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Coronavirus will alter the way reporters like myself cover Capitol Hill. It certainly will in the near-term, potentially well into the future.
There’s a reason why covering Congress has been the best reporting beat around, not just in Washington, but in all of journalism.
At the White House, reporters and producers have been crushed into a booth slightly wider than an elevator shaft in the basement – next to three colleagues. Reporters would shout questions at the president over the whirring helicopter blades. They’d wait for a news conference in the briefing room – and may or may not get called on. Or, there may not be a news conference at all, for months and months.
The TV reporters have done their live stand-ups outside on “Pebble Beach,” with the White House projecting one of the world’s best backdrops. But, they may have to trudge out there in a March gale. Or, bundle up. It could be 15 degrees and snowing in mid-December.
And, all of those presidential trips to Brazil and Ireland and Australia…
Well, a “wrangler” (that’s the official term, and it says a lot) would herd the White House press corps in and out of palaces and parliament buildings. Reporters would do their live reports at 2 in the morning from the balcony of a hotel room – because that’s when it’s news time back in the U.S.
There are press rooms at the Pentagon and State Departments, individual desks and cubicles strewn about. There are briefing facilities for news conferences. But, the access hasn’t been as wide.
At the Supreme Court, a justice may grant an on the record interview in the Lawyers’ Lounge once in a great while. Credentialed reporters could attend oral arguments. Then they’d wait in the press room or outside the High Court when the justices issue opinions.
But, reporting is a different enterprise altogether on Capitol Hill.
Credentialed congressional reporters pretty much have free run of the entire complex. Scribes don’t have to just sit in the press gallery overlooking the House and Senate chambers. Journalists aren’t just curbed in their access to news conferences in the House Radio/TV Gallery Studio or at the microphone stand by the Senate chamber in the Ohio Clock Corridor. Hearings are fine, but it’s that off-the-record conversation with a member, leaning over the dais before the hearing begins, which would provide meat and context to the proceedings.
Reporters have been able to roam the halls of the Capitol, chat up a member off the record by the House steps after a vote, maybe jawbone with a lawmaker getting a haircut in the Senate barbershop.
On-camera interviews with members of Congress in the Cannon Rotunda are fine. But, what really has helped a reporter is forging a relationship with a member or an aide for off-the-record chats. That’s how the sausage is made. Such trust-filled conversations have contributed depth and breadth to stories – to say nothing of context. A reporter may get a sense of which members are struggling with a particular amendment vote, or find out who is coming to brief senators from the administration.
And, sometimes it just helps to watch.
Perhaps a congressional journalist’s most important tool: the power of observation. To paraphrase Casey Stengel, “you can see a lot by watching.”
Aside for brief pro forma sessions with a skeleton crew, the Senate hasn’t met in nearly two weeks. The House hasn’t assembled in large numbers since it approved the latest coronavirus bill a week-and-a-half ago. Members aren’t around. It’s doubtful many will return until it’s time to vote on the next coronavirus measure.
And, this cycle may continue for months. Most aides have been teleworking. Committees aren’t conducting hearings any time soon. A memo from House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving told members and staff “to stay at home and telework where possible.” In an effort to limit how many people were in the Capitol complex, House Building Superintendent Joe Campbell recently curtailed custodial staff. They shuttered dozens of restrooms and asked those using offices to leave trash cans in the hall.
I did most of my live shots from locations on the East Front of the Capitol as Congress wrestled with the last coronavirus bill. This was an effort to social distance. Frankly, social distancing hasn’t mixed well with shoe-leather reporting – for example, following a talkative senator through the subway tunnel to the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Social distancing isn’t great for picking up nuance – like when a lawmaker would hesitate or fumble around for an answer when a reporter posed a tough question.
Instead, few congressional reporters have been near the Capitol right now. Many have been reporting from home in jerry-rigged studios in their mudrooms, kitchens and garages. They’ve traded the prototypical Capitol Hill reporting uniform for something resembling the wardrobe of Angus Young from AC/DC: a sport coat and tie on the top half, athletic shorts and tennis shoes on the bottom.
I spent part of an afternoon last week arranging my own “home studio.” For a bookshelf backdrop, I swapped out titles from my wife’s collection, like “The Girl in Hyacinth Blue.” Now resting on the shelf are a 1998 “Politics in America,” a beaten-up volume of “Deschler’s Procedure in the U.S. House of Representatives” and a copy of “Congress and its Members.” All are on display next to a Lego model of the U.S. Capitol.
But, there’s no substitute for ranging about Capitol Hill, observing, digesting, documenting.
Some years ago, a news director for a public radio station in the northeast told me his station “covered” Congress. Sure. They had their House members and senators on once in a while for interviews. But, the station wasn’t really “on the ground” at the Capitol, observing the subtleties. They couldn’t detect the shaded answers. Listeners may have heard some of the liberal members of their delegation denounce the ideology of the House Freedom Caucus, but they never saw those same members palling around with conservatives on Capitol Hill after hours.
So now, congressional reporters have conducted interviews on Skype, at the whims of communications directors returning their calls. Reporters can’t just waltz up to someone as they walk across Independence Avenue.
Information is harder to pry loose. Subterfuges are amplified.
And, coronavirus makes covering Congress a lot like the other beats in Washington.