Symbiosis is usually defined as “an interaction between organisms in which at least one organism benefits.”
A common example of mutual symbiosis is the relationship between clownfish and sea anemones. The territorial fish protect the anemones from anemone-eating fish, and the stinging tentacles of the anemones protect the clownfish from predators.
But there also are symbiotic relationships in which mutual dependency can devolve into a loveless embrace, where neither organism thrives.
Such is the often contentious relationship between journalists and politicians.
Politicians need journalists, whether they’re writing for newspapers and magazines, reporting on TV or blogging on the Internet. Without the media, pols are stuck in an echo chamber — planning, pontificating and pronouncing to no one.
They can buy ads, send out mailers and knock on doors — but without real coverage, the public ignores them.
Barack Obama leaped from obscurity to fame in the course of a single, inspiring speech to the Democratic National Convention during 2004, carried live by all the networks and endlessly reported by other media.
And journalists need politicians, not just to criticize and make fun of, but to make sense of our city, our state and our country. It would be hard, even impossible, to do our jobs without smart, helpful and accessible elected officials.
Journalists in Colorado Springs and throughout the state are fortunate compared to those who work in other jurisdictions because so many of our politicians are indeed disinterested public servants.
And that’s not a function of party membership or ideology. Reps. Amy Stephens and Mike Merrifield might be polar opposites politically, but they’re both cooperative and accessible.
Gov. Bill Ritter and House Speaker Andrew Romanoff always return calls promptly, as do the House and Senate minority leaders, Mike May and Andy McElhany — and as do most local elected officials.
But it’s an uncomfortable symbiosis.
Journalists need to have a certain icy disdain for those upon whom they report. We don’t exist to protect politicians or advance their interests. We’re there to report the news as best we can, and that might mean destroying relationships. We do take a certain sour delight in reporting the misdeeds of certain politicians, simply because we might know, by virtue of frequent contact, that they’re pompous, disagreeable windbags — or worse!
Politicians who fear or disdain the media usually take care to conceal their feelings. They might secretly regard us as envious, ill-informed vipers intent upon destroying the careers and reputations of their betters, but they know, as the old saying goes, that it’s not a good idea to get in an argument with anyone who buys ink by the barrel.
And if you choose to do it — well, as Talleyrand said about the murder of the Duc d’Enghien by Napoleon: “It was worse than a crime — it was a blunder.”
At a recent meeting of the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority board, the board members, all elected officials, aired their complaints about the media. The board was considering whether to mail PPRTA’s annual report or enclose it as an insert in selected local publications. Members were eventually persuaded that using the media beat using the post office, but some of them weren’t particularly happy about it.
Springs Vice Mayor Larry Small, the board chairman, argued strenuously against using newspapers, saying that “(some newspapers) haven’t necessarily been supporters of the RTA.” Mayor Lionel Rivera countered by saying that the Independent and the Gazette had written good pieces in support of the USOC, “so I’m feeling a little better about them.”
“So they’re OK about 1 percent of the time?” asked an irritated Small.
The board eventually approved newspaper insertion (including, for the record, the military newspapers published by Colorado Publishing Co., which owns The Business Journal. The journal itself was deemed too expensive).
While board members toyed with idea of punishing newspapers for their editorial positions, they eventually acted rationally by voting for the cheapest and best alternative.
And that, after all, is what elected officials ought to do with the public money that they manage.
We’re fortunate that our particular crop of pols resisted the temptation to stick it to their media gadflies — but we’re flattered that they cared enough to consider it.
As Sally Field might have said, “You dislike me!! You really dislike me!!”
And that sums up our dysfunctionally symbiotic relationship.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.