Intro from Jay Allison: One of our favorite new podcasts is Andrea Seabrook's DECODE DC. It approaches political reporting from a fresh angle and we like the way it sounds. Andrea doesn't regurgitate party lines and buzznews. Instead, she flips stories upside-down and pokes at them, or she finds new stories that undermine the standard ones. Rather than ride the daily wave, she dives under it or floats above. That's refreshing and illuminating. She quit a pretty good job in order to do this. In her Transom Manifesto, she tells us how and why she got to this point. In true Manifesto Style, she lays out her principles and measures her work against them: "I had the best job in Washington at the best news organization in journalism and I just up-and-walked away. In the year (roughly) since I left NPR, I’ve danced around my reasoning in several news stories... [but] they don’t really add up to my resignation. The real reason is much deeper than any of those, and it’s all wrapped up in my personal philosophy of life." We're featuring Andrea's Manifesto as part of our sponsorship of her appearance at the Megapolis Festival in New York. Check it out and go to the festival if you can.
Why I Left the Best Job in Journalism
Covering Congress — being one of the people whose soles slowly rub smooth hollows in those marble stairs — is incredibly satisfying. There is always a story. It always matters. And every problem, issue, and topic of our national discussion comes through the Capitol’s halls, from the collapse of bee colonies, to the social cost of cheeseburgers.
Covering Congress for NPR is more than satisfying; it’s a dream job. From the moment I moved in to NPR’s tiny sound-booth in the US Capitol in January, 2003, I was encouraged to follow my curiosity, ask hard questions, pry honest answers out of our representatives in government, and put compelling stories on the air. The public radio audience is the best a journalist could hope for: educated, critical, engaged.
But in late May, 2012, I walked into my boss’s office and gave him my notice. He was so surprised at my resignation that it would be weeks before he would notify NPR’s Human Resources department, or file any paperwork with them, because, he told me, he thought I’d change my mind. And I can see why he thought that. I had the best job in Washington at the best news organization in journalism and I just up-and-walked away.
In the year (roughly) since I left NPR, I’ve danced around my reasoning in several news stories. I told Politico I was sick of being lied to by politicians every day. To Harvard’s Neiman Lab, I revealed my hunger to report on larger, more fundamental issues of governance. And to On the Media I described how journalism’s obsession with objectivity and its ensuing partisan witch-hunt make it incredibly difficult to tell the truth about what’s going on in Washington.
While all of those things are true, they don’t really add up to my resignation. The real reason is much deeper than any of those, and it’s all wrapped up in my personal philosophy of life. This Transom Manifesto is my first real attempt to explain why I left the best job in journalism.
It won’t make any sense unless I describe my foundation. I have a list of rules — principles, really — that I strive to live and work by. I find that, having distilled and written them down, these rules clarify my thoughts and actions, especially when news (and life) is moving fast. They are:
1. Be Kind. If this is the one thing I manage to do, I’ve done enough. Kindness may seem like a personality trait, but I think of it more as a habitual spiritual practice. Being kind has taught me that simple, seemingly insignificant human interactions can be profound. It has opened people and their stories to me. And, perhaps most important to my work, being kind has taught me that I know far less than I think I do. Always.
2. Love What You Do. This is not a passive thing, or a happenstance of trying to do what you love. It is a proactive, daily decision to nurture and seek satisfaction in the work I am doing. I think of it like marriage: sometimes it’s easy and simple. Sometimes it’s a daily, grinding decision to love. And sometimes, when you can’t do it any more, the last act of love is walking away.
3. Keep Your Brain Spongy. This is the fun part. I’m a big believer in feeding curiosity, and offering my subconscious mind a cornucopia of ideas. I read history, literature, and ancient Chinese murder mysteries. I feed the birds, train my ear to identify distinct birdsong, and try to learn the differences between sparrow species (almost all are the same buffy, brown color). I study physics, the latest developments in the modeling of protein-folding, and the genetic underpinnings of personality. I dig big holes in the yard, play and talk with animals, and right now I’m thinking about buying a metal detector. I am never bored.
4. Do the Next, Most Interesting Thing. This is a corollary of keeping your brain spongy, but it requires a very loose hold on one’s life-plans. In fact, I do very little life-planning at all; for better or worse, no career path can hold my attention for very long. So when people ask me how I became an NPR correspondent at such a young age, (or for that matter, how I ended up with a bit part in a Mexican telenovela) my best answer is that I didn’t really mean to. I just did a long series of the next, most interesting things. It’s kind of an informed version of winging-it.
These rules are just the basics. They remind me of how I want to live, and they give a lofty purpose to things that otherwise might seem less important. Like watching birds. (You may think I’m aimlessly staring out the window, but I’m actually accomplishing a life goal! Neat trick, huh?)
The first four Journalism rules are the same as my personal rules above, but they have more pointed consequences in my work.
For example, because I try to Be Kind (#1), I have wonderful relationships with all sorts of people in the US Capitol; from cops and staffers to lunch-line workers and elevator attendants (yes, they still exist in the Capitol). And because of these relationships I often know things that other reporters don’t, like why a certain corridor is being evacuated (the VP is here on a surprise visit), or when House leaders’ really intend to adjourn (as opposed to their empty threats of weekend work-hours).
Because I am always trying to Keep My Brain Spongy (#3), I know all sorts of weird history about the Capitol, from the revolutionary landscape design of Frederick Law Olmsted, to the Italian marble bathtubs in the basement. These things aren’t trivia for me. They form a kind of ghostly conversation in every corner of the Capitol, a conversation about democracy, human rights, tradition, culture and beauty.
But to those first four, I have to add a few more rules; these aimed more squarely at the daily practice of journalism.
5. Tell the Truth. This is much harder than it seems, especially when each political group has its own set of facts. During the endless budget battles of the summer of ‘11, Republicans incessantly blamed Obama’s off-the-charts spending, Democrats just-as-incessantly decried expensive Republican-led wars. But repeating blame is not the same as telling the truth. The truth is, the federal budget situation is much more to blame on everyone and no one. The economy tanked. Banks, and the housing market came close to failing. And the enormous tax cuts — originally signed by President George W. Bush, and then re-upped by President Barack Obama — have more to do with our country’s budget woes than almost anything else.
This rule also requires that I judge the overall impressions my stories leave with the listener. For example, I may do a long report about the challenges of global warming, and then say, “though many conservatives in Congress doubt the evidence of climate change.” The latter may be a fact, but the impression I leave with the listener is that there is legitimate doubt about the science of climate change — and that’s not true.
6. Don’t Say Things You Don’t Know. This one is surprisingly difficult. We all toss around words and concepts we may understand generally, without really knowing what they mean. For example, ‘debt’ and ‘deficit’ are not interchangeable; ‘trial lawyers’ are not all Democrats, and ‘small-business owners’ are not all Republicans.
The point of this rule is much more than basic journalistic precision and accuracy, though those are critical. Politicians (and their expert message-makers) use a whole lot of jargon and shorthand to spin the impression of a logical argument. But if you, as a journalist, unpack those words, really try to understand them, you’re much less likely to mindlessly repeat political rhetoric.
7. Maintain Fierce Independence. Identify the conventional frame of a given argument, and then do your best to throw it out. I’d give a specific example, but there is almost no issue in politics that isn’t a universe-bigger than the left-right split would lead you to believe. In a recent episode of DecodeDC, I interviewed a former Congressman who is a fiscally conservative, socially moderate, openly gay Republican. The Media mostly ignore him because he doesn’t fit the conventional political frame. When we maintain fierce independence, the world of characters, stories, ideas and solutions is infinitely bigger.
8. Listen Hard. This is more than just registering the opinions of all parties involved. Listening hard means really trying to understand an argument, and have empathy for the person making it. Challenge yourself to recognize how your personal experience colors your understanding of an issue. If you’re covering gun control proposals, ask yourself, ‘Do I have any personal experience with guns? Do I recognize that some people’s deep family traditions are rooted in self-reliance and hunting?’ If you’re covering a campaign based on ‘old fashioned values,’ ask yourself, “Who was marginalized when those values were in fashion?” Always recognize who’s not present in the conversation in your head, then try to include them.
9. Report to The People. Your audience is the most important part of your work. I sometimes worry that we’ve forgotten that journalism is a public service. We are here to tell The People what’s going on, what it means, and how it effects them. This includes the responsibility to not tell your audience things they don’t need to know, like stupid, political maneuvering that barely inches a story forward (unless, of course, that’s what the story is about). Reporters are often played by politicians who know that we’re all desperate for a new detail, a tiny scoop we can use to show other journalists how good we are. But our colleagues are not our audience; The People are. You earn your audience’s trust, and you must work to keep it.
You trust us, right?
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Why I Left
Finally we come back to why I left the best job in journalism. Having stated my list of principles, personal and professional, the answer is pretty simple: I got to the point where I couldn’t follow my own rules and continue to cover Congress for NPR.
One big problem is the Congress itself; the place is broken. Not ‘somewhat dysfunctional,’ or ‘flawed,’ or ‘deteriorating,’ but broken. Every process, whether legislation, advocacy, campaigns or elections, is corrupted; corroded like an old, wet battery. Often these processes produce the exact opposite of their intended purpose. Elections protect politicians. Campaigns narrow choices. Advocacy blocks progress. And legislation is a pesky afterthought to the political process.
The broader media environment is also to blame. We have not evolved in our language, our political savvy, and our independence to be able to tell this story accurately. We continue to define ‘news’ as the next wiggle of Speaker John Boehner’s pinkie; Harry Reid’s latest soft warning from the Senate Floor. Whether because of ever-shrinking resources, or ever-growing demands from our editors, we have fallen into the rut of regurgitating each side’s political attacks and pretending that’s journalism. It’s not.
In my last few years at NPR, I found myself more frustrated and bitter by the day. At first I thought it was just the typical jading of the seasoned political journalist, finally setting in for me, too. But then I sought out and found staffers, activists, and yes, even lawmakers in the Capitol with boundless energy, novel ideas, and selfless intent. The problem is, they’re not news. And while my editors would have loved that I report their stories too, I was not to do them at the expense of covering the daily news. Even NPR, the gold standard of modern journalism, did not have the fortitude to quit reporting on the same stupid charade everyone else covers, in favor of a fresh, independent definition of news.
It’s painful to say this out loud, in part because I have deep affection and respect for my colleagues at NPR, especially those on the Washington Desk, with whom I worked very closely for years. I can’t stand the thought that this may be read as a self-righteous blame-session, or that it could sully NPR’s well-deserved reputation for thoughtful, purposeful reporting. The truth is that the values and principles I’ve listed here, the ones that led me to leave NPR, blossomed from my work there, and my tutelage under brilliant and thoughtful colleagues.
But I also see a dire need to do journalism differently, and DecodeDC is my attempt at that. It has become practically impossible in conventional political reporting to Be Kind and Love What You Do. There’s no room for Listening Hard and Keeping a Spongy Brain. And it’s an exhausting struggle to Report to the People and Tell the Truth.
Perhaps I would just go do something else, if the consequences to our culture weren’t so grave. In America today, I see neighbors who distrust each other because of their political beliefs. I see simple kindnesses revoked on the basis of another’s bumper sticker. I see a growing zeal for stubborn and angry politicians, and a rejection of those who are bright, calm, and rational.
I believe these cultural divisions are the result of violence. Not by weapons or fists, but violence with words. The seeds are created by parties and spin-doctors, and then sown by the media. This violence then spreads through towns and neighborhoods and schools and churches.
It is critical that we address Washington’s dysfunction. But in the meantime, to live by my principles, I have to try not to sow those seeds.
I find great inspiration in Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, given at another time when our people were split by a violent, virulent politics. I am inevitably choked-up by Lincoln’s conclusion:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Let’s do our journalism for those better angels. Washington’s problems are still bad; the solutions are great challenges. But we, the media, must not make ourselves the instruments of violence, even as we report on it.