‘What better way to kick it off’: Inside the Sanders/Gibbs event

Gibbs, Sanders and Calle at the event, hosted at the Nixon Library. Photo by Kali Hoffman

The audience at the inaugural event for the Center of Freedom of Expression and Media Integrity was not quiet one. 

Attendees made comments throughout the night ranging from, “That’s fake news right here” and “Still pretty good,” to “That’s a dumb question.” Some members of the audience were cheerful and attentive to both former press secretaries Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Robert Gibbs, but many shook their heads in disagreement and had a disgruntled looks on their faces. 

The most uproaring comment of the night was when Gibbs said, “Today was not a good day to be the president,” referring to the impeachment hearings, specifically the testimony of Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union. Many audience members gasped and looked at each other with a surprised look, with one saying,“That’s not true!”

The event was held at the Richard Nixon Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, where President Daniele Struppa, Gibbs and Sanders sat in the East Room, surrounded by seven American flags, chandeliers and the portraits of the United States first president and first lady, George and Martha Washington. The historic site added to the politics filled evening. 

“If you’re going to have an event about free speech and specifically media integrity, what better way to kick it off than to have people who have expertise in both and have varying opinions about the topic,” Calle told The Panther about picking former press secretaries to speak at the event.

Click here to read the speakers’ thoughts on fake news

Gibbs’ notable comment came after moderator and director of the center, Calle, asked the speakers about the current impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. Gibbs was referring to the testimonies given that day by Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, and Sondland, who said that Trump’s lawyer initiated the “quid pro quo.” 

“Not a good day for him, not a good day for the defense,” Gibbs said. “You will see what will happen at the House before Christmas.There is a debate internally on the Republican side whether to have a quick trial or longer in the Senate.” 

After Gibbs’ statement, many in the audience did not have a favorable reaction. Sanders responded to Gibbs impeachment thoughts. 

“Everyday you are a President is a great day, because you get to be the leader of the greatest country in the face of the planet,” Sanders said. She was interrupted by loud cheering and clapping. “The Presidency of the United States is a privilege and honor only a few people would ever hold and it’s one of the most incredible rolls you can take on. Even on the worst day, it’s probably one of the best and most rewarding jobs in the world.” 

About 500 people attended the event, including over 150 Chapman students. Structured as a conversation between the two press secretaries, the evening largely consisted of conversation. Despite note cards provided to the audience to write questions for the speakers, a Q&A portion of the evening did not materialize. Calle did ask a question of the speakers, written by one of his students, however. 

Moderator Brian Calle, Chapman professor and CEO of L.A. Weekly. Photo by Kali Hoffman

Becca Standt, a junior film production major, was one of the lucky students at the event. 

“I was glad to attend the event because it gave me a better idea of who is funding Chapman, essentially the room was a ton of older, white, Republican, upper class Chapman donors,” Standt said. “I got a better idea of Sarah Sanders. I was really impressed, she was very well-spoken in person versus what I’ve seen of her in the media.”

Community members also attended the event, including Kendall Masley and Bob Ohlund, members of the Lincoln Club

“I am happy to hear from both of them,” Masley said. “I am terrifically conservative, but I want to hear the other side and hear it on a regular basis because I want to actually analyze how I feel and decided if I still feel that way.”

Ohlund’s favorite speaker was Sarah Huckabee Sanders. 

“I thought she was more concise in her answers,” Ohlund said. “Mr. Gibbs’ stories were interesting, but stretched out a little long. I would have liked to see both of them answer more questions and less stories.”

Masley and Ohlund first heard about the event when Calle went to speak with the club and invited them to the event, Masley said.

But the event has been the subject of recent controversy, as over 600 Chapman affiliates signed a letter calling for Sanders to be disinvited earlier this week. 

“I hope some of their questions were answered,” Calle said in response to the concerns expressed in the open letter. “In fact, I started the event by asking the main critical question of the two press secretaries.”

At the event, Calle questioned Sanders about some of her comments regarding the media while during her tenure in the White House. 

Sanders responded to Calle saying, “I actually don’t view the press as the enemy of the people, having stated that, what I have said is I think there is a real problem with fake news.”

“The way she responded to that question was so well spoken. But if you actually look at the content she was saying, it was completely dishonest,” Standt said. “She fully takes back everything she has said at a public event and you do not hold these ideas, even if she does. She did not in the past. It was very two-faced.”

School of Communication Dean Lisa Sparks said the event was “better than (she) imagined.” 

“There were some good valid questions asked and I think they both got to participate in answering those questions on both sides,” Sparks said, saying that Calle executed the event productively. 

“It was a masterful event,” Sparks said. “In fact, the leadership of the University said it was probably the best event at Chapman University.”