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Faculty, staff, students and members of the community listen to Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson discuss his thoughts on the health care bill, 2010 elections, journalism and media. Isaacson, who delivered the Hubert H. Humphrey Lecture in Public Affairs at the LSU Law Center, held an informal discussion about journalism and public affairs before the lecture.

Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson talks politics, media in Holliday Forum

Timing is everything. Timing, and sheer coincidence, brought Walter Isaacson, current president and CEO of the Aspen Institute and former editor of Time magazine, to campus Monday, March 22—just one day after the health care bill passed in the House of Representatives.

The Louisiana native was scheduled to deliver the Hubert H. Humphrey Lecture in Public Affairs at the LSU Law Center but also held an informal discussion about journalism and public affairs in the Holliday Forum in the Journalism Building.

A graduate of Harvard College and Pembrook College of Oxford University, Isaacson began his career in journalism at the Sunday Times of London and also worked at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He is the author of “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” and “Kissinger: A Biography.” He is also the former chairman and CEO of CNN.

In front of faculty and staff, students and the community, Isaacson discussed his thoughts on the health care bill, 2010 elections, journalism and media.

“The downside of the bill is that we shouldn’t make a change this big in a partisan fashion,” he said. “Compromise is an art we’ve lost.”

Isaacson said America needs health care reform, bringing the statistics home—“60 percent of LSU and Tulane students are arriving at hospitals without insurance.”

However, he wishes the system wouldn’t have happened over a partisan divide. Eventually, Isaacson said he thinks the bill will be amended, and it won’t be quite as radical.

Isaacson also discussed the media and how it affects politics.

“Media playing to the center has disappeared,” he said. “People will go to their end of the radio dial, either the left or the right and get stoked up over their own opinions.”

In the blogosphere, Isaacson said information is engaging and enormously good, but people aren’t often seeking the other side’s view.

“One-sided blogs and news shows reward passionate readers and viewers, but it tends to be somewhat ideological,” he said. “You have to find a model of high quality journalism.”

During the discussion, Isaacson referred to a cover article he wrote in February 2009 for Time Magazine, “How to Save Your Newspaper.” The article covered the business model for offering free information on the Internet.

“People who value quality journalism are willing to pay for it,” he said. “Information has a high value.”

Isaacson suggested a new business model that would mix free news and information with other stories offered to paid subscribers.

As for the future of print magazines, they face the same possible fate as the newspaper business—customers pay for the print version but are offered the same information for free online.

“I believe in print as a technology,” he said. “There is a value to print.”

However, Isaacson said other technologies, such as the iPad, the Nook and the Kindle, will create a golden age for magazines.

“There will be lower distribution costs, yet still beautiful layouts with graphics and videos,” he said.”

On the topic of November 2010 elections, Isaacson said he believes healthcare reform will hurt the Democrats less than people are predicting.

“If I were Obama, I wouldn’t take on anything big and partisan,” he said. “You want to lower the temperature and cool things down a bit.”

With a background in journalism, listeners were curious about what drove Isaacson to the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan education and policy studies institute.

“Polarization caused me to go to the Aspen Institute,” he said. “I wanted to quit tearing things apart.”

The Aspen Institute involves many journalists, Isaacson said, as it is a policy community where there is a free-flow of information.

Isaacson said it is important to speak to college students about journalism as a service.

“You have to remind people what a noble calling in journalism is,” he said. “There is inspiration for each new generation.”

As for advice, Isaacson said the best he’s ever received was from author Walker Percy, who told him, “There are two types of people that come out of Louisiana: preachers and storytellers. Be a storyteller; there are plenty of preachers.”


Holly A. Phillips | Editor | Office of Communications & University Relations
March 2010