In modern history, there is no precedent in which to underscore the tumultuous, unnerving and trying relationship between that of President Donald Trump and the news media. Past relationships between presidents and the press have offered divisiveness, yet no era quite exemplifies nor matches the challenges presented today. As newsrooms, both at a local and national level, struggle to remain afloat, the ability for the public to access information using digital technology has increased at an explosive rate. It is no longer the imperative of the public to look toward their local newspaper for current events, but rather to their social media. Pair this with a president, who since his campaign, has made it a goal to isolate and demonize the news media through his personal use of Twitter, as well as in interviews, rallies and public events. None of these factors, however, should serve as an influence as to how the news media covers the presidency — integrity, respect and optimism at the forefront of one’s sourcing, reporting and writing, all values Hugh Sidey abided in during his 48 years as a journalist covering the White House.
An Iowa native, Sidey was well-known in the political realm for his deep reporting of the Oval Office, a position in which he served for nearly five decades. Writing for TIME Magazine, Sidey covered every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush. He was best known for his graciousness, wit and “hobnobbing with presidents,” as recollected by Jay Branegan, a TIME correspondent who worked alongside Sidey. As a journalist, he understood the gravity and weight of his words and the responsibility of his position. For both budding reporters and veterans of the field, Sidey’s work should serve as a pinnacle of success because of the quality of his career and impact of his reporting. Imperative to understanding Sidey’s influence, however, is to acknowledge his perception of the presidency as the "the most sought-after, analyzed and scrutinized political office man has devised." While many, both the public and the press, may not recognize these qualities when looking to the current resident of the Oval Office, it is crucial for the success of the people that the press and president take responsibility and abide by the standards in which Sidey has outlined for the office.
Citing no specific incident, it can be noted that the president’s leadership is that of a divisive nature — growing polarization in the political space serving as a wedge between Democrats and Republicans. Creating rifts in regular American life, Trump has placed high-stake issues at the forefront of his agenda — such as immigration, healthcare, taxes and international tariffs — as well as introduced a contentious Supreme Court candidate, Brett Kavanaugh, to the public. And with each political move, Trump’s actions receive focused media attention at both a local, national and international level.
With this attention, Trump then uses his platform as president to spew rhetoric either for, but often against, the news media. Trump tweeted in 2017, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” As a public figure in the highest ranking office of the United States government, the precedent this establishes of how the public should perceive an entire industry designed to protect them from corruption and wrongdoing is almost orwellian in nature. Trump has even gone as far as to call out specific journalists on social media, such as New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman. While it is his First Amendment right be able to, the influence of his office and weight of his words begins to deeply root itself not just in the minds of his supporters but also his opposers. If he can shift the blame from his own actions and that of which his office has devised and instead onto the news media, then the perception of his policies may appear more palatable. I fear that if Sidey were alive to witness, or cover, the changing office of the presidency today he would be disappointed in the continued abuse of power inherent in modern-day politics in leveraging digital tools to bypass the checks and balances offered by the press.
Instead, the presidency and its influence as a global powerhouse should welcome scrutiny by the news media because it opens avenues for change and adaptability based on input by the people. In understanding the unique challenges offered by the current presidency, one can better analyze news judgement and reporting values through the framework of Sidey’s legacy. To do this, a print journalist covering the White House should keep integrity, respect and optimism at the forefront of their reporting.
Sidey was honest about his favoritism toward some presidents over others. For example, Sidey told Washingtonian Magazine in 1996 about his feelings toward President Ronald Reagan saying, “I simply liked him too much.” Today, objectivity is one of the most valuable skills a journalist should have. However, the truth should always be prioritized and that takes understanding and being honest about the internal biases that might influence one’s reporting. Keeping integrity at the forefront, print journalists should always hold themselves to the same moral standards and expectations they have for their sources.
Respect, too, is key when covering the president. Being a journalist requires having balance and when writing about the Oval Office, a reporter must — at some level — respect the individual charged with that position. While respect does not equate to friendship, it rather serves as a baseline empathetic action and effort to help underscore the humanity of those in our respective industries. Respect was a crucial component of Sidey’s reporting-style and more than likely had an influence on his ability to report on and ask questions about who the presidents were rather than just their policies.
Lastly, optimism is a crucial component for a print journalist covering the White House. As journalists, we write about the world because we care about its future. The same can be said for the office of the president. If journalists didn’t care about the future of the American public than they wouldn’t work so hard to protect its present and preserve its past. The news each day can be crushing, especially in a 24/7 digital environment in which the job may feel never ending. Sidey once said, “A sense of humor…is needed armor. Joy in one’s heart and some laughter on one’s lips is a sign that the person deep down has a pretty good grasp of life.” For journalists to understand the gravity and necessity of their role, they must be empathetic. Despite the ad hominem attacks from the president and growing distrust by the public, journalists should remain optimistic that with new and innovative ways to communicate, their ability to begin rebuilding that distrust and addressing long-standing industry issues is now more accessible than it ever was before.
It is no easy task to cover the White House and the office of the president, especially when the press as a collective are being constantly labeled as “fake news” and the “enemy of the American people.” Not only is this rhetoric hurtful, but it establishes a precedent for how journalists should be treated by the public and politicians alike. Journalism was a part of Sidey’s blood and he lived every day as a reporter — curious, empathetic and understanding of the challenges of the world around him. For those who had the privilege to work alongside him, he was “trustworthy and fair-minded” as well as the “iconic insider” to history as it unfolded before him. As mentioned previously, there is no precedent in which to underscore the tumultuous, unnerving and trying relationship between that of President Donald Trump and the news media, writers today are blessed to have journalists like Sidey to reference, who during his 48 years covering the White House was an honest, optimistic and respected reporter.