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Sept. 18, 2012, 12:57 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Andrea Seabrook: From NPR to podcasting, hoping to invigorate congressional reporting

After a decade with NPR, Seabrook wants to get beyond process to cover policy and the structures that determine how Congress works.

After a decade covering Congress for NPR, reporter Andrea Seabrook is branching out on her own to…cover Congress.

Her new podcast, Decode DC, is an attempt to undercut the he-said she-said narrative that takes up so much ink and airtime, and actually report useful information about the business that’s being done — or not being done — on Capitol Hill.

“Newsrooms are so squeezed that it’s almost impossible to cover something that isn’t said. It takes more time. It’s harder.”

Instead of covering day-to-day drama on the Hill, Seabrook’s goal is to dig deeply into policy and produce stories that are slightly more evergreen than you’d find at the top of the hour.

With some seed money from SoundCloud, Seabrook’s podcast can be found on that site, as well as via the rising podcast syndicate Mule Radio. (Mule’s other podcasts are mostly about technology, food, and music, but they seem to be increasingly interested in news; they’re also behind Evening Edition. And Seabrook is friends with some of Mule’s founders, she said, which led to the connection.)

She and Mule are still hashing out how to divvy up the sponsorship money — each episode will have two $5,000 spots for sale. Seabrook’s also planning to air shorter cuts of episodes on a variety of public radio stations, and Decode DC is teaming up with HBO on a documentary about Congress.

The first episode of Decode DC, which went live on Friday, is called “House of (mis)Representation.” It’s a look at the disconnect between members of Congress and the Americans they are elected to represent.

From the inaugural episode:

It’s surprising how few lawmakers I asked pointed out how remarkably different the population of the House is from the population of the country it represents. Just the demographics alone are striking. The country is half women; the Congress is 17 percent women. The country is less than three-quarters white; the Congress is well over 80 percent white. Americans over the age of 65 make up one-eighth of the country; almost half of Congress is over 60. And then wealth? Listen to this: Roughly one percent of Americans are millionaires or better. In Congress, 44 percent are millionaires. So the Congress overwhelmingly skews white, male, old, and rich.

The episode runs 14:28 minutes, and takes stylistic cues from shows like This American Life — though Seabrook says Decode DC follows the model of 99% Invisible. It features lots of music, and is carried by Seabrook’s conversational, explanatory tone. Seabrook says most episodes will hover around 10 minutes long.

Decode DC has had a strong start in its first days, and iTunes ranked it No. 5 among news and politics podcasts as of this writing. Only BBC World Service, NBC Nightly News, NPR’s Planet Money, and Real Time with Bill Maher were ranked higher. And over the weekend, it even reached the top spot:

“It’s a little bit insane, just really shockingly unbelievable,” Seabrook said of the response she’s gotten. “I’m still reeling from how well and widely received it was. It’s kind of like, ‘Oh God, now I have to do it again.'”

Seabrook says that her departure from NPR, where she had “quote unquote one of the top jobs in Washington journalism, with the gold standard of trustworthy news,” resonated with people who are dissatisfied with congressional coverage in the United States.

“Americans know how broken Washington is better than we do,” Seabrook said. “So to have somebody really confirm that, I think, was satisfying for a lot of people. There is a huge hunger for news and politics that isn’t horse race, he-said she-said, red team versus blue team crap.”

She and I met in Washington and spoke at length about Decode DC in the weeks leading up to its debut. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed:

LaFrance: It must feel kind of funny after having been at NPR for so long, because 10 minutes is short for a podcast but long for a public radio story.
Seabrook: One of the joys of doing a podcast after being on NPR so long is getting to be as long or short, not fitting into a space. So the plan is to cut a three-and-a-half to four minute version of the story which can run at the local station, and then they can interview me to talk about how that subject fits in with the local congressional delegation.
LaFrance: You’re planning to work with big and small member stations?
Seabrook: I’m focusing on the big stations at first, and I’m offering it to them for free as long as they say Andrea Seabrook of Decode DC at the top and bottom — because I’m really trying to promote the podcast.
LaFrance: So, uh, how are you going to eat?
Seabrook: That’s a good question. That’s a question I get from my husband. I am living off savings right now and I am going to try and get enough listeners to the podcast to either run a sort of public radio fundraising campaign. I also have a deal with Discovery News. They want to run versions of my stories that will also push back to Decode DC. And they’ll actually pay me for those. I’m applying for grants.
LaFrance: Let’s talk about what’s wrong with congressional coverage now. And I know that’s a big question.
Seabrook: No. It’s exactly the question. We political reporters — and Washington reporters — spend way too much time covering what these people say. What they say is so overrefined and spun and full of half-truths that I feel like covering what they say — or overcovering what they say — does a real disservice to your audience. It’s important for people to know what their government’s doing. There is real worth in that. By doing it with very little analysis, by just repeating what they say, we buy into the deceit. Especially if we vastly undercover what they intentionally don’t talk about. And that’s where it gets really hard. Newsrooms are so squeezed that it’s almost impossible to cover something that isn’t said. It takes more time. It’s harder. It’s so much easier to cover the he-said she-said bullshit.
LaFrance: The mentality of “Harry Reid made this claim about Mitt Romney’s taxes, so let’s get reaction from this person, this person, and this person.” You end up feeding the reaction without verification or substance.
Seabrook: Exactly. And what we should be doing is stepping back and looking at the entire system, not the red team versus the blue team. It’s just silly. It’s just playing into the very game they’re defining. We as journalists need to define the field ourselves. That’s why I’m starting my own thing. I want to define my field.

My frame is that the place is messed up. It’s not on its way to messed up. It’s not kinda getting there. It’s dysfunctional. So we start from there, and then we take a look at how, why, in what circumstances, what to do about it. All these other things spin out of it. At a time when almost nothing is happening — like, actually being done in Congress — I don’t see any other story to be done. I think every story is a story of dysfunction. Anything else is a deception — and feeds another deception, this whole idea that the press is either right wing or left wing.

LaFrance: I see that as a misconception about the population at large. This is anecdotal, but I repeatedly encounter people who say they don’t feel that anyone represents them because they’re not so far to one side or the other.
Seabrook: Yeah. You’re not allowed to be anything but one of the two parties right now. In fact, it’s widely thought by most partisans anyway that voting for any third party or third-party candidate is throwing away your vote, literally, because this is the system you live in. I understand that but only if you assume that the two parties are only and always going to be the way it’s going to work. I’m not advocating for a third party, or anything, really. The longer I was in Congress, the fewer political beliefs I held. I stopped voting in 2004.
LaFrance: No!
Seabrook: No, it’s okay. It’s really okay. I’m one of those journalists who stopped voting because I didn’t want to have a secret dog in the race.
LaFrance: So it wasn’t because you’d given up all hope in democracy and the importance of voting?
Seabrook: No no no no. Quite the opposite. I felt like I had plenty of power. And I was going back and forth between the Bush and Kerry campaigns, and thinking to myself, “What am I not seeing because I might consider voting for one or the other of these guys?” And I thought, “Well, I’m just not going to.” It really freed things up for me.

“There’s been a real theoretical shift, especially among young people but growing, in the idea of what a public document is.”

LaFrance: Since you mentioned the presidential race, I’ve been thinking about this conversation we have every four years. This idea that there’s too much emphasis on the horse race, not enough on issues, blah blah blah — but it never seems to change.
Seabrook: What I would love to see — and what I think could actually happen — is more skepticism on the part of political reporters. Less buying the press release from the campaign about what the news is. Or gaffe gotchas. That stuff is so meaningless when it comes to choosing a president.
LaFrance: “What about your gaffes” made me want to cry. I’ve botched opportunities to ask the right question myself, but that was painful.
Seabrook: It just perpetuates the problem. If they weren’t competing against each other to get those gaffes first, all that energy could go toward something else. But it’s journalism. You’re trying to get the news out first. The question is, “What is news?” The answer to that has become so wrongheaded. I wish people would tell the substantive story and the gaffe would be a side note, a funny water-cooler thing, instead of the gaffe supplanting the substantive story.
LaFrance: You talked about wanting to get away from the he-said she-said. Can you imagine scenarios in which what someone says and the back-and-forth would actually drive a substantive story?
Seabrook: Yes, and I’ll probably do a whole episode on the mechanics of Paul Ryan’s budget.
LaFrance: That would be helpful. With budget stories, there are always so many questions about which figures to use, what baseline to look at, and so on.
Seabrook: Yeah! I mean, there’s so much bullshit. There’s so much blather. I’ll probably do a primer story about budgets. Basically what I’m talking about is policy, when it comes to actual things that could actually happen. I could also see talking about the politics — what he said or what she said — in a sort of meta way. Talking about talking about it. I plan to do a bit of that sort of abstraction.
LaFrance: What are some other policy areas you’ll dive into?
Seabrook: I want to talk a little bit about the transition of the federal government from paper to digital. That’s something I’ve worked on for a few years. There’s been a real theoretical shift, especially among young people but growing, in the idea of what a public document is. It used to be that a public document meant anyone could go ask to look at it. Now we think about a public document as something that’s accessible online anytime anywhere. That was a really shift for a huge bureaucracy. It’s got really important ramifications. It leads to some pretty exciting ideas.

“It took me a year and a half before I realized that I had no idea what was going on every day, that what appeared to be going on had almost nothing to do with what was actually going on under the surface.”

What else? Everything is so driven by the budget arguments that it’s hard to think about other policy implications because the budget is everything. Talking about what we can and can’t fund is talking about everything that the government does.

LaFrance: What will you be able to do now that you weren’t able to do at NPR?
Seabrook: Here’s the main thing, the reason I had to leave NPR to start this: My editors on the Washington desk, who are top-notch journalists, would have loved any one of the stories that I just told you about. But they would not have been able to free me from everything else I had to do to keep our shows on the air.

It’s natural for a news organization that’s based in D.C. to think, “Well, we’ve got to have some news today, what’s going on on Capitol Hill? What’s going on in the White House?” This is our nation’s government. Unfortunately, though, for an organization that is as carefully funded and as efficient as it can be, it’s very difficult to have a reporter just working on big, thinky, abstract what’s-going-on-here pieces. There’s a devil’s bargain in it. Does NPR want to be the AP of the radio and report everything that happened every day? Or does it want to make its mark in thoughtful analysis? They’re trying to balance them, which it does a pretty good job of, but I wanted to do only this one thing.

In my wildest dreams, I would love to hear that some reporters and some listeners thought about politics and government in a different way. If listeners think to themselves, “I shouldn’t buy into that just because I agree with one party most of the time. It doesn’t mean they’re right about this one thing.” The parties have managed to channel that within their loyalists. They’re manipulating you. They are manipulating you. That is what they are doing. If I could get people to just pay attention to the issues, and forget the politics, I think we as Americans would gain power. We take power back by refusing to be brand loyal to one party or another.

LaFrance: One of the things I notice is the willingness some reporters have to sit down in an interview or stand by in a press conference and let an official have his or her say without being willing to interject, politely, and say “You know, that’s not the case,” or, respectfully, “You’re mistaken about that.”
Seabrook: Yes. I would love to see people drop the false balance of having this many Republicans and this many Democrats in a piece. There are times when what one person says is true is true. And it’s okay to call someone out. It’s okay to say, “John Boehner says the budget would work this way, but it doesn’t appear to be that way within the language.” Questioning someone in an interview is great. Reporters need to hold them responsible and not just allow them to say, “Oh, it’s the other party that’s stopping us from doing something.” That’s just playing into the red-team blue-team thing. Just say: “With all due respect, sir, Americans expect all of the lawmakers to get things done, regardless of the party they’re in. So tell me: Why hasn’t the Congress done anything?”
LaFrance: When you think back to your first day reporting on the Hill, how much has your outlook changed?
Seabrook: I came to Congress thinking it was the most awesome place in the world. The idea of it is brilliant.

It took me a year and a half before I realized that I had no idea what was going on every day, that what appeared to be going on had almost nothing to do with what was actually going on under the surface. The stories they pick for you are never the stories. That’s what I mean by being more skeptical. Just because something’s on the fucking floor, all that means is the majority party picked it to be on the floor so they can have this debate at this time. Don’t buy that. The big story is how they raise the money to do XYZ, the fundraisers they’ve been doing all day.

If every news organization in America said “I’m going to reassign one reporter, I’m going to tell them ‘ignore everything that happens on a daily basis. Ignore it. I don’t want to hear it because it’s all theater.’ I want you to tell me what I don’t know about how it works: fundraising, campaign finance, super PACS, the whole thing.”

LaFrance: Not to mention, that reporter could be a resource for those who do cover the daily theater. All of the sudden you have the context on reaction to a defense issue when you know that member of Congress is getting major donations from Lockheed Martin or whomever it may be.
Seabrook: But we’ve gotten to the point where people feel like they’re not covering the news if they don’t have everything that crosses the fucking wire.
LaFrance: How much do we not know, and how much of what we don’t know could we know if reporters were doing a better job?
Seabrook: I would say a relatively engaged person probably hears about maybe 10 percent of what the congress actually does. Maybe five percent. On Morning Edition, they went to some main street in Florida and there was this guy who said six or seven or eight completely opposing things. Something like “Get your government hands off my Medicare.” Just having no idea how it works. It makes no sense. And you’re thinking, God, how have we gotten to the point where people have so little idea how their society operates?

There are still awesome people who really want to do really good things in Congress. But the way the parties are built and the way we fund elections has completely corrupted the good intentions of any member of Congress. So let’s start with this: Just don’t trust anyone who tells you how you should think.

POSTED     Sept. 18, 2012, 12:57 p.m.
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