By Gil Gullickson, 2019-2021 AAEA/Agricultural Communicators Network president
My forays into political reporting have been sporadic. One, though, stands out and makes me empathize with what some of our members who regularly cover agricultural policy have endured the last few years.
I profiled a farmer-state legislator who masked his genuine legislative effectiveness with a routine akin to that of a stand-up comedian. I followed him around the state Capitol for a day, dropped into a café to quiz locals about him, and asked a few questions of a political foe about him at a farm show.
The first two events went fine. The third? Well, his political nemesis didn’t take kindly to my questions about the state legislator. He went on tirade in front of a group of farm show attendees as he screamed about the “lack of integrity” he had to endure from such questions as I slunk off to hide between a couple tractors.
Tragically, this wasn’t the end of the story. A few years later, Mr. Integrity blew through a stop sign at 70 mph and killed a farmer I knew who was enjoying a motorcycle ride on a beautiful August day. That was my main memory of political reporting, for which there has been no encore.
I thought of that story in the aftermath of the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. I’m still trying to process the violence and threats made against our legislative leaders. Particularly chilling was a “Murder the Media” message carved into the Capitol building, and media members whom the rioters manhandled.
The world of agricultural journalism and communications seems far away from this scene. For the most part, agricultural media is still well respected by our farmer-readers. The biggest danger most of us face are swarms of angry mosquitoes being disturbed during a mid-August soybean canopy photo shoot.
To be fair, President Donald Trump isn’t the only U.S. president who has fought with the media. All presidents before Trump have battled the media, and all others following him will also do so. Still, the growing criticism of journalists everywhere in the past few years—both here and abroad—is unsettling. In the past few years, some of us have taken our verbal lumps and epithets of “fake news” over positions at odds with the Trump Administration, such as climate change and trade wars. This phrase even was hurled at one of our members at a national meeting a few years ago, although it was likely that beer-backed bravado prompted it.
I never previously worried about the physical safety of our members. Now, I hope we never have a situation where a story that one our members writes may prompt someone of the “Storm the Capitol” ilk to physically harm them. If you ever feel threatened, don’t hesitate to tell your supervisor or the editorial director of the publication/company for which you are doing work. Tell us, too. AAEA/Agricultural Communicators Network has your back.
The upside of all this is agricultural group leaders have done a good job of condemning the Capitol storming. This bodes well for preserving our relationships and coverage with farmer-readers. Still, the never-ending spiral of conspiracy theories and disinformation is creating myriad confusion for all U.S. citizens, our readers included.
I wish I had an answer for all this. I don’t. The only thing I could think of for this column is a quote Lyndon Johnson often used as president: Come, let us reason together.
This always didn’t work for LBJ as he presided over the United States during the 1960s. Like this period, the 1960s was a volatile time in our country’s history.
When Johnson’s strategy worked, though, it worked magic. Johnson was able to work with the late Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-IL) to convince northern Republicans to pass civil rights legislation while Southern members of his own party balked.
In a few days, Joe Biden will become president of the United States. On the ag front, he’ll have his hands full, as he tackles agricultural issues ranging from climate change to trade. There will be questions about these topics and others, and the agricultural media must hold him accountable.
How we write about these subjects and others will not always be popular. To me, though, reasoning together and reporting facts through tough but fair coverage is one way our industry can respond during this troubled time.