Cutting through the Clutter: the significance of the presidential reporter
Elaine Godfrey | 2013 Sidey Essay Winner
"They are not as tall or articulate as you think they should be. And they're not super people, so that is a bit of a letdown. Then you begin to understand, though, when you write about them as I have, how vital they are to the American system." These words were spoken by esteemed political journalist Hugh Sidey, in a suprising commentary not on the greatness or the majestic qualities possessed by the holder of the presidency but the rather unimpressive way in which he appears to an in-the-flesh observer.
Sidey worked for Time magazine, reporting on the role of the commander-in-chief, for nearly four decades; he covered every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush – and knew each of them well. His years at the White House were spent observing the world's most powerful men, getting familiar with them, and earning their trust. This was the nature of his success. Hugh Sidey was able to do more than simply understand the role of the presidency in American government; he made it his goal to truly understand the president himself and to see him, first and foremost, as a human being.
In a 2002 article for Time, Sidey referred to his observations of President John F. Kennedy during a long and grueling inauguration day, saying that despite his severe back problems, Kennedy "never faltered." Sidey went on to describe the president's enthusiastic "skipping" up the White House steps and his fondness for Sinatra. In the same article, Sidey recalled travelling with President Kennedy during an overnight flight from Wisconsin to Seattle. He explained Kennedy's complicated pill-taking routine, and described a rather intimate moment when had woken to the president urinating in a cup. "[Kennedy] grinned," Sidey wrote, "and nonchalantly explained that it was the effect of his pills." This detailed coverage of the president wasn't some invasive scheme to muckrake or humiliate; it was a way to unmask the country's most important figure, a way to make him accessible – to make him real.
Sidey's purpose was to report on the position of the president in a personal, honest way, ensuring that his fellow Americans could experience the life of each Commander-in Chief firsthand. His motive was to share the story of the presidency and to relay to the American people his knowledge of the man behind the desk. Sidey's approach to covering the presidency was notable and unprecedented, and its importance remains great.
This facilitation of communication was, and continues to be, the main role of the presidential reporter. A reporter's investigation into the inner workings of government and observance of the execution of political power, communicated clearly, is what the American public needs to stay informed. Because after a president is inaugurated, communication between the man and his constituents becomes all but exclusive to participation in the establishment of representative government; gone are the days of casual interactions and town hall rallies where any man or woman could shake a candidate's hand, discussing tax reform over potato salad and cold meat sandwiches. Presidential reporting allows the American people to continue the dialogue, regardless of their proximity to the capitol. Citizens are able to stay informed about presidential actions as well as get to know the Chief of State and the first family on a personal level.
According to Sidey, the presidency is by far "the most sought-after, analyzed and scrutinized" public office in the world; therefore, the main issue in reporting on such a position is, quite understandably, media muddle and untruth. During Hugh Sidey's reign as the key presidential correspondent, the main media outlets were, by today's standards, relatively few; they included radio and television, in addition to print media. Today, not only are there talk shows devoted entirely to presidential coverage as well as interest-based print and radio media outlets, but America is seeing the rise of a completely new era of communication: the development of social media and the blogosphere.
While particular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter allow for increased communication between people across the globe or between constituents and their favored political party or activist group, it has become enormously simple to generate and spread untruth. This same criticism can be said about the use of blogs and personal websites; the American people – as well as people all over the world – are more connected now than ever before. But because of things they read or see on the World Wide Web, rumors and partisan reports of politicians and governmental actions are circulated, causing ignorant opinions to be formed.
We live in a world where biased and interest-based media groups reign supreme, a place where we are constantly smothered under the weight of slanted advertisements, and where absurd commentary by radio talk show hosts clutters the perception of government for their average American listeners. This environment doesn't encourage clear communication or debate of any kind, let alone effective politics; nor is it fair for those in political power who are trying to hold a two-way conversation with their constituents. This is where the importance of accurate presidential reporting comes into play, where political journalists like Sidey have made their name.
While technological advancements and innovation in communication have made monumental changes to the manner in which we receive and understand political and presidential news, the mission of journalism has not changed; with this statement, Hugh Sidey would be the first to agree.
The motive of a journalist has always been, as a professor of marketing strategy might say, to "cut through the clutter." They are motivated not simply to reach a few readers, but to provide an audience with accurate information. The purpose of journalism is not to convince or persuade on behalf of a certain viewpoint or tarnish a particular politician's reputation; journalism is merely the representation and delivery of truth. Good journalists arm their audiences with fact and balanced research, allowing people to protect themselves from the many voices aiming to sway them in pursuit of their own interests, as well as enabling people to come to their own conclusions.
The establishment of honest, straightforward communication is necessary for any kind of journalist to effectively reach people through the chaos of today's media-cluttered world. A talented journalist must take it upon himself to create a picture, an accurate image of his subject, as Sidey did with every one of his presidential "portraits." He must paint using his words, his fact-based perceptions, and his own personal experience. His aim will be to represent every detail as accurately as possible, the final depiction including each handsome feature – alongside every flaw.
Now, more than ever, the political journalist must to strive to his job well – and to do it with the understanding that nothing in the world of politics is unblemished; he must recognize that as long as human beings are involved, there will exist both certainties and mistruths. Political journalists will have to work harder than ever in their search for the truth, and they must remain persistent in helping the American people distinguish fact from fiction – to both educate and empower. Today's political journalist must maintain an unbiased perception of his subject, but at the same time must consistently check himself to make sure that the news he presents contains more than just traces of life; he must follow Hugh Sidey's example and show the human side of politics, the true nature of the men and women representing the citizens of this country. And if he fails to reach the American people, to relate to them, and to educate them through the sharing of fact and experience, the political journalist will have failed in his most important purpose.
Hugh Sidey was a man who sought to bring about truth, to explain the work of the president in terms that the American people could understand. He wrote to not only inform, but to tell a story, entertaining us with his subtle wit and mesmerizing us with his close proximity to those in power. But his purpose in writing wasn't to speak of the majesty of the presidency or even simply to portray politicians as inherently human. Sidey wrote to facilitate communication and to establish a connection, amazingly making the most powerful man in the nation accessible to all Americans, regardless of age, profession, or status. Hugh Sidey understood the goal of all true political journalists: to report honestly and accurately the nature of the world, to reach an audience with that discovered truth, and to relate it to them with language that is both human and relatable, without imposing judgment upon them. To cut through the clutter.