Politico’s Chief Political Columnist and Health Academy Conference Keynote Roger Simon sits down with Health Academy’s Joyce Lofstrom, APR, to discuss a variety of issues, from what it’s like to interview President Obama in the Oval Office to how communicators can help shape the ongoing discussion on health care reform.
Joyce Lofstrom (JL): Tell me about your journalism career . . . Maybe the top 3–5 points how you selected journalism, and highlights from your career.
Roger Simon (RS): I don’t know if I selected journalism or journalism selected me. I grew up in Chicago, where the chief spectator sport was politics. If politics is the system whereby people make collective decisions, journalism is the system that gives people information and perspective so that those collective decisions can truly serve the public’s needs.
I always read newspapers and learned about what government was doing, but I always wanted to know why government was doing it. How did leaders get their information about what the people wanted or needed? And, except at the ballot box every few years, how did the people speak and register their opinions? Journalism played a critical role in answering both questions.
And then there was ego. Mine. I grew up reading columnists and watching journalists appear on television and — like millions of other people, probably — I said, “Hey, I can do that! And better!”
I went to school during the late Sixties, a tumultuous time, and covered mass demonstrations and the civil rights movement. I was hooked on the sheer thrill of reporting on major events that shaped people’s lives. Afterward, along with political reporting, I did foreign reporting from South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt and Israel. I moved to Washington, D.C., where I covered the White House, making frequent trips up Pennsylvania Avenue to Congress. I have covered every presidential campaign since 1976, and have met not only every president since then, but every presidential candidate.
This year, I had an one-on-one interview with President Obama in the Oval Office. And the questions were still the same: how did he learn about what the people really wanted or needed on everything from health care to Social Security to foreign affairs? He lives in the glass bubble of the White House. His contact with ordinary people is filtered and limited. What role does journalism play in bringing information to him and explaining his policies to the people?
JL: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing health care communicators/public relations professionals today?
RS: The biggest challenge is not that the public has too little information about health care, but almost too much. In our mass-media society, controversial discussions are often conducted at the level of a shout. Professional communicators from all sides flood the public with information. How are the public and even lawmakers to make decisions on very complicated matters with so much — often conflicting — information?
The effective health care communicator/public relations professional, today, is the one who has a strategy for cutting through the shouting with a clear, compelling message, one that reaches not only the professional journalist, but the mass public using social media to build a “story line” that shapes the national discussion.
JL: As a political reporter, meaning a reporter covering politics and understanding the nuances of it, how do politics and health care — at all levels — converge?
RS: Health care and politics are inextricably bound. Improving health care is a national problem and requires a national solution, which means a national political solution. You cannot talk about one without the other.
JL: Other thoughts?
RS: Even though it resembles one, politics is not a game. It profoundly affects people’s lives. It shapes our present and our future. And those communications specialists who wish to shape politics have an acute and weighty responsibility. While we all may have differing solutions and responsibilities, we should never lose sight of the fact that what we do is for the public good. Truth, candor, honesty and integrity may not be things we talk about every day, but should be things that shape what we do every day.
For more of Simon’s inside-the-Beltway insights on the future of health care reform and the impact of the mid-term elections, check out the PRSA 2011 Health Academy Conference.
Roger Simon, chief political columnist, Politico, is a New York Times best-selling author of “Show Time: The American Political Circus and the Race for the White House” and a Washington, D.C.-based journalist. Of his many honors and distinctions, Simon is the only person to twice win the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award of Commentary. Simon has appeared on a variety of television and radio programs including “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation,” “Today” and the “Charlie Rose Show.” Simon was also a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight.”