BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I’m Bod Garfield.
For 14 years, Andrea Seabrook covered the United States Congress for NPR, and now she won’t. Frustrated with partisan gridlock and the daily competitive imperative for sound bites over substance, Seabrook has chucked her job to run a project called DecodeDC, a website she intends to devote to depth, substance, context and all the other journalistic ideals obscured by the obsession on the day’s scripted talking points. She gave an interview to the website politico this week, in which she outlined her reasons for calling it quits, and some of those reasons – are just horrifying. Andrea, welcome to the show.
ANDREA SEABROOKE: Thanks, glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: So, if I understand this correctly, you’re mad as hell, and you’re just not gonna take it anymore.
ANDREA SEABROOKE: [LAUGHS] Yes, you could say it that way.
BOB GARFIELD: I suppose the most attention-grabbing line was, “Being lied to every day.” ANDREA SEABROOKE: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Who’s lying to you, about what, and why?
ANDREA SEABROOKE: Well, when I say I’m lied to, this is not a situation where there’s yellow cake uranium kind of lies. The lies that I’m talking about are just the complete and total disingenuousness of almost everything that’s said all day long in the US capitol.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you give me an example of a story that you filed where you just wanted to, you know, go home and shower afterwards?
ANDREA SEABROOKE: When the Republicans first regained power in the House of Representatives at the start of 2011, we could see this fiscal wreck that was coming at us. And in the very first stories of 2011, I started to describe this wreck coming, and every cut, every piece of audio, every quote I got from lawmakers, it was just nothing. There’s this quote from Eric Cantor, the majority leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives:
REP. ERIC CANTOR: Republicans today were hitting the floor with a first big step towards trying to get our fiscal house in order by delivering on our commitment to cut more than 100 billion dollars from the deficit this fiscal year.
ANDREA SEABROOKE: There are a lot of ways that you can dissect this statement from Cantor, but the biggie there is that the 100-billion-dollar number that he’s giving is only real if you compare the Republican budget to the budget that President Obama had put forward the year before, the budget that was never enacted, that the Republicans never would have considered real in the first place, and yet, they’re measuring their own achievement by someone else’s yardstick, because it makes them look better.
Let me say, Bob, that it takes two to tango here. In the same story, at the beginning of the Republican-controlled Congress there is a piece of tape of Nancy Pelosi with a very short sound bite saying:
NANCY PELOSI: When it comes to health and education, Republicans put women and children last.
ANDREA SEABROOKE: It is a scathing repudiation of real beliefs that conservatives hold to call it like that, and it does not advance the debate anymore than messing around with numbers does.
BOB GARFIELD: You’ve described yourself and your colleagues as having “colluded” in what is essentially an ongoing masquerade. How have you done that?
ANDREA SEABROOKE: By covering what politicians say all day every day, rather than what they don’t say. As journalists, walking into a situation where we know it’s political theater and then recording those words and playing them back to the American people, as if they were news, plays into the game that they’re playing.
As a journalist, when you walk into that and pretend that it’s a functioning system, or at least decide you’re going to cover it as such, it plays right in. It allows those lawmakers to use manipulative language, stretched truths, untruths to communicate through you to their constituents and to the American people. I think the only way to stop colluding with them is to step back and start covering the place from the point of view that it is dysfunctional, it is broken.
BOB GARFIELD: Andrea, you don’t work for cable news where pyrotechnics make for good TV, even if it harms the legislative process. You work for NPR which presumably has no incentive to play this game. Over your 14 years, what have your editors said when you expressed frustration at the pointlessness of it all?
ANDREA SEABROOKE: Well, I want to rush to say that everything that I have learned about being a journalist has come from the amazing editors, producers and other reporters on the Washington Desk at NPR. The reality of that newsroom is that it is very much cash strapped, compared to any other newsroom in Washington, pretty much. And it is about as much as NPR is able to do to cover w – what is considered the daily news and to have insightful features as often as they can get them on.
As a congressional correspondent, it was my primary job to cover the daily news, and the daily news as defined not just at NPR but at any good news organization, really right now, is what’s your government doing, what are they up to, what are they saying. And I understand that very much. It makes total sense, and I did it with great purpose for about a decade.
But I think the last year, starting really with the debt ceiling debate about a year ago, I believe Congress has reached new – I guess we could call them depths of dysfunction.
BOB GARFIELD: New depths of lack of comity, depths of lack of seriousness –
ANDREA SEABROOKE: Well, you know Bob –
BOB GARFIELD: - responsibility.
ANDREA SEABROOKE: One thing about Congress is that if no one is crossing to the other chamber to beat someone with a cane, it’s not the worst it’s ever been, right?
It’s always gonna be a den of snakes and partisanship. That’s part of the fun of covering it. It’s part of what makes it interesting, the great train wreck of American ideas. But when it gets to the point where there is literally nothing in a day I can point to as genuine speech then I have nothing to put on the air.
BOB GARFIELD: Your response is to leave NPR and start a blog to do more in-depth reporting, to choose your shots, to pull away from the chronicling of the political theater and try to get to issues and ideas. But you leave behind an entire congressional press corps. What should they do when they go to work tomorrow?
ANDREA SEABROOKE: I think they should question their own definition of the day’s news. I think they should question every other news organization’s definition of the day’s news. Unfortunately, it’s very common still in the news business for editors to say to reporters, well, they have this story in Politico, oh, they have this story in the New York Times, oh, we have – there’s this story on CNN, well we – we’ve got to have that. And so, it leaves the reporter chasing the sound bite that allows them to construct the story that their editor wants, rather than the reporters who are there every day and know the theater, saying, no, that’s not really that big a deal. It may seem like it, it may be exciting, but that’s not the truth of what’s actually going on here.
BOB GARFIELD: Mr. Beale, it’s great to talk to you. [LAUGHING]
ANDREA SEABROOKE: [LAUGHS] Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Andrea Seabrooke, not Howard Beale, has just left NPR to found DecodeDC.