By Joey Gale and Austin Cannon
Throughout our group’s time in Washington we’ve heard about the pains of those reporting the White House. Even Chuck Todd told us that, if given the choice, young journalists should cover Congress instead of the president. Limited access is the primary problem in President Obama’s press room, but is there a similar problem between student body presidents and university press? How do college journalists and presidents balance their friendship with their professional interaction? Joey Gale is Drake’s student body president, and Austin Cannon is the managing editor for Drake’s student newspaper, The Times-Delphic. They’re both on the #DrakeinDC trip and talked about the above issues and more.
AC: As for limited access, the access I have to Joey is basically the polar opposite of what reporters get in the White House. Over my two-and-a-half years at The Times-Delphic, I’ve interviewed Joey several times on anything from his election to the office of Vice President of Student Life to security concerns around campus. Every time I needed to speak with him, all I’ve had to do is send him a quick email or text, and we’d figure out a time and place to meet. Journalists in general worry about sources returning calls or emails, but I never have to worry when I contact Joey or any other Student Senate member for that matter because they always get back to me.
Now, obviously, a reporter cannot simply text Obama and meet him across the street for coffee and a quick conversation about immigration. And, yes, I know Joey isn’t protecting national security secrets or anything like that, but he could, if he wanted to, disregard the TD and other student press if he didn’t want to talk about a particular topic. But he doesn’t because, I think, he wants to help out fellow students like me. We can relate to each other more, as fellow students, than President Obama can to the White House press corps.
JG: One of the reasons that Austin, and another TD writer like Cole Norum, get uninterrupted access to me is for a handful of reasons, the first being that I trust them. They both started their working relationships with me by covering relatively positive stories. Cole wrote an awesome spotlight on my presidency at the beginning of my term which portrayed me in a positive light, but more importantly the entire senate in a positive light. Austin first interviewed me back during my sophomore year when I had won the VP election. Those first, positive interactions built trust into our professional relationship.
On the other hand, every week I receive several emails and texts from young student journalists asking to write a story and any given hot topic. For them though, I’m a little more on the defensive. I don’t necessarily rearrange my schedule to meet with them. I don’t trust them, I don’t know them. While they may be well-intentioned, I know for a fact I can trust two other writers to tell a story. For Austin and Cole, I move metaphorical mountains to sit down with them because I know they will report a story accurately, and will take the time to understand the issues.
In the student body presidents’ transition binder, there is a whole section on working with the press. To summarize, make friends quickly, share your highlights and support the professional bond. They’ll be good to you if you be good to them. I try my hardest to keep the entire Senate in a positive light. I think most organizations and presidents would argue the same. We are looking out for our livelihood as well as those we work with. I perceive that if there is a positive vibe about what’s being written about us, the Senate will tend to stray away from trouble at the risk of negative reporting. So positivity builds transparency essentially.
In regards to limited access, or as we would say on the campaign trail, “transparency,” those reporting on the outside always want to know more about what’s happening inside. It’s their job for one, but the illusiveness sometimes causes fear and/or anxiety because the unknown sometimes can be scary. I’ll be the first to say we can always be more transparent. However, if the press covered every single thing I said and did, I probably would have grey hair by now. We share what makes us look good — I feel like that’s human nature. But we don’t always share the critical side of the conversation. Why would I intentionally share the things that aren’t working? Well, because transparency says I should. The answer I believe is an equal give and take from both the media and political side for fair information to reach constituents.
We all make mistakes and a hyper critical media doesn’t help. Austin and Cole really do a great job at holding us accountable while continuing to share our accomplishments.
JG: Over the past four years I’ve been in a handful of different positions around Student Senate. Every now and then I’ll run into the awkward scenario where one of my close friends has the task of interviewing me. I have a great example from when I was running for Student Body Vice President two years ago. I learned so much from it and gave me a new a new perspective on how I work with journalists.
Lauren Horsch, the editor-in-chief of the TD that year, was one of my very close friends and someone who I’d consider a mentor now. During the middle of my VP campaign, I was disqualified from the election because of an email I sent that violated election rules. To this day, I consider that one of the most stressful weeks of my college career. Not only did I have to manage the stress of trying to get my name back on the ballot, but explain to everyone who was following the campaign what I had done, and why I was still an eligible candidate. To frame this better, word broke of my disqualification Tuesday night, and the TD went to print Wednesday night.
Lauren, of course, wanted to cover the story. Who wouldn’t!? Campaign disqualifications are juicy news, I totally can understand that. So that Wednesday afternoon, Lauren called me in to the editor’s office, and we closed the door and began what I consider to be my most favorite interview of my college career. To be honest, though, It wasn’t at all fun. In fact, I remember sweating profusely through the whole thing. I had to explain very eloquently to my best friend what I had done, and why I should be back in the race. My favorite part of the whole debacle wasn’t necessarily what I said, but the number of times I had to go off the record and have Lauren turn off her recorder. I want to say it was upwards of 15 times throughout our 45-minute interview. The next day the story along with an hour-by-hour timeline appeared on the front page of the TD. Lauren did a spectacular job at staying objective, while still bringing a critical lens to the peace.
Long story short, friendships and professional working relationships are stressful. After that interview Lauren and I had a running joke of whether or not what we casually talked about was on or off the record. Lauren, if you’re reading this now, our “always off the record unless stated otherwise” clause still holds!
AC: Aw, I remember being a little clueless freshman when that happened. Anyways, I can’t say I am or ever have been close friends with anyone on Student Senate, which, in retrospect, helped me stay objective. It was only through this trip that Joey and I became friends, as we’d had a friendly, but mainly professional, interaction in the two years prior.We did have to juggle both aspects of our relationship while in D.C., however. As you may know, Drake announced its new president earlier this week. I was tasked with handling the TD’s coverage on Twitter as the news broke. I wanted to tweet some of Joey’s comments (he was on the search committee) from the account, so we broke off from our session Monday morning to watch the announcement and conduct a quick interview. We spoke about a couple things that were off the record, but we snapped into official interview mode when I turned the recorder on. It was a seamless transition from friends to reporter/president and back. The whole process took less than 15 minutes.
I think it’s easy to balance the two relationships as long as both parties trust each other. Frankly, “always off the record unless stated otherwise” is an excellent policy to have if your friend is the student body president. Obama and the press is another story. I’m sure he’s had plenty off-the-record conversations with reporters like Todd where he’s going to be considered on the record unless he prefaces his statements as not. But I doubt he considers the press as friends, at least while he’s in office, mostly because he can’t considered them as such. The president has to be more cautious than anyone when speaking to the press, and it’s difficult to foster a friendship in that environment.
AC: The main thing to take away from this is how Joey and I interact is obviously not an exact scaled-down version of Obama’s interactions with the press. Yeah, it’s similar in some ways, but it’s mostly different. For example, I don’t have to go through a single public relations representative to request an interview (even though Joey just told me there is one, whoops). We also run into each other in social settings, which I highly doubt ever happens to Obama. Our relationship is mostly relaxed, while Obama’s White House has a tense relationship with journalists. Sure, Joey and I have discussed important things, but nothing compared to overseeing a nation of over 300 million. It’s like comparing Major League Baseball to Little League — we’re pretty much the beginning level of press/president relations.
That being said, though, we still do things right. I try to ask direct questions, and Joey answers honestly. When I spoke to him about shootings near Drake’s campus, he admitted that their proximity was alarming, while still praising Drake Public Safety’s ability to keep campus safe. As he put it, sometimes there’s no way to prevent isolated incidents like that. There was no ridiculous rhetoric or fake outrage. It was a calm, honest answer that was inevitably proven true.
We’ve yet to run into a situation where I have to interview Joey about a controversial topic. But if we ever do, I expect our on-the-record conversation to be the same as they are now: honest and direct. He understands that it’s my job to get as much information as I can just like I understand he needs to keep certain things out of my hands. This is where the primary difference comes in. Joey and I want to see each other succeed, whereas some of the press in Washington might want to see Obama fail and vice-versa. I would obviously try to report as objectively as possible if Joey was accused of murder or something, but it should be clear I’m not out to get him. Maybe Washington can look at us and ease its collective foot off the gas pedal of hostility.
JG: At the end of the day, both Austin and I are trying to do our school the best we can, just as President Obama and the journalists who follow him are as well. I think both parties have an obligation to ask for and share both the good and the bad. I think our nation has done an OK job at sharing the good news, but an incredibly lopsided job on behalf of politicians at sharing the bad. I feel as though the media is constantly digging up dramatizing small points that inevitably damage the reputation of the political system and the politicians who work in it. The press should report the good and the bad, just as the government should share its success as well as areas for improvement (how political of me to say). Politicians rarely own up to mistakes publicly, though when they do fess up to a mistake, the flak seems to downgrade substantially.
For example, take the U.S. top officials who didn’t participate in the Paris rally this week. Obama and his press secretary simply owned up to the mistake and acknowledged that they should indeed have had someone there. After that, the conversation was over. Obama screwed up, fessed up, apologized, continued to offer support for the French People, and moved on. Take Nixon and Watergate as another example. Imagine if Nixon had not tried to cover up the whole scandal, and fessed up from the start. The outcome still may have been the same,but the way we perceive him in history may be less focused on the poor decisions he made.
I can easily admit, of course I’ve screwed up in my position as president. I’m human. Do I openly admit those things publically? Not as frequently as I should. The humility of accepting fault falls to the wayside when you’re in a position of power. Bad results often are focused at the decision-maker, which makes it even more difficult to swallow. At the end of the day, all you want is the best for the people you work with, and most importantly, the people you represent. Media on a national stage needs to share with the American people what our government is up to, and our government has a genuine responsibility to share its news both accurately, and with some form of humility.
While I may only be working inside the Olmsted Center, the student union at Drake University, I can easily tie a lot of these points together. On a small scale and large scale, we all are working towards a common goal of improving our school and nation. We all have an obligation to the truth, and all need to cooperate as a cohesive group (like ours) guided by the same values. That’s the only way we’ll really be able to move things forward.