Congressmembers on Campus: Representatives Bass and Schiff talk Disinformation and Media

Amid a national debate over fake news and political polarization, two Democratic Party lawmakers visited the USC Annenberg School for a discussion on partisanship, the role of the media and the function of our democracy today.

Representatives Karen Bass (D-CA37) and Adam Schiff (D-CA28) spoke at Wallis Annenberg Hall on September 19 before a crowd of students, staff, faculty, and visitors. The Center on Communication Leadership & Policy (CCLP) hosted the event — titled “Citizens, Media and Politicians in a Post-Factual Era” — for Annenberg professor Gabriel Kahn, the moderator of the discussion.

Representative Bass, who represents West Los Angeles, serves on the House Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Foreign Affairs. Representative Schiff, who represents northern Los Angeles along with Burbank and Glendale, is the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Together, the representatives addressed several key issues, including the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the election as well as the impact of algorithms in propagating fake news on social media. The event even touched on questions surrounding climate change, electoral reform, and advocacy, with Representative Bass making a pitch for better organizing around issues like net neutrality.

Representative Schiff started out by examining the first 10 months of Trump’s presidency, pointing out that many legislative attempts — like repealing the Affordable Care Act — have stalled in Congress or failed to pass, while others — like Trump’s ban on travelers from six Muslim-majority countries — have been blocked by the courts. He added that the courts and the media have so far been the best check on presidential overreach — a task that is supposed to be carried out by Congress.

“We now have a dysfunctional Presidency on top of a dysfunctional Congress,” Representative Schiff said. “Fundamentally, what poses the biggest threat is that we do not have a Congress providing the type of oversight we should.”

On the other hand, Representative Bass added, the extensive media coverage of perceived wrongdoing by Trump blocks out many of the achievements that Congress does make, or any times when Republicans and Democrats may reach across the aisle to pass legislation. Representative Schiff responded to Congresswoman Bass’ point by mentioning that the current political climate is making members of the press become more openly partisan — which might make it harder for the press to gain access to the president.

The conversation then turned to the effect of political polarization on legislation, as Representative Bass said that many political decisions are made solely on the basis of partisanship rather than public support or potential impact. She pointed out that during her tenure as Speaker of the California State Assembly, California Republicans refused to approve more revenue to combat the 2008 recession because they were afraid of how they would be treated by conservative media. And today, Representative Bass said, Trump has been making most of his policy decisions by trying to undo any Democratic influence that his predecessor may have had.

“All of those Cabinet secretaries were essentially put in place to dismantle these institutions or seek out Obama policies and undermine those,” Representative Bass said.

When discussing the issue of fake news, the panelists brought up the Russia investigation, in which Russians are widely believed to have orchestrated a social media influence campaign that involved spreading false information about immigration, crime and other social issues to try to build support for Trump.

Representative Schiff pointed out that part of the issue is the way information spreads on social media, particularly on sites like Facebook, where there is no way to check what is real and what is fake. But both he and Bass agreed that it’s very difficult for Congress to regulate social media sites, and that trying to weed out fake news may not be effective.

“The antidote is more good information, not trying to restrict bad information,” Representative Schiff said.