Featured The Life and Presidency of Herbert Hoover
The 2016 White House Christmas ornament honors the administration of the thirty-first president of the United States Herbert Hoover, who served...
Having a meal with a presidential candidate on the road or taking a swim in an indoor pool with the president is not something even journalists with access to the most powerful office are always able to do. Time magazine correspondent Hugh Sidey was one of the few people to do so with presidents regardless of their political affiliation. Being on the frontlines of events that defined the course of history was only a perk for someone like him who could enter the inner sanctum of the presidency.
In The Portraits of Presidents, Sidey writes about his insights obtained from closely covering nine presidents in the White House.1 Clearly, he was one of the few journalists who could get so close with presidents and report in his unique style. In his writing, he seems to have effortlessly cut through the trappings of the office that make the presidency seem disconnected. He could report on their strengths and inadequacies, well supported by his recollection of specific events.
Sidey’s reporting on the presidency combines the most important facts with first-hand insight and often laced with humorous anecdotes. It becomes clear that the writer spent a lot of time close to the presidency and has a way with his words. His use of metaphors seem to add life to events that occurred in the near past. In an article published during the initial Watergate days, Sidey wrote, “Even allowing for the partisan scandalmongering in which all candidates traffic, the nation's political air seems especially contaminated this year —thick with the taint of special favors, dirty money, interparty espionage, intimations of official power in the service of corporate friends. Nothing has yet been proved exactly, but the cloud hangs over Washington like an inversion.”2
Despite his close proximity with presidents, Sidey did not mince any words when it came down to the facts. Close as he was to the presidents, he remained an objective journalist. In a joint byline article explaining Reagan’s response to the Iran-Contra scandal, Sidey wrote, “Even now he seems unable to appreciate that this action shattered & his own vehemently proclaimed principle of never paying ransom to terrorists...What is not readily recoverable, once it has been lost, is trust.”3
Sidey was part of a different media environment. News organizations occupied a special place in the latter half of the 20th century. The media acted as a catalyst and witness to the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw could count on the trust of millions who tuned into the evening news.
That era now seems to be long over. According to a recent Gallup poll, more than half of Americans do not trust in the media's ability to report "the news fully, accurately, and fairly”, a new all-time low.4
Political reporting is a major part of this growing distrust. Cable news anchors and even broadcast news anchors are now perceived to be biased one way or the other. Common people feel they have lost their voice in the White House, one they could trust to explain everything that is happening in the presidency. This distrust has to do with some fundamental changes in the relationship between the executive and the media.
The institution of presidency looms large over the president. Every word, gesture and move by the president is scrutinized to form a narrative and packaged for the never ending news cycle.
Given the importance of this office, it is probably not a coincidence that some of the biggest news stories in American history have involved presidents and the presidency.
However, challenges of reporting on the presidency are evident in the reporting seen from the White House in the last few terms. In a Rolling
Stone article, former White House assistant press secretary Cherlin Reid writes, “Press photographers have loudly groused about a lack of access to the president – the White House often prefers to send out its own official shots – and reporters covering the beat say they are generally kept in the dark about what the president is actually doing.”5
Even more serious is the perceived animosity. Until very recently, New York Times reporter James Risen was involved in a legal battle with the Bush and Obama administrations for over seven years. Risen was asked to reveal sources used in his reporting on an intelligence operation against Iran’s nuclear program. According to a report, under the current administration, “the Justice Department has brought more charges in leak cases than were brought in all previous administrations combined.”6 Observers have talked about the chilling effect of this sort of crackdown on high-level leaks.
Messages from the president are well-scripted and social media posts are curated. Press corps and advisors shield the president from tough questions during press conferences. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review says given the number of press conferences and other press interactions, “the relationship between the president and the press is more distant than it has been in a half century.”7 It is possible to see how Sidey might have benefitted from his close relationship with the presidents and off- the-record talks. It is doubtful if as many reporters have a chance to do that today.
It is hard to recall an inspiring moment in a presidential press conference within the last few decades that could match John F Kennedy’s spontaneity with the press.
The media has also has had its share of faults in getting to this point. In its quest to gain access, a number of media outlets have fallen into the trap of using anonymous sources. Sometimes, this has led to serious unintended consequences. During the eve of the Iraq War, Judith Miller was able to gather exclusive coverage with the help of her highly-places anonymous sources in the Bush administration. Times editors later wrote that the reports relied on ““information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors, and exiles bent on ‘regime change.”8 Stories using unreliable information from sources were used to build up support for the Iraq War.9
In reporting such events, a socially responsible journalist will consider immediate and long-term consequences. He/she will also be in a position to understand the ethical stakes and commit to the pursuit of the truth while remaining aware of the influence of powerful interests.
As professor Daniel Schwarz writes in the Huffington Post, “Anonymous sourcing opens the gates for the reporter and editor to find someone who agrees with their own opinions. Often reporters and officials use one another in a complicit relationship where truth takes a backseat to convenience- officials get their views out, reporters get a scoop.” 10
Aspiring print journalists today might wonder: what is the key to practicing journalism as it was done a few decades ago? It all comes down to the basics taught in an introductory journalism class: forming long-lasting relations on the beat and tactful research for a story. For journalists like Hugh Sidey, covering the presidency was not an exception to this basic lesson. It is hard to believe as many journalists today have intimate access to the presidency as Sidey once had. His ability to maintain good relations and observe details to form a narrative made him a fixture in the White House correspondents.
The social responsibility of any journalist lies in the belief that the work of a journalist is not just for the sake of an employer. The resulting product has a redeeming social and political value. Thus, a journalist is accountable to the society has a whole. The tide of media coverage and public opinion can easily change the course of history.
We can see how Sidey followed his version of social responsibility while covering the White House. He saw that political institutions are only a reflection of social norms. “Perhaps in some strange way the absence of outrage signals a slightly weary realism about how politics and other enterprises really function—a psychological intersection of public and private moralities...Somewhere in all of this huge indifference, the principle of moral leadership may be sinking without a trace,” he wrote during the Watergate revelations.11
When it comes to acting as the watchdog over those in power, nothing is probably more important than the ability to observe, connect the dots and look at the bigger picture. A reporter’s instinct keeps him/her doubtful and is thus persuaded to follow the story behind the press release or the public relations official. Otherwise, Watergate would end up as nothing more than a burglary story. Following up with dead ends and pursuing the truth made the reporting iconic in the last century.
Audience members are today thus skeptical of an online only news service’s ability to thoroughly pursue such time-intensive stories as reporters are supposed to pursue click bait stories which guarantee a high number of clicks in a given time.
Even in this seemingly pessimistic scenario, the rise of the digital media on Internet has made us think of what should journalists do and what is really newsworthy. Evidently. There is unprecedented value in allowing public access to the sea of information.
There is still room for creating an opportunity in real reporting. Now more than ever, people can look towards the media for insightful stories that do not just rephrase press releases or quote tweets. Stories that get to the heart of issues beyond partisan differences still make a difference. The extent of surveillance by the National Security Agency brought to light by legacy publications brought forth a public debate on privacy and the role of the government in ensuring security.
The social media has also been a boon to newsmakers and reporters in different ways. First of all, news makers themselves now have a chance to directly get their message across to readers and viewers. Secondly, journalists are now truly accountable to their readers. They are no longer hidden behind bylines. Every assertion is potentially subject to fact-checking and the conflict of interest regarding every source can be brought to public light.
In an era of sharing 140 characters and photos with filters, journalists have to rethink how they cover democratic institutions and make the best use of finite resources. After all, the Fourth Estate has to do its best to bring back a voice in the White House.
Varad Diwate is a junior at Iowa State University with a double major in Journalism and Mass Communication and Political Science. Varad is from Nashik, Maharashtra, India. Varad has worked as a reporter, copy-editor and columnist for the Iowa State Daily, the independent student newspaper at Iowa State University. As a reporter for the Daily, Varad covered the Iowa State legislature on student issues and legislation concerning Ames and the surrounding communities. Varad also serves the university as an International Student Ambassador.
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