MARS Welcomes Jia Tolentino: Discussions on the Internet and Journalism

by Kyle GuilfoilStaff Writer

Manhattan College’s Major Author Reading Series (MARS) returned last Thursday with guest speaker Jia Tolentino, a staff writer for “The New Yorker.” 

MARS is an event held once a semester that hosts an author for a reading and Q&A session. Adam Koehler, a professor of English at MC, has been hosting the MARS program since 2011. Koehler had originally invited Tolentino to speak last April, but the event was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, Tolentino was able to reschedule for a virtual event this semester.

“Her research and her work has been really important recently and it made sense given the course I was teaching, and the interest of the students, to invite her to campus, and she was more than willing and generous to do it,”  Koehler said. “Tolentino’s work always reminds us of where the personal meets the public, in a way that we find immediately personally and intellectually.”

After an introduction by Koehler, Tolentino read an excerpt from her book, Trick Mirror, and answered questions from MC students, alumni and faculty. 

The book is a collection of essays centered around the concept of self-delusion, with Tolentino examining society, especially in regards to its interaction with the internet. A quote she shared from the book referenced five problems she believes have developed from our internet engagement.

“First, how the internet is built to distend our sense of identity; second, how it encourages us to overvalue our opinions; third, how it maximizes our sense of opposition; fourth, how it cheapens our understanding of solidarity; and finally, how it destroys our sense of scale,’” read Tolentino. 

Closing on this quote, Tolentino began taking questions. She addressed the effects of the internet, her writing process, and journalism within today’s political climate. 

Tolentino shared that she had only ever written for the internet before this book, as she began writing after the mainstream media had felt a collapse due to the 2008 recession. She enjoys online writing, and the fast pace expected from it. However, Tolentino wanted to be able to publish something more indulgent: an in-depth discussion that would not be restricted to the limitations of an online piece. 

To Tolentino, it is impossible to become truly absorbed in writing that is presented through a cell phone screen. A physical book presented the opportunity for readers to become completely immersed in her words and ideas, which is something that Tolentino tries to practice regularly. 

“[Reading] feels like it’s piecing my brain back together after the internet destroys it everyday, like it’s knitting my attention span back together,” Tolentino said.

While she acknowledged that the Internet is a remarkable tool that has greatly increased creativity and also allowed open, democratized conversation on a multitude of important social topics, she feels the current online world is very harmful to Americans.

Especially because so much of the internet is controlled by a few powerful companies, Tolentino demonstrated fear of the misinformation and manipulation that is presented through online sources. 

“The thing that makes the companies the most money is for us to use it in unhealthy ways, and misinformation gets more views than facts,” Tolentino said. “As long as that’s true, as long as anger and virality are the most profitable things for them, I think on the whole [the internet] will be more to our general detriment than to the good.”

As a journalist herself, Tolentino has had to face the question of bias and misinformation in published writing. 

“What I prefer personally, given that we all have some sort of bias, is to show my cards, and then report the facts, but make it clear [what] I believe in,” Tolentino said. “To me, the most honest way of [reporting] is to be clear about your point of view, which is essentially the same thing as bias, and then go into interviews with an open mind, to really listen to people harder when they disagree with you.”

Tolentino argues that the idea of objective journalism is an old fashioned one, and that it is morally negligible to be truly neutral in today’s American society and politics. She admits that most news organizations, such as “The New Yorker, have a general slant towards a certain political ideology. However, Tolentino asserts that this slant does not prohibit professional journalists from providing informative, factual reports.

“Ideological leanings have nothing to do with facts,” she said. “That is the biggest destructive civic development of the Internet age, where you have huge movements that no longer believe in objective fact.” 

Journalists at these organizations go through diligent fact-checking processes, according to Tolentino. Everything in the article, including a mention of the weather for a day, is fact-checked. 

She also believes social media has accelerated the development of conspiracy-obsessed Americans. 

“[Social media] is built to show you a version of the world that you want to see, and it’s also built to show you a version of the world that makes you feel superior to other people, and mad,” Tolentino said. “So what that often translates to is misinformation that says that everyone else has gotten it wrong. The world is whatever you choose to see. I think that ontologically, there is a deep seated kind of human narcissistic tendency that gets really encoded with social media.”

Tolentino shared her concern for the lasting effects of misinformation from the internet.

“In terms of the things that last, in terms of the record that lasts, being confusing and incorrect, [I am worried],” Tolentino said. “I think that because the news is being replaced digitally, because everything can always be photoshopped, because we don’t teach civic literacy in school the way we ought to, I am incredibly worried that, for example, anyone trying to do a history of this decade, or the next decade, will have to wade through not being able to trust sources, like archived sources, and not knowing what has been interfered with.”

According to Tolentino, it seems Americans should worry less about bias in journalists, and more about the misinformation and manipulation possible through social media. 

Shifting to the specific impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on her, Tolentino shared that she found it very difficult to write last spring — the element of surprise, discussions with strangers, and experiential learning are some of her to be her best writing muses. 

“Physical, in person experience is the thing that gets my brain going, which is one of the reasons I felt so crazy during the pandemic because I’m only experiencing one room,” Tolentino said. “I want to feel your body language when we’re in the room with each other.”

Students and faculty asked questions and thanked Tolentino for speaking with them. Koehler was especially pleased with the event. 

“I think my favorite MARS events are the ones where the students drive the Q&A, and that was very clear last night,” Koehler said. “That’s what I love about a MARS reading, that you really get to see the students engage in a meaningful way with ideas that they care about, and writing that they care about. She’s such a great example of what it means to be a journalist right now, so to see the communications majors show up, and ask these powerful questions, that to me is the best way to spend a Thursday night. The students make it a successful night.”

Koehler believes that her essays — published before the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States — is incredibly important right now, as the relationship with technology has grown more intense through periods of social isolation. 

Dominika Wrozynski, an associate professor of English at MC, has been co-hosting the MARS events with Koehler since 2013. She also felt that it was impactful for students and faculty to hear from Tolentino. 

She had great advice for students — especially on how to incorporate research into their writing, as well as how to balance the personal and informational angles in their work,” Wrozynski said. “It’s exciting when students can meet a writer who is only about ten years older than they are and who has achieved such a level of success — students at the event were clearly inspired by Tolentino’s career and her approachability in answering their questions.”

Tolentino’s appearance at this MARS event gave students exposure to a well-spoken writer and engaged the MC community in important conversation. 

“It’s rough out there for a person who just wants to understand something, and doesn’t want to be sold an agenda,” Koehler said. “So talking to a journalist about what that process is like for her, how [she] generates information for people, is a very important conversation for young people who are just trying to figure out how to think about their culture and what role their media plays in that.”