2018 Hearst Lecture: Jenna Bush Hager Talks Politics, Activism and Journalism
Jenna Bush Hager is no stranger to constant media scrutiny. Hager’s freshman year at UT was also her father George W. Bush’s first year as president of the United States.
Now a correspondent for NBC’s The Today Show, Hager profiles “ordinary extraordinary people” across the country. The switch from being in the spotlight to manning it has been helpful in shaping her approach to journalism, Hager said.
“Because I have been interviewed all my life, I could tell when somebody was authentically trying to listen to my story, and I could tell when they had a bias,” Hager said. “So I knew how important it was to sit down with people and really listen to their stories, to what moved them.”
As the keynote speaker at the 2018 Hearst Lecture in March, Hager joined officiator and School of Journalism Director R.B. Brenner in a discussion spanning politics, youth activism and her own journalistic career.
After graduating from UT in 2004 with a degree in English, Hager taught elementary school for a few years before moving to Panama and working for UNICEF. There, she said journalism was woven into her job. By writing profiles of the children UNICEF was aiding, she was putting “a face to a statistic” to show major donors the ways their contributions helped.
“I realized how powerful authentic storytelling is,” Hager said. “It was a really powerful moment, for me to share somebody else’s story and not be the center of one. It was liberating.”
Hager moved back to D.C. and resumed teaching in elementary schools with “some of the most marginalized kids in the country,” a job she said is often underappreciated in American culture. To her students, she was just “Miss Jenna,” a welcome change from the media coverage surrounding her outside the classroom.
“Kids see you for your heart, they don’t care who your dad is,” Hager said. “My students, they thought I was a good teacher. That’s all they cared about.”
After a few years of teaching, she accepted a position offered to her by a producer on “The Today Show.” She has now been a correspondent and frequent guest host for more than 10 years.
Recently, allegations against longtime co-host host Matt Lauer rocked the NBC newsroom. Hager described Lauer as a mentor who would often stay after work to help her, although never making her feel uncomfortable.
“People can be multiple things at once. It was shocking,” Hager said. “[To me] he was a perfect gentleman. And that doesn’t discredit what he did.”
Turning to politics, Hager cautioned against overtly expressing political views. But she acknowledged the passion of the young activists who have dominated media cycles recently.
“Young people should have a voice,” Hager said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative, if you’re marching on a Saturday then good for you.”
And when asked about President Trump, she expressed dismay at the state of distrust between the White House and the media.
“It’s very dangerous and it makes me sad,” Hager said. “There has been no history of a president saying, ‘look at this; this is fake’.”
But she believes in diversity of opinions all the same. Hager said in a world of visceral anger and polarization, different perspectives can only strengthen the need for journalism’s fundamental values.
“It’s important to have different opinions,” Hager said. “It makes telling the truth, writing authentic, genuine pieces, more important than ever.”
Photos by Marc Speir.
Freshman Journalism Major