching calculations leaders make in wartime, and the distinction between supporting Palestinians and sympathizing with an extremist group like Hamas.


“It was hard for me to understand what exactly those students were supporting and if they were here, we could talk,” Weiss said. “I consider myself pro-Palestinian in the sense that I want people that live in Gaza and the West Bank to live freely and enjoy the rights that I, as a gay and Jewish woman, get to enjoy in this country.”


Reflecting on the pressures that students might feel to have strident views about current events, Bruni called for professors and public officials to model intellectual humility, sharing examples of when they’ve been wrong and openly acknowledging conflicted views. “I want to popularize the phrase, ‘I don’t know,’” Bruni said. “Or, ‘I’m still figuring it out.’” Without protecting college as a time of curiosity and uncertainty, he said, students are tempted to “turn their political life into a performative thing.”


Weiss said aspiring journalists need open-minded curiosity above all else, because the core of the job is still trying to pursue the truth in a complex environment. “Tell me something new about the world that’s valuable to me,” Weiss advised. 

Agora Fellows featured in the Well

On November 9th, Rob Holliday published a piece in The Well (UNC’s Faculty and Staff Newsletter) detailing how the Program for Public Discourse’s Agora Fellows “do democracy better.”

Sarah Crow, an Agora Fellow from last year’s cohort, had this to say: “If we don’t teach college students how to engage productively, civilly, respectfully, then we won’t be able to engage in the real world,” Crow said. “The purpose of a university is to talk about ideas, debate ideas in the pursuit of truth. And yet that happens on a pretty small scale. It’s imperative that we learn how to talk to each other, and how to listen to each other.”

Please click here to read the full article.

Community Event: War in Gaza

War in Gaza

by Eric Johnson


It’s impossible to understand the current conflict in Israel and Gaza without knowing the deeper context, explained two UNC political scientists at a recent Program for Public Discourse event. In front of a packed lecture hall, Navin Bapat and Jeff Spinner-Halev walked through the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the profoundly different perspectives that each side brings to that history.

Bapat and Spinner-Halev began by describing Israel’s creation in 1948, and the massive dislocation of Palestinians during the upheaval. Israelis celebrate this moment as a war for independence; Palestinians see it as a disaster of dispossession and humiliation. From that seed of profound disagreement, the conflict has hardened and undermined repeated attempts at a negotiated settlement.

“When people are under threat, their best selves do not come out,” Spinner-Halev said. “When people are threatened, when the threat is real and alive, their best selves to compromise and negotiate are just not on the table.”

Both professors talked about the ethics of warfare and how international rules for armed struggle might apply to the current fighting. Bapat is an expert in non-state actors and terrorism, and he explained that Hamas’s attack on Israeli civilians was an effort to spark a wider war. “The goal, essentially, is to provoke,” Bapat said. The brutality of Hamas’s assault was intentional, “a large, symbolic act of violence to try and provoke the Israelis into an indiscriminate response. Under those definitions, it looks like Hamas is accomplishing what it wanted.”

Spinner-Halev explained the legal and ethical implications of Israel’s campaign to eliminate Hamas from Gaza, including the right of self-defense but also the obligation to minimize civilian casualties. “The response has to be proportionate to the threat,” Spinner-Halev said. “Is this level of civilian death proportionate to the threat?” Those questions don’t have straightforward answers, meaning that the ethics of warfare in an urban setting like Gaza are “inherently ambiguous.”

Both scholars also cautioned against simplistic, binary thinking about the conflict. Hamas makes up only a small portion of the Palestinian population, Bapat emphasized, and political support for the movement was falling prior to the conflict. Spinner-Halev offered his view that Israel has a right to eliminate an existential threat from its borders, but also shared deep misgivings about the actions and strategy of the current Israeli government. It’s not enough to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian, both men said. You need a much more nuanced view of the interests and goals in play.

“You can make that distinction between the people, the government, and the state,” Spinner-Halev said. “We need people of goodwill on both sides to come together and find a solution. I’m on that side, and I urge you to be on that side, too.”

Across the Conversation – an overview of “Journalism and Democracy”

Across the Conversation – an overview of “Journalism and Democracy”

Moderated by UNC-Chapel Hill associate professor of history and New York Times contributing opinion writer Molly Worthen, this week’s Abbey Speaker Series event with McKay Coppins, John Hood ’88, and Nafari Vanaski considered the crucial role journalism, particularly local journalism, plays in democratic societies.
Across the conversation, our panelists discussed the numerous factors driving the decline of local news reporting and publications, the adverse effects of decreased trust in media, and ways individuals and organizations are working to combat both trends.
All three panelists reiterated the importance of reporters being present – in the room – to cover stories but that most local publications no longer have the revenue necessary to support a large staff. Vanaski pointed to recent book banning efforts as something that might not have succeeded if communities had been made aware earlier on. However, even when local stories receive national coverage, Coppins described how partisan media cycles distort narratives or key details, which is toxic for the featured communities and individuals.
In discussing journalistic objectivity, Hood described his belief that true objectivity isn’t possible but that journalists get closest when they present all sides of a given story or topic and work in newsrooms that include a range of viewpoints. Vanaski voiced her belief that most newsrooms are not anywhere near diverse enough to achieve this goal and that the newsrooms she worked in were primarily white and male, and that this negatively impacted publications’ abilities to cover topics in ways that challenge established narratives. Coppins agreed that newsrooms still struggle to be representative of the communities they serve, but he noted the limits of embracing viewpoint diversity when it entails airing ideas that go against journalism’s inherent values of promoting freedom and opposing censorship.
As for improving trust in media, all three panelists agreed that revitalizing local journalism is essential but that the model would have to change to compete with national publications. Hood mentioned nonprofit publications supported by philanthropic and small-dollar donations as promising options, alongside subscriber-driven, digital models like those of North Carolina publications The Assembly and The Charlotte Ledger. For these new models to work, though, they require support from a civic-minded readership.
We invite you to share your thoughts on the discussion with us in the video’s comment section or on Twitter and Facebook.
Across the Conversation – an overview of “What To Do About China? Taiwan and the Future of US-China Relations”

Across the Conversation – an overview of “What To Do About China? Taiwan and the Future of US-China Relations”

Moderated by UNC-Chapel Hill professor Klaus Larres and co-sponsored by the Carolina Asia Center, this week’s Debating Public Policy Series event considered the United States’ role in cross-Strait relations against a backdrop of international uncertainty.
Before opening the discussion to panelists, Larres provided an overview of the US’ relationships with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan, respectively. This included brief synopses of the Shanghai Communiqué (1972) and Taiwan Relations Act (1979), the combination of which underpins the US’ current policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding the “One China” policy.
Shelley Rigger (Davidson College) began the discussion by asserting that the US should continue its current balance of relations with Taiwan and the PRC, maintaining separate policies toward each that nevertheless recognize the nature of its relationships with both. These policies, she stated, need to reflect US interests and values, including peace and stability for itself and its allies (through supporting Taiwan’s defenses), a sustainable and non-predatory global economy (through strong relationships with Taiwanese businesses), and the continued protection of democracy and human rights (through supporting Taiwan’s right to self-determination). Rigger closed by asserting that, as tensions between the US and PRC escalate, the US must not slip into viewing Taiwan as a strategic asset or potential weapon, and she strongly rejected former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent statement regarding US support for Taiwanese independence.
Eric Yu-Chua Huang (Kuomintang (KMT)) addressed the topic from Taiwan’s perspective and stressed the importance of the economic bond between Taiwan and mainland China. He noted, however, that recent developments like Pompeo’s statement and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have spurred conversations about Taiwan’s future and whether the US will provide adequate defensive support or if Taiwan needs to become more self-reliant. Speaking to demographic changes and the growing generational gap between Taiwanese citizens, Huang described an increased sense of national identity forming among younger voters and how this and other factors may lead the country closer toward declaring independence.
Continuing on the topic of independence, June Teufel Dreyer (University of Miami) was the first speaker to reject the 1972 Communiqué outright, characterizing it as disastrous for US-China relations and Taiwan. She argued that Taiwan is already independent and that strategic ambiguity prevents it and the US from undertaking certain actions, such as integrating Taiwan into international cooperatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the World Health Organization. Dreyer then urged for a slow transition away from the One China policy – if not formally, then at least in practice. Larres and Rigger both cautioned against this, with Larres citing the legal precedent of the Taiwan Relations Act and Rigger voicing concerns over how such actions would embolden the PRC to abandon its own diplomatic commitments.
Across the conversation, the PRC’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and whether it would embolden them to carry out similar actions in Taiwan was a constant theme. However, all three panelists stated plainly their belief that an invasion was highly unlikely, citing the international backlash against Russia as an effective deterrent. Regarding the PRC’s ties to Russia, Huang noted they are positioned to serve as a mediator in the conflict and could potentially work with the US to find solutions.
Larres drew the event to a close by describing how the conversation could point toward a future world divided into spheres of Chinese and American influence and questioned whether this was likely and would help or hinder avoiding conflict. Dreyer imagined a future of managed hostility, where argument and moments of crisis between these spheres would be frequent but unlikely to boil over into war. Huang voiced a desire to avoid this possibility, referencing the increased interconnectivity of the global economy as a possible deterrent. Rigger concluded by expressing doubts about a more hostile future, drawing the conversation back to the invasion of Ukraine and describing Russia’s decline and its effort to reclaim power as incongruent with China’s current state of ascendancy.
We invite you to share your thoughts on the discussion with us in the video’s comment section or on Twitter and Facebook.