Truth to Power: Victoria Woodhull and Her Fearless Challenge to the Status Quo

By Fitale Wari

Four journalists gathered on Denison University’s campus recently to discuss truth in journalism in America today.

This event was part of the Phoenix Rising Project, a series of events stimulated by the passionate and varied work of Victoria Woodhull, a native of Homer, Ohio, and an American leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the 19th century.

Organized by the Robbins Hunter Museum, this three-year, nine-part series uses Woodhull’s concerns to launch civil, politically neutral community dialogue around her areas of interest—stockbroking, newspaper publishing, public speaking, philanthropy, and women’s suffrage—as they manifest in today’s world.

“We have been so pleased with the response to the two round tables so far,” said Ann Lowder, Executive Director at the Robbins Hunter Museum. “[These events] have served as a forum for respectful discourse on topics that can be polarizing.”

Panelists included national and regional journalists Myra Macpherson, Max Abelson, Julie Carr Smyth, and Mary Yost, with moderator Sally Crane Cox, former publisher and editor of the Granville Sentinel. The theme of the night was “truth to power,” focusing on journalists’ dedication to reporting factual information to the public.

MacPherson’s most recent book, The Scarlet Sisters: Sex Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age, is about 19th century feminist and journalist Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin. While MacPherson believes that journalists can have credibility without objectivity, she also stated that the work of investigative journalists is often overlooked today in favor of mainstream reporting.

As the only male panelist, Bloomberg News and Businessweek reporter Max Abelson focused on the culture of Wall Street. From that vantage point, he believes that pioneering female stockbroker Woodhull would be “extremely pissed” if she saw the lack of gender diversity on Wall Street today. He also predicted that the financial sector is where we will see the next wave of the #metoo movement.

Mary Yost, current editor of the Columbus Dispatch Editorial page, admits that she is still perfecting her editorial voice. She strives to engage younger readers who have migrated away from print journalism, a goal shared by the other panelists. Yost commented on the empowerment that journalists felt in the 70’s compared to today, which is probably dwindling because of the lack of trust in the media.

This lack of trust in media stems in part from the pace at which news is delivered online. The media today is focused on breaking news and being the first to distribute information. Other panelists echoed this thought, pointing out that reporters are now expected to deliver stories before their competitors which creates pressure on them to perform better and faster than others.

Julie Carr Smyth,  an Associated Press reporter who covers the Ohio Statehouse, shared a ray of hope when she remarked that the number of online news consumers have increased in the past couple years, a trend she believes will continue. Although there has been a shift in the way news is delivered, all of the panelists are hopeful that reliable, truthful  information will be spread throughout the country.

“We need to be careful what we think when we say ‘media’,” said Carr Smyth, pointing out the difference between news media and other sources of subjective information and entertainment.

Yost also suggested that editorial pages are particularly challenging because neutral voices in news outlets are difficult to find. In response to questions seeking guidance on being a “good consumer of news”, Abelson advised audience members to read a variety of news sources—especially sources that are not in line with one’s own beliefs. In addition, Carr Smyth encouraged the audience to do their research to find resources they believe are trustworthy.

Victoria Woodhull would have been proud of the open, spirited discussion about truth in journalism, an exciting precursor to the remainder of the series developed in her honor.

The Victoria Woodhull Phoenix Rising series is the result of a partnership between The Robbins Hunter Museum and Denison University, supported by a major grant from the Granville Community Foundation and an Ohio Humanities planning grant.

“The Robbins Hunter Museum is so very grateful for the support of the Granville Community Foundation for their support of ‘Scandalous Voices’,” Ann shared.

Photo shows panelists from left to right: Mary Yost, Editor Columbus Dispatch; Julie Carr Smyth, AP reporter at Ohio State House; Max Abelson, Bloomberg News; Myra MacPherson, author of Scandalous Voices; Sally Crane Cox, moderator and a founder of Matriots.