Author Elizabeth Mitchell Discusses Fake News, Political Scandal, Advice for Aspiring Writers

By Lily Vining | | Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of Writer’s House.

It is often said that history repeats itself, but readers of Elizabeth Mitchell’s latest book, Lincoln’s Lie: A Civil War Caper Through Fake News, Wall Street, and the White House are likely to find the parallels between today’s polarizing political climate eerily similar to events that occurred 250 years ago. 

On Tuesday, February 9th, the Franklin & Marshall Writers House welcomed Elizabeth Mitchell for a reading and Q&A of her latest work, which New York Times bestselling author and historian Steven M. Gillon called “The book [that] reads more like a suspense novel than a work of history”. Her writing investigates Lincoln’s troubled relationship with the press and how it contributed to the Civil War. The story is especially relevant to our current political crises of fake news, profiteering, Constitutional conflict, and a president at war with the press. Mitchell’s other works include Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty and W: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty. Her other projects cover a range of topics, from horse racing to the first female detective in the NYPD, to the pay gap in Women’s professional soccer, and beyond. Formerly the executive editor of George, the nation’s largest political magazine, with its creator, John F. Kennedy Jr., she has worked as an investigative reporter and features writer for various New York-based publications.

The event covered a range of topics, including the research and writing process, Mitchell’s career as a political journalist, and her advice for aspiring writers and journalists. First, Mitchell read the first chapter of the book, which was so gripping and emotive that one could easily forget that they were hearing a true story. “It is completely nonfiction,” Mitchell reminded the audience, though she says that sometimes when hit with a wall in her research, she wishes that she could improvise. From her background in journalism, Mitchell always finds three separate sources before she will use a piece of information, making her work incredibly tedious. She does not mind the deep investigation required for historical research though and enjoys discovering how not only history’s main characters but also everyday men experienced these events. She proceeded to share a primary source she uncovered in her search for Lincoln’s Lie from a telegraph officer who was arrested when the conflict escalated between the media and the government for publishing false information. Mitchell also shared how her research uncovered a different side of President Lincoln than what we all learned in civics classes. “Honest Abe” evidently was not so honest after all, as one soon learns from his ability to manipulate the press.

As Mitchell altered the audience’s perspective on one of America’s most revered presidents, English Professor and Director of the Writers House Kerry Sherin Wright asked what we had all been wondering ourselves: If there are so many parallels between Lincoln and former-President Trump, can we trust that his character and events of his presidency will go down correctly in history? Mitchell said that she pondered this question herself but ultimately sees the two men as having more differences than similarities. Trump, she remarked, is an anomaly: an outsider to Washington emerging during the nationwide conflict. Lincoln too governed the country during arguably one of the most divided points in history, but his goal all along was to unite the nation, while Trump now seeks to divide it. 

Elizabeth Mitchell’s ethos in political analysis stems from early in her career as the executive editor of the political magazine George. She discussed how she worked closely with founders John F. Kennedy Jr. and Michael J. Berman to first launch the magazine in 1995, during a golden era for publishing, before the internet began to take off. She prides the publication for its unbiased coverage of both parties and thorough fact-checking. Discouraged, she noted that this meticulous fact-checking is far less common in the media today, especially on outlets with stronger pulls to either party. However, she pointed out that there are positive changes taking place in recent years, including more nonprofit work, like ProPublica, focused on expanding what the public is consuming instead of narrowing viewpoints. She also recognized the aspiring writers who desire to convey real, truthful information in their work, who she said “bring us hope” for the future of news.

As an established author and mother herself, Mitchell had plenty of advice to give to up and coming writers in the audience. She gave her best tips for conducting a good interview, from her years of experience. Before the interview, you should read and research everything about the subject so they can ask them unique and in-depth questions. She also advised to write out questions beforehand, leaving room to riff on a topic of particular interest. She also added, with a laugh, to bring two tape recorders— she learned her lesson the hard way. 

As for general advice for writers, Mitchell cited her two most crucial practices: reading a lot and writing daily. No matter what your skill level, reading pieces by talented authors makes you write at your best level also. Her other suggestion was to commit to writing every day. She sets a timer for half an hour, when she riffs on any topic, usually on index cards, that she reviews the next day. This is where she often finds the building blocks for her next piece. This practical, yet often overlooked advice, is just one cause of Elizabeth’s success, and is sure to inspire other young writers on their own journeys as well. Many in the audience agreed that Ms. Mitchell would be welcome on the F&M campus someday soon for a workshop to share more of her tips. 

The recording of the Writers House event can be found here. If anyone wishes to get a free copy of Lincoln’s Lie, they can fill out this form to be mailed from the bookstore. Elizabeth can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and on her website.

First-year Lily Vining is a staff writer. Her email is lvining@fandm.edu.

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