Q & A with Rebecca Lenn ’07: Media, Morality, and Mount Holyoke
Rebecca Lenn ’07, “Becca” to her friends, works as director of outreach for Media Matters for America, a nonprofit progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting misinformation in American news media. “Hint: there is no shortage of it,” she says. In this position, Lenn works with and trains leaders to combat the spread of lies and extremism in print, broadcast, and online media. During this election year, we were especially excited to talk with Lenn about her job and her passion for the truth.
What motivates you most about the work you do?
Really it’s about making sure American media deliver on their promise to report the facts and reflect the gender, ethnic, political, and religious diversity of our country. The media plays an enormous role in shaping (and, too often, distorting) the debates we have in the halls of Congress, on the campaign trail, and at the dining room table. Misinformation and sensationalism in reporting—it goes without saying—often drown out the solution-focused conversations we need to have about our country’s biggest challenges like poverty, climate change, gun violence, and hate.
Holding a major news network or small local paper accountable when they get things wrong—much less building strong relationships with reporters—can be a heavy lift for advocates who are fighting the good fight every day. A major motivating factor for me is being able to meet advocates where they are and work with their organizations to effectively respond to irresponsible coverage so it doesn’t stand in the way of carrying out their mission.
How did Mount Holyoke impact your career?
My four years at Mount Holyoke instilled in me the importance of:
- Unstoppable learning (AKA unstoppable nerdom), especially in community with others;
- Questioning essentialisms and absolutes; and
- Finding a vocation anchored in effecting change and pursuing justice.
What mentors from Mount Holyoke influenced your life and work?
- Professors Ying Wang and Stephen Ellenburg, who not only advised me through a political science/Chinese studies double major but taught me to constantly see all things through a global and philosophical lens.
- Religion professors Michael Penn and Jane Crosthwaite, who inspired me to pursue graduate work in ethics and renewed my interest in the role of faith in public life.
- Crew coaches Jeanne Friedman and Jennifer Grow ’94 and fellow “Crewtons” who challenged me to keep fighting both on and off the water and to live for the journey, not just the destination.
- Fellow Student Government Association reps and Beth Gibney Boulden, associate director of student programs, who constantly demonstrated the power of coming together and rolling up our sleeves to make Mount Holyoke (and any community) an even cooler place to learn, grow, and thrive.
- And the countless friends and classmates (will never forget my big sisters first year!) who constantly reminded me just how important friendship and community are.
Did you have any life-changing experiences that put you on the path to what you’re doing today?
After Mount Holyoke I jumped right into graduate work in ethics at Yale University with the aim of exploring the moral foundations of politics and public policy, both domestic and international. While diving into womanist, feminist ethics and other social thought, I got increasingly involved in grassroots activism in New Haven, Connecticut, especially focusing on women’s health and poverty. Leading the Yale Divinity School women’s center and working with a coalition of more than forty local social justice organizations and faith leaders, I was drawn even more into advocacy around domestic policy issues. The 2008 presidential election and the changing political landscape at the time sealed the deal—after graduate school, I found myself back home in Washington, DC, exploring how I could make a difference through politics and media.
Before joining Media Matters in 2010, I was a political fellow at the Eleison Group, a consulting firm dedicated to helping political, nonprofit, and business leaders better understand America’s faith landscape and build relationships with communities of faith to achieve the common good. Working with a great team, I got my feet wet in providing messaging and research support to national public officials and faith-based organizations who were advocating for clean energy, gun violence prevention, and economic security and combating anti-Muslim hate. One of the biggest challenges faced by many of these leaders was how the media was covering their issues—blatant misinformation and sensationalism (and sometimes lack of coverage) often stalled the progress they wanted to see on Capitol Hill and beyond. It was a renewed appreciation for media accountability and a desire to help advocates navigate this treacherous terrain that drew me to the work of Media Matters.
What advice you would give a Mount Holyoke student?
Don’t take your interdisciplinary, liberal arts education for granted; it will provide a strong foundation for the road after graduation. And always remain open to the various ways you can make a difference in the world.
Your profession and career path should always be guided by a strong sense of vocation. Own what you’re passionate about and how you’re going to live out that sense of purpose before deciding what types of jobs you will take. And in that same vein, be open to more than one option when exploring how you hope to make your mark on the world.
—As reported to Anne Pinkerton
August 4, 2015