The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are a moral force the likes of which we have not seen in a long, long time.
They are on the right side of history and are feeling it. And that makes them more potent than our Twitter-addled president, all the far-right conspiracy theorists trying to trash them or possibly even the National Rifle Association and all the legislators who have sold out to that organization.
Those are some of the thoughts I had after watching as this student movement was attacked on social media by some of the craziest conspiracy theories I’ve heard in years. I followed the discussion through a “listening session” with President Donald Trump on Wednesday afternoon and an emotionally exhausting but ultimately inspirational two-hour town hall on CNN hosted by Jake Tapper.
These media-savyy students are a force to be reckoned with because of their ability to use both social media and cable TV to give voice to their anger, pain and school safety/gun control messages in the wake of their fellow students being gunned down last week. The students were skillfully using the same mix of new and old media that Trump used in his presidential campaign.
But that’s only part of the story.
The students also have a remarkable moral clarity and passion that is so desperately lacking in the larger civic conversation of American life today.
The CNN town hall, “Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action,” offered snapshots of that moral clarity by students, teachers and parents versus the obfuscation and moral murkiness of some leaders.
Early in the evening Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed last week, stood up in the audience after being called on by Tapper and told Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, “I’m just going to say it. … Your comments this week and those of our president have been pathetically weak.”
The crowd of 7,000 cheered Guttenberg’s, many in the audience rising to their feet.
“You and me are now eye to eye,” Guttenberg continued. “Look at me and tell me that guns were the factor in the hunting of our kids in this school this week. And look at me and tell me that you accept it and that you will work with us to do something about guns.”
After a litany by Rubio of what he said he has done to identify potentially dangerous individuals that mainly avoided talking about guns themselves, the crowd started to boo.
“Now I think what you are asking about is the assault weapons ban,” Rubio said, heading it off.
“Yes, sir,” Guttenberg replied.
“So let me be honest with you about that one,” Rubio said. “If I believed that law would have prevented this from happening, I would support it.”
The booing got louder.
Things got even worse later when a student, Cameron Kasey, asked Rubio if he would be willing to refuse NRA money, and the senator said no in a long-winded way.
Give Rubio some credit for showing up, something neither Florida Gov. Rick Scott nor Trump did, despite CNN invitations to participate in person or via remote hook-up.
And the senator also came to the defense earlier in the day of Stoneman Douglas students on Twitter when far-right conspiracy theorists started pushing fake stories that some of the students were “crisis actors,” paid performers who go from crisis to crisis, not real students.
“Claiming some of the students on TV after Parkland are actors is the work of a disgusting group of idiots with no sense of decency,” Rubio wrote.
I wish he had that kind of moral clarity Wednesday night on CNN. In the clutch, when confronted with clear questions and choices by parents and students, he sounded like a politician trying to avoid a straight answer with lots of talk intended to hopelessly confuse the issue and make it seem far more complicated than it is.
His argument that he doesn’t support the assault weapons bill because there are too many loopholes in it was quickly blown up by U.S. Rep. Ted. Deutch, a Florida Democrat, who said: Let’s fix the loopholes and get military assault weapons off the street, not ditch the bill.
CNN did a nice job of letting students, parents and teachers drive the town hall. Tapper kept it on track but did not impose himself on the proceedings in any way.
Typical of his restraint was the way he refused to take the bait when NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch twice tried to provoke him with remarks about the ways in which she felt CNN was failing to properly frame the gun debate.
I have no idea how someone representing the NRA in that forum felt she had a right to attack anyone, but there she was looking for a silly cable-wars argument with Tapper even in this sea of cosmic pain for those who lost loved ones and friends.
Tapper ignored her to focus on the far more serious business of making sure that as many members of the Stoneman Douglas community as possible were heard during the telecast.
I don’t know if it is more a measure of how irrelevant the presidency has become on such moral issues with Trump, or how successfully CNN discharged its public affairs duty of providing a forum for this national conversation. But I do know that what happened in an auditorium in Sunrise, Fla., Wednesday night seemed far more important than what happened at the White House earlier in the day. The best Trump could muster in response to all the pain of survivor testimony he heard is that maybe teachers should be armed and he was in favor of tougher background checks on gun buyers.
CNN seems to understand that these media-savvy students have gained an unmistakable moral authority through their suffering and with it a moral clarity at a time when many of our national leaders seem hopelessly compromised, selfishly focused on their own private gain or utterly lost.
I hope cable news will stay fully committed to this community and not leave these students behind when a bigger story breaks elsewhere.