I worked in Cincinnati, Ohio, with Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld and his office. I worked mainly in the office, but I accompanied the staff to nearly-daily meetings with constituents and community members, participated in tours and press conferences, and observed council/committee meetings.
I worked with the two staff members, Jazz and Chris, to brainstorm the City response when there were shootings downtown—an experience very pertinent to our discussion of gun violence this year. Congressman Tim Ryan also held a press conference outside of City Hall in response to the Dayton shooting, and I got to participate and meet him! I also got a glimpse of the wide broach of subjects in which city officials are required to be versed: environmental policy, gun violence, affordable housing issues, among many others. The battle between development and affordable housing provisions was a constant fight I witnessed during my time at City Hall.
Heading into this internship, I had the intention of identifying problems and disconnects within the council and interwoven throughout their relationship to the community. Here are a few of my observations thus far, in brief.
The relationship between the media and the City Council is shifty and strategic, at best. Many reporters for the Cincinnati Enquirer have quotas to fill and, when there’s nothing of true notice happening in Cincinnati, the reporter is obligated to use a little creativity. One such example is the “scandal” surrounding five of the councilmembers; donned the “Gang of Five,” these members have been repeatedly targeted for communicating with one another in text messages. The Enquirer continues to resurface and rehash this scandal which, of course, translates into this issue becoming most important in the eyes of the public. Little coverage was given to significant Council achievements — like passing a $1 billion+ budget — and more is given to objectively less-important problems like the “Gang of Five” or the streetcar drama. Chris, PG’s chief-of-staff, “feeds” one of the main reporters information to write about and subjects that will instigate less drama.
It’s a precarious balance, and one that I wish weren’t necessary. Clearly, the news has to report something, and reporters are hardly to blame for digging and grasping at juicy straws. Little incentive exists for news agencies to present information accurately or at least without skewing relative importance. And even if incentive did exist, some of the more important issues like the budget will not pull in clicks, which can be harmful for the success of the organization. When the media (newspapers, blogs, and talk radio) is the only source of information for a disconnected public, the issue seems hopeless; if media does not portray reality, the public has no other way of knowing what really goes on at City Hall and in their government.
This, of course, is an issue embedded at the heart of national and international politics. Media has somewhat unchecked power in regard to what it feeds the public. But, it is important to remember that this is not a binary situation—often, reality is much more dry than media representation, and the public craves drama. This craving is rooted in biological motivations (see various studies on the amygdala and its response to crisis/excitement), so is it possible to ever reroute a public which thrives on bad news? Although this issue is something I’m passionate about (and wrote about in my Common Application essay), I don’t think that this is a job I would ever want to take on. While it is fast-paced and exciting and you get to meet/correspond with many new people, the politics is often just off-putting. I knew this would be the case going in, but I think that this experience has further cemented in my mind that I will likely not pursue politics as an elected official.
However, this was an incredible summer experience and one that I’d recommend to anyone, whether they have an acute interest in local government or not.