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Media and the Politics of Covid-19

Thursday, May 7, 2020

4 p.m. – 5 p.m.

Watch on Youtube

Join alum and Democratic political consultant Jenny Backus '90 in conversation with Republican political consultant Brian Jones and CNN's senior Washington Correspondent Jeff Zeleny as they discuss media coverage of the presidential campaign, COVID-19, and the White House. These experts will share their experiences working on presidential campaigns, working inside government, and reporting on various administrations. They will help us break down what's real and what is not during these unprecedented times.

Moderated by Watson Institute Director Edward Steinfeld.

This is part of Watson's Class of 2020 Speaker Series, connecting Brown alumni and Watson Senior Fellows with current students in the lead up to May's Degree Conferral. Students from all years are invited to participate.

Class of 2020 Speaker Series
COVID-Today

Jenny Backus is the owner and president of Backus Consulting LLC, a strategic communications firm specializing in strategy development, campaign and project management and intergovernmental consulting for corporations, media outlets, trade associations, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions and political campaigns and committees.

A nationally recognized spokesperson and expert on strategic communications and partnerships, Backus has worked for Fortune 500 companies, national trade associations and NGOs and in the political arena serving in leadership positions in the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, and on Presidential campaigns, including managing more than 40 Presidential Primary Debates and Forums and events for the national media in the 2004 and 2008 Presidential cycles.

Most recently Backus served for three years as a senior policy advisor and head of Strategic Partnerships and Engagement for Google where she developed Google’s state by state public affairs teams and strategic plans, managed all Google’s U.S. NGO and third party relations and oversaw a multi-million dollar public affairs and policy budget. Backus also served in the first two years of the Obama Administration as the acting assistant secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA) and the principal deputy assistant secretary for Strategy & Planning at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) working closely with then Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and the White House.

In addition to running her own consulting business, Backus also serves on several boards, including as chair of the National Network to End Domestic Violence and as nominations chair for the DC Public Library Foundation Board. A graduate of Brattleboro Union High School and Brown University, Backus lives in Washington, DC, with her husband Ed Pagano and son Jack.


Brian Jones is a partner at the Alexandria, VA-based Black Rock Group, Brian has a proven track record of creating and managing successful public affairs and public relations campaigns for some of the country’s most innovative companies, top-tier associations, influential coalitions and national political candidates. In addition, Brian has worked with a number of national and local non-profit organizations.

Over the past two decades, Brian has helped lead effective communications and advocacy efforts in a variety of industries including technology, transportation, energy, financial services, restaurant and retail. In the non-profit realm he has worked in support of marriage equality, early childhood education, eradicating child sex-trafficking and keeping kids safe online. Brian has also been active in the world of electoral politics. Serving in senior roles for the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Chris Christie, Brian was named one of the “top free-agent GOP operatives” by The Washington Post. Former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman noted that Brian has “fantastic judgment, the respect of the press, good management skills, creativity and a commitment to excellence.”

Brian currently serves on the board of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Brian earned his MA from the University of Washington in Seattle and BA from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He lives in Alexandria, VA, with his wife Emily and their two children.


Jeff Zeleny serves as CNN's senior Washington correspondent, covering the overall 2020 campaign. Most recently he served as the network's Senior White House Correspondent covering the Trump administration with a focus on President Trump's pivotal role in the 2018 midterm election campaign for all of the network's programs and platforms. This is the third consecutive presidency Zeleny has covered, traveling across the country and around the world with George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Zeleny covered the 2016 campaign, his fifth presidential election, from the early days of the Democratic and Republican primaries through the general election contest with Trump and Hillary Clinton.

In 2015, Zeleny joined CNN from ABC News where he was their senior Washington correspondent. He reported extensively on the Obama administration and the Republican Party as it gained control of the U.S. Senate in the 2014 midterm elections.

Prior to ABC News, Zeleny was the national political correspondent for The New York Times. He covered the 2012 presidential election and Obama's 2008 campaign to the White House. Zeleny also covered the first two years of the Obama administration as a White House correspondent, and previously covered Congress for the Times.

Before The New York Times, Zeleny was the national political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune where he covered the 2004 presidential campaign and the first term of the Bush administration. He joined the Tribune in 2000 as a reporter on the Metropolitan desk in Chicago, where he was a member of the reporting team that won a Pulitzer Prize in explanatory journalism for documenting gridlock in the nation's air traffic system.

Zeleny, a graduate of the University of Nebraska, began his journalism career at the Des Moines Register and is a native of Exeter, Nebraska.