Every seat in the Sheldon Art Gallery's auditorium was filled on Thursday night as CNN senior White House correspondent and University of Nebraska-Lincoln alum Jeff Zeleny spoke.
Zeleny delivered the Peter J. Hoagland Integrity in Public Service Lecture, an annual lecture held by the University of Nebraska Foundation. The lecture series invites prominent state and national leaders "who prove that honor and integrity remain essential components in their service to our country."
Among the crowd were current UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green, former Chancellor Harvey Perlman, Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, state Sen. Adam Morfeld, and university faculty, staff and students.
G. Michael Fenner, a Creighton University constitutional law professor, provided opening comments, giving a brief history of the First Amendment and freedom of the press: "Freedom of speech is dependent on a free press."
When Zeleny took the microphone, he spoke about his experience covering three consecutive presidencies and five presidential elections, including Trump's campaign and presidential administration.
He reminisced about his time as managing editor of the Daily Nebraskan, saying some of the uncomfortable conversations he had then prepared him for his future as a political reporter.
"These days, a thicker skin is required to be a journalist," he said.
Much of Zeleny's lecture focused on how covering the Trump presidency is different than the Obama or Bush presidencies he covered before.
"It's different in almost every way," he said. "It's much faster. Every morning starts with a buzz of the phone. Who would have thought we would keep such a close eye on Twitter?"
Zeleny said he believes Trump uses social media as a "shiny object," intended to obscure and distract the public from what is happening in politics — such as the investigation into Russia's collusion with the 2016 election — and to undermine trust and credibility in the press.
"And to that effect, he's off to a pretty decent start," Zeleny said.
He said "fake news" and social media play a role in today's society.
"There is real news being called false and false news people believe is real," he said. "Social media has fostered a community, but a divided one. It has unified people in their divisions.
Zeleny remained positive, however, saying the way to combat attacks on the media as a journalist is to just "do our job without fear or favor."
"The state of the First Amendment is strong," he said, adding that the public is gaining more trust in the press as a watchdog. "Every day (as a CNN correspondent) is exciting, exhilarating and exhausting. But I consider it an extraordinary privilege for a Nebraska farm boy."