By Tessa Solomon
Politics is a singular energy in any newsroom. Reporters are subject to the Hill’s many, often unpredictable personalities. A moment’s decision can reverberate for years — as policy averted or approved. So, when Politico reporter Seung Min Kim says, “Every day, any day, in D.C.” is exciting, we should believe her.
Before Politico, where she has spent the past six years, Kim began like most: as a student. More specifically, a journalism student at the University of Iowa and a Daily Iowan reporter. An Iowa City native, Kim began at the DI her freshman year, in 2004 — a significant year for any budding reporter, Iowa’s presidential caucus.
“I barely had an idea how the caucus worked, but I still nevertheless had a chance to go to Des Moines that night in 2004 and cover the John Edwards victory party,” said Kim in a phone interview. “I don’t know if I was bitten by the bug right away, but it was a great experience to have at 18 — which not many 18-year-olds would.”
In four years, she covered courtrooms, school boards, stem cell research, and homicide. Her internships at the Des Moines Register and St. Petersburg Times led to the Star Ledger in New Jersey. After a brief stint at USA Today, she was hired in August 2009 as a Politico web producer. It’s a cross-country résumé, but the conversation circled back often to The Daily Iowan.
“No one teaches you how [to approach interviewees] in journalism school,” Kim said. “But the experiences teach you how to deal with people. These are lessons that travel through on occasion for campaign stories, whether you’re talking to voters in Alabama or officials in Washington.”
Bereft family or students on the street — each was a test in nerve.
“To go up to random strangers, or powerful members [of Congress] you may not know initially — that’s what a lot of us aren’t used to,” Kim said. “Especially for me, I tend to have more of an introverted shell and personality unless I’m in a situation I’m comfortable.”
Still, Kim said, she is indebted to those early years and uncomfortable interviews.
“This is why I say I owe my dream job to the DI and the professional experience I was able to get. You learn from your mistakes.” The DI is distinct among college newspapers, offering, as she puts it, a “buffet of options of interests.”
Interest requires cultivation. Kim’s the rare few, though, whose curiosity was planted early and firmly.
“I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was 12 years old,” she said. “I took AP Gov’t [in high school], but I didn’t think I would get involved in political journalism right away. I didn’t come from an especially political family. It’s not like we talked about all the ups and downs of the Clinton White House.”
Highlights come into focus: Johnson County court cases, systems and administration of law. Maybe, she joked, there is a secret lawyer hiding in her. If so, that lawyer hasn’t retreated far inward; last year Kim covered high-profile Supreme Court cases, from Grassley to DACA.
Half the workday, though, is usually inside the Capitol.
“What’s so unique about Congress,” she said, “Is the level of access we get to these very powerful people. I could be turning a corner, heading to the bathroom, and run into Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.”
It’s quite an image: notepad in hand, recorder on standby, on her feet for hours, ready for influential faces behind every corner. Prepared, she said, to “always pivot.”
“Journalists have always been subjected to the whims and unpredictability of the news cycle — it’s become especially truer in the age of Donald Trump.”
To the public, the relationship between D.C. and news media is depicted as hostile. She chooses a different description: adversarial.
“In the hundreds of interviews I’ve had with members of Congress, I can name a lot who genuinely like the media, even if they do get rankled with our political coverage. But for the ones who don’t, [the reporter] has to remember whom you ultimately serve.”
That thought touches on a discernable theme in the responses concerning her work: the responsibility of fact. Not that she, or any other political reporter in Washington, is a faultless crusader. She spoke of handling “truth” matter of factly.
“Explain context, be fair, represent every viewpoint that needs to be done,” she said. “The fundamentals of fair reporting don’t change.”
It’s the journalist’s job requirement. Or, it should be.
At the 2017 Lucie Awards, photojournalist Larry Fink commented onstage, “History eats us alive.” Journalists, he continued, have an exclusive position in that consumption. Kim, in retrospect, seemed to run parallel to his idea.
“The adage is true,” she said. “Journalism is the first draft of history.” This past summer, Sen. John McCain voted “no” to replace the Affordable Care Act. On TV, his “thumbs down” was deafening. Kim, on assignment, witnessed it ringside. She recorded details — the atmosphere, the whispers — that are easily fleeting.
“There have been moments this past six years,” Kim said, “when I have felt I’m on the front row of history.”