Opinions

“Footnotes on the 2020 Caucus: A first-time voter encounters buddy-buddy candidates and rude reporters at the Iowa State Fair” by Anjali Huynh

Anjali Huynh, a 2019 Iowa City West High School graduate, was print managing editor of West Side Story during her senior year. She’s been a Little Village intern since 2018, and has covered everything from politics to a Halloween costume exchange. She will attend Emory University in the fall.

Thousands of people converge on Des Moines every year to eat colossal fried foods, ride rickety machines advertised as thrill rides and gaze at that wondrous creation, the butter cow. The annual two-week phenomenon that is the Iowa State Fair is well-known for its ample supply of pigs, people, meals on sticks and, once every four years, its parade of presidential candidates.

Livestock gets judged in the various barns at the fairgrounds, and candidates get judged at the Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox, a small stage where politicians explain their platforms and pander to Iowans for 20 minutes at a time.

There was no shortage of 2020 Democratic candidates on the first Saturday of the fair (Aug. 10). Starting at 9 a.m., fair-goers could listen to pitches from Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Joe Sestak, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, John HickenlooperSen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

The Soapbox was where I — an 18-year-old Iowa-born-and-raised reporter — chose to spend a perfectly good summer Saturday, sweating to death as I listened to candidates attempt to persuade me of their ability to rescue the nation from certain doom.

My interest in politics, I’m ashamed to say, was born from a desire to get a selfie with a celebrity.

Prior to the 2016 Iowa caucus, actor Josh Hutcherson, known for playing Peeta Mellark in the Hunger Games films, toured Iowa with Bernie Sanders. My 14-year-old self jumped at the exciting prospect of getting a photo with a famous actor and, maybe, the future president of the United States. I knew little to nothing about Sanders’ platform. It’s likely I didn’t even know he was from Vermont. Yet there I was in the back of the Iowa Field House, cheering along with everyone else in the packed room.

The selfies didn’t happen, but the event sparked my curiosity about the political process that unfolds Iowa every few years. In February 2018, I attended another Sanders rally. This time the senator was campaigning against President Trump’s tax-cut plan, and this time I was covering it as a reporter for my high school newspaper, the West Side Story. (And this time, I finally got that selfie with Sanders.)

A selfie with Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2018 — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

As the 2020 campaign season kicked off several months later, I decided to cover the candidates flowing into my state.

Over the past few months, I’ve discussed Trump’s negative rhetoric towards political opponents with Pete Buttigieg, thrown multiple foreign policy questions at Beto O’Rourke and talked my way into the press section at two Joe Biden events. So, it seemed fitting to squeeze in a few more candidates at the Iowa State Fair as well.

Like any good Iowan, I’ve made several trips to the fair in the past, so I was no stranger to the multitude of corndog stands or the rows of geese angrily pacing in their enclosures. What was strange, however, were the hordes of reporters and video cameras lined up in uneven rows in front of the Soapbox.

Despite covering the distance between Iowa City and Des Moines faster than the speed limit on I-80 allows, I missed the first speaker of the day — Gov. Jay Inslee, who had the 9 a.m. slot — but I did arrive in time for the second speaker, Sen. Kamala Harris.

At the Soapbox, the California senator mostly stuck to her usual stump speech. Although Harris’ remarks on stage didn’t particularly surprise me as a reporter or impress me as a voter, following her as part of the press pool after her speech yielded better results.

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Harris was still taking pictures with fair-goers by the Soapbox stage when Rep. Tim Ryan, the next speaker, arrived with his wife and 5-year-old son Brady.

“Can I get a picture?” Ryan called out before Harris saw him. “I’m a huge fan.”

Rep. Tim Ryan and Sen. Kamala Harris meet at the Iowa State Fair on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

Watching Harris’ face light up, followed by her picking up Brady and asking him about the fair, was a high point of the day. It’s moments like this that humanize these celebrity-like candidates, showing that though their differences may lead to squabbles on the debate stage, they can still genuinely care about one another as individuals.

Being rather small, it was easy for me to slip in among the media crowding around Harris. I found myself, an intern for a relatively small Iowa magazine, rubbing shoulders with reporters from ABC, CNN, the Washington Post and other big names. Later, while scrolling through Twitter, I could see tweets about questions I’d heard asked only feet away from me.

When Harris went in search of fair food, I was in the horde of reporters that quickly followed. Armed with a Nikon camera that was significantly less advanced than the ones around me, and a phone doubling as both a recorder and notebook, I scrambled to get a spot as close to the senator as possible.

To be part of the action was a great experience. Though Harris didn’t take many photos with fans or talk to as many fair-goers as other candidates on Saturday, her personality shown through during food-related activities.

As Harris flipped pork burgers while standing next to the Iowa Pork Queen, I was right there, pressed up against the boiling hot grill and able to hear her say, “If I can flip burgers, I can flip conservatives too, right?”

Sen. Kamala Harris flipped pork burgers next to the 2019 Iowa Pork Queen, Gracie Greiner of Washington, at the Iowa State Fair on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

Even though following Harris was remarkable experience for a young journalist, I found myself disheartened by the behavior of the reporters around me. Again and again, they shoved past strollers and individuals in wheelchairs or elbowed innocent passersby as they thrusted microphones towards the candidate. It was clear that they had little compassion for anyone simply trying to enjoy the fair experience.

After Harris’ departure, I grabbed a quick lemonade and waited for Sen. Amy Klobuchar to take the stage at the Soapbox. Klobuchar mainly stuck to her traditional talking points, reiterating her history of “winning every race in every place.” She came across as a bit bitter as she spoke of her lacking a “viral moment” during the campaign so far.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar on the Political Soapbox stage at the Iowa State Fair, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. — Anjali Hunyh/Little Village

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand took the stage a bit later and also repeated her stump speech, which, like Klobuchar’s, included stories of never losing an election and winning over conservative voters. Gillibrand’s most interesting moment came when she recounted how her 11-year-old son Henry joked about voting for Sen. Elizabeth Warren as president at the “Cast Your Kernel” booth, before ultimately voting for his mom.

Henry may have been kidding, but others weren’t. It was clear that fair-goers were excited to hear Warren on Saturday. The crowd for the Massachusetts senator was far bigger than any other candidate’s, with many interested individuals gathering at the Soapbox while former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper was still on stage.

Warren primarily discussed her “wealth tax” of two cents on every dollar an individual earns above $50 million, prompting the crowd to cheer “two cents!” repeatedly. She referenced the variety of plans she plans to pay for with this tax, from funding universal Pre-K to eliminating tuition at community colleges and public universities.

Trying to follow Warren after she left the stage was a major contrast to chasing after Harris, I soon discovered. The press packed around her long before I got there, and I struggled to enter the mass of reporters and patrons. Not only was the crowd bigger, but Warren’s determination to speak with as many individuals as possible heightened the challenge. Any time the senator’s campaign staff tried to move her along, she soon stopped for yet another fan wanting a photo or to profusely declare their dedication to her. Movement, when it happened, was very slow, and it only got worse as more fair-goers realized what was going on and joined the mass of people around Warren.

A fair-goer takes a selfie with Sen. Elizabeth Warren at the Iowa State Fair, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

After grabbing a few lucky pictures of the senator, I resigned myself to the fact that following the still-growing mass of people around her was pointless, and returned to the Soapbox, where Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, the day’s last speaker, took the stage, his speech accented by guitar riffs from Slipknot’s sound check in the nearby grandstand.

Throughout the day, I experienced a lot of cognitive dissonance about what it means to be both an Iowan and a journalist. On one hand, I understood the reporters’ position: this was their career, and they only had moments with these high-profile individuals, so they were determined to make the most of them. However, as an Iowan, I know what the state fair means to so many people, and was unsettled by the journalists willing to set aside cordiality and common sense in their efforts to capture a photo or eavesdrop on a candidate’s words to a young supporter.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren surrounded by the media at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 10, 2019. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

Moreover, it boggled my mind how little the questions asked by the reporters had to do with Iowa or even the candidates’ platforms. Reporters around me were fixated on unrelated current events — every candidate was asked about Jeffrey Epstein’s death — that few of the candidates were well-versed on.

The fair helped me realize the unique position I’m in as both as a first-time Iowa voter and a journalist. Not many young voters can say they’ve met 16 presidential candidates. And few political reporters can say they’ll be among the first to vote in the 2020 primaries.

At the beginning of the day, I’d planned to enjoy some of non-political parts of the fair and, of course, see the butter cow. But after seven hours of chasing presidential candidates in almost 90-degree weather, I was ready to collapse.

I gave up on my plans, and instead I trudged up the hill of parked cars, ready to go home. It was OK, I told myself. Most or all of these presidential candidates will be absent at next year’s fair, but the butter cow will always be there.

Defending my craft

Behind the story:

It is no secret that the news media industry is consistently under attack. From “fake news” claims to overt death threats, journalists have become a target in recent times. As a student who wishes to pursue this “dangerous” career, I was alarmed with the hatred being perpetuated. Thus, I composed an opinion column explaining the purpose of the news media and why spreading truth should be no person’s foe. This opinion was centered around my time at the 2018 Al Neuharth Free Spirit & Journalism conference.

Effect:

“We are not your enemy” was published on Nov. 28, 2018. This column was featured in The Cedar Rapids Gazette and received a “Best of SNO” award.

Story: 

“We are not your enemy” by Anjali Huynh

In a time when the media is under attack, reporter Anjali Huynh explains how a trip to Washington, D.C. showed her why pursuing journalism is more important now than ever.

The gunshots ringing through the newsroom at the Capital Gazette this past summer struck more than five fatal victims. Those shots ignited fear in the hearts of every working or aspiring journalist in the country as this horrific event confirmed our worst fears: the war on the media was no longer a verbal threat but a very real, physical possibility.

Time and time again, the president of the United States has threatened the press. Donald Trump, a man considered the leader of the free world, explicitly said, “The FAKE NEWS media … is the enemy of the people.” These words have since sparked hatred towards a group striving to inform the public on their surroundings. Resultantly, the United States’ current climate consists of one in which others belittle opinions that dare to differ from their own and blatantly dismiss the truth.

Being told that journalism is considered a “dangerous” job would send any sane-minded person running. As an aspiring journalist, I had my doubts about pursuing this supposedly unstable, threatening occupation. After all, journalists are not known for having financial stability, nor for having simple jobs. However, little did I know that the answers to my pervasive doubt lay in a conference that would shift my entire life course.

The Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference is a five-day, all-expenses-paid event in Washington, D.C. that brings together journalists from around the country. This event takes place in June and is named after the founder of USA Today, Al Neuharth. Each year, after hundreds of rising high school seniors from around the nation submit applications, the Freedom Forum Instituteselects one student from each state and the District of Columbia to attend this prestigious event.

Applying was a long shot, to say the least. After all, surely there were far more talented journalists in Iowa than I. Yet two months after applying, I glanced down at my phone one day to see an email with a subject line screaming “WINNER.” Beyond thrilled, I spent the next two months dreaming about having the honor to represent the state of Iowa at a national conference.

On June 16, I entered the Eastern Iowa Airport, bags packed and ready to board my flight. Never before had I flown on a plane alone or attended an event without anyone I knew. Though these feelings were mildly jolting at the time, it was nothing compared to the experiences and people that awaited me in the nation’s capital.

For five days, we heard from the best and brightest of the journalism world: Pulitzer Prize winners David Fahrenthold and Sara Ganim, “Meet The Press” host Chuck Todd, New York Times photographer Doug Mills and former press secretary Mike McCurry, to name a few. And with each new person that spoke to us, I gained more insight on the importance of journalism. From uncovering Trump charity discrepancies to dealing with the aftermath of the Bill Clinton scandal, these individuals saw history happening before their eyes and were the first to tell its stories.

As I listened to these icons, toured D.C. and ate ridiculously fancy food, I pondered my future. I had asked each speaker the same question, regarding whether the Trump administration’s words and actions ever deterred them from pursuing journalism. To my surprise, they answered rather similarly, saying that because we are under attack, it is more important now than ever to be a journalist in this country. Considering this, I asked myself, “Why would I not want to be part of this great legacy of storytellers and truthseekers?”

But what was most instrumental in solidifying my path were the students I met. In those magical five days, I found myself surrounded by 50 of the most talented, hardworking and genuine high schoolers in the nation. Despite our different upbringings and viewpoints, we united towards a common cause of speaking truth and uncovering the untold. In a time where the credibility of journalists is consistently undermined, these students demonstrate the integrity and drive of professionals. Their ambition and ingenuity inspires me to work harder, to pursue my passion even when others tell me I’m crazy. So long as they are out there, journalism will never die.

Since the formation of this nation, the news media has remained an integral part of American society. After all, freedom of the press is stated in the very first amendment of the Constitution. It is considered the fourth estate of government, where people turn to when they don’t know who to trust or what’s going on. For this reason alone, we are not the enemy of the people. It is more clear than ever that the American people need the news. They need the fact checkers, the news writers, the photographers and videographers and all the rest to hold others accountable and to share the voices of those silenced.

When first seeing the Neuharth quote, “Dream. Dare. Do.” displayed on our bright blue conference t-shirts, the phrase meant nothing. Now, it means everything. This advice from Al Neuharth represents what a journalist’s role truly is. We are not fear mongers or vulgar liars; we are human beings that push boundaries and work to make a difference.

So to all the journalists out there, I encourage you to keep dreaming, keep daring and keep doing. The work you do is valid. You are not the enemy of the people. Now, perhaps more than ever, the world desperately needs free spirits fighting to tell the stories that others do not want told.

Call me by my name

Behind the story:

Having a name like “Anjali Linh Huynh” inevitably means others are going to mispronounce my name. It was a simple reality that I had grown accustomed to. However, over the course of my education, I began to notice that many individuals made no attempt to pronounce my name at all, or, if I corrected them, they would revert back to incorrect mispronunciations again. Hearing similar remarks from other classmates with foreign names, I wrote a column on why mispronunciations are more negative than one might think.

Effect:

The original article was published on Dec. 22, 2019 in the print edition of the West Side Story. Students responded well to this column, as many could relate to the sentiments expressed.

Story:

“The name game” by Anjali Huynh

Reporter Anjali Huynh outlines why correctly pronouncing names should be more of a priority in American society.

For many students, the first day of school signifies the beginning of a new grade, the chance to begin a period of educational promise and renewed social growth. While these feelings remain true for me, the ringing of the first bell always inevitably brings forward one thought: How will my new teacher butcher my name this time?

To put it mildly, Anjali Linh Huynh is not a common “American” name. Having Vietnamese and Indian heritage, my parents gave me a name that paid respect to their backgrounds. I have never been ashamed of this. Because my upbringing lacked customary Asian traditions or nearby relatives, I often fell back on my name as a reminder that my ethnic identity was valid.

Yet the same thing that gave me a sense of pride and individuality transformed into a weapon others used against me. Though neither I nor my parents changed my name, others decided to undertake this task themselves. My “foreign” name becomes nothing short of a guessing game, an inconvenient tongue twister for the reader to stumble over.  While my name is supposed to be pronounced “Uhn-juh-lee,” I have been called anything from “On-jolly” to “Ann-jol-eye” to even names as baffling as “Angela.”

To some degree, I understand unintentional mispronunciations. After all, making mistakes is a part of human nature. However, the biggest offense is the lack of effort when it comes to respecting non-traditional names. It is not so much the initial mispronunciations that are disturbing, but rather, the lack of effort involved. Oftentimes, others take a look at my seemingly-difficult name and give up before they even start. Or, after I clarify the pronunciation multiple times, they still mispronounce it until I ultimately feel too defeated to care.

As a result of constant errors, many people with non-Western names, including myself, adapt to a toxic culture of ignorance. This often involves completely changing names to make them “easier” to pronounce. When I said my name at coffee shops or clothing stores, little expressions of frustration or sighs of disapproval appeared, followed by a rude, “And how do you spell that?” Now, I often resort to saying that my name is “Anna” to avoid inconveniencing employees. Similarly, many of my friends westernized their names themselves, going solely by “English names” rather than birth names.

What I came to realize, however, was that by doing such things, we give up a part of our identities solely for the comfort of others. As someone who is already isolated from my ethnic culture, this forced assimilation feels like betrayal. Dismissing name mispronunciations as insignificant or part of the status quo is incredibly ethnocentric.

When names are deemed “too difficult” or “too foreign” to pronounce, what this really means is that others do not care about the individual’s culture to begin with. Suggesting that a name is challenging because it is different implies that people get a pass to blatantly disregard correct pronunciation because a name is alien to them. Continuing a tradition of accepting ignorance and indifference does not better the community; instead, it hinders a potential learning opportunity.

A person’s name is as integral to their identity as the gender they identify with or the color of their skin. It is the first thing people learn when meeting a new person, the first form of identification that people know. The standard should not be having students adapt their names to fit others’ standards or allowing others to continue failing to pronounce names correctly. Instead, individuals should consider the respect they would like to see with their own names and apply it to others.

Being understanding and accepting of other cultures remains a difficult task for many, especially given the current climate in this country. Kindness and respect are attributes that others should be willing to ingrain into their everyday routines. Anyone can adopt these characteristics in a manner of ways through showing regard for other names and building respectful, culturally-aware communities. Simply asking someone to clarify how to correctly pronounce their name can go a long way.

So the next time, dear reader, that you stumble across a name that seems to require a manipulation of your tongue in a manner you think not to be possible, I advise you to look again. Each pronunciation, no matter how seemingly insignificant or irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, does matter. I can assure you that these individuals will be grateful for the time and effort exercised in doing so.