U.S. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Collinsville) wants one thing from journalism students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale — “Honesty.”
“I think we want reporters to be transparent,” Shimkus said.
The seven-term Congressman stopped by David Yepsen’s Public Policy Reporting class to talk about his experiences interacting with the media as a public official.
“You’ve got a great chosen profession,” Shimkus told the students. “It’s honorable.”
During his discussion, Shimkus offered his own take on the current state of the media and fielded questions from students, offering advice, personal experiences and his own opinion of some best practices.
While Shimkus referred to the profession of journalism as honorable, he offered a different take on its current tone.
“I always refer back to Abraham Lincoln’s days,” Shimkus said.
Like the partisan papers of that time, Shimkus explained that he thinks today’s papers are growing more and more biased. He also expressed the opinion that contemporary political coverage is more concerned with national stories than local issues.
The critiques Shimkus offered were not to suggest that he has anything against political reporters specifically. When asked if there were any specific traits he disliked in a political reporter, Shimkus responded with a simple “no.”
“I always come from the position that they’ve got a job to do,” he said.
That job, of course, is not always good news for politicians. Asked how he handles getting burned in a news story, Shimkus offered his best practices for dealing with critical media coverage. The strategy came in the form of hypothetical questions that amounted to riding out the controversy.
He asks himself how many people read the newspaper, and, more specifically, how many people read the political stories. Finally, Shimkus concluded, “Don’t pick a fight with someone who’s always going to have the last word.”
Offering an example of his own strategy, Shimkus referred to the Chicago Tribune’s questioning of his decision to leave in the middle of a healthcare speech given by President Obama in 2009.
“I couldn’t lie,” Shimkus said.
Instead, he explained to the Tribune that he had heard enough and decided to go back to his office. In the end, Shimkus said the story lasted only a week to ten days.
The U.S. Representative was candid with other personal stories as well, offering an account of the page scandal involving Mark Foley from 2006. As the chairman of the Congressional Page Program, Shimkus was criticized by the press for keeping his knowledge of Foley’s actions from his two fellow committee members.
Despite the negative reaction, Shimkus said he felt he handled the situation well.
“I think I had pretty good coverage,” he said.
Shimkus explained that he handled the situation by offering to sit down with reporters one-on-one to answer each of their questions in detail. After that, he claimed, it was up to the readers to make up their minds.
Shimkus concluded the class discussion with a summary of what public officials expect from reporters.
“Elected officials appreciate reporters who are respectful, informed and have done their research,” he said. “I think I have a pretty good relationship with the media.”