For over 30 years, Andrew Taylor covered Congress. He watched the legislative branch become less and less capable of fulfilling its core functions. He watched an ever-shrinking press corps come under increasing pressure to produce “scoops,” regardless of whether those scoops held up, or if the reporters were being played.
So after taking a leave in late January from his job with the Associated Press, he decided not to come back.
“The whole ecosystem is just sort of breaking down,” Taylor told me during a phone interview. “And it’s happened over the course of time. For me, if I go from year one to year 30, I see an entirely different organism to cover and in almost every facet of it, it’s not as good.”
A big part of the problem is that modern-day Republicans refuse to govern. “Fifteen years ago, there was a far higher percentage of members of Congress, particularly Republicans, who were more serious about legislation and policy. They tried to learn the issues, rather than use them as a political weapons,” Taylor said.
But it’s not just that. “The different institutions that are supposed to produce fodder for serious policy journalists are just sort of failures,” Taylor said. In particular, the once-powerful congressional committees – where complicated legislation was once debated and drafted, where bipartisan investigations once set the national agenda, and where chairmen and journalists once had close and mutually beneficial relationships — “are not really functional”.
The demand for clickbait
And for the press corps, there’s the insatiable demand for clickbait. Taylor decried the “scoop culture” and the incentive structures set up by “inside-Washington news outlets” that are producing morning newsletters, mid-day newsletters and evening newsletter, on top of everything else. “They send you those newsletters regardless of whether or not Capitol Hill or Washington in general are delivering the goods,” Taylor said.
The result is that reporters and editors exaggerate the significance of relative non-events. They rush madly after deceptive talking points and hype conflict, rather than focusing on the big story, which is how little Congress actually does.
Consider the recent coverage of the inane debt ceiling drama. I wrote last week about how ridiculous it is for reporters to “both-sides” this story, given that it’s been entirely ginned up by the Republicans. But Taylor’s concern was different. Calling attention to this Washington Post story by Tony Romn, as an example, Taylor told me: “It overhyped a sense of crisis.”
“The outcome of this week is pretty predictable,” Taylor said on Monday. The Republicans will filibuster, then the Democrats will agree to pass a continuing resolution without the debt limit language — in time to avoid a government shutdown. And McConnell will make sure that sometime before the debt limit is hit and money runs out, Democrats have a chance to vote on it. “It is all theater so far,” Taylor said.
“I feel pretty certain that most of the people covering it probably know that’s the most likely result.”
But in the meantime, the beast must be fed. The clicks must go on.
Ironically, Tony Romm, the author of the Washington Post article that Taylor gently mocked, posted a tweet on Wednesday that validated Taylor’s critique of the sad state of the congressional reporting:
“[E]ntire news cycles pretty much hinge these days on a weird sort of congressional kremlinology, which pretty much consists of trying to decipher incredibly poorly phrased sentences for their actual meaning,” Romm wrote. He continued: “except the joke is that actually few of the sentences have any deeper meaning and the entire exercise is a futile one in the first place.”
That’s just like Taylor put it to me: “People were looking to find meaning in news events that didn’t really have as much meaning.”
Another source of despair for Taylor is the steep decline in Washington bureaus that serve as outposts of daily newspapers throughout the nation. “I think one of the overarching problems is that the loss of local media means that there’s less accountability for most members of Congress,” he said. “The members of Congress who were once held accountable to these news organizations in their districts and states now have no hesitation to make up alternative realities.”
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan profiled Taylor on September 18, which is how he came to my attention. Sullivan wrote that he “leaves the profession doubtful that traditional, objective-style journalism is up to the job of covering today’s politics and government.”
She quoted Taylor as saying: “The rules of objective journalism require you to present facts to tell a true story, but the objective-journalism version of events can often obscure the reality of what’s really going on.”
Taylor told Sullivan that giving “both sides” an almost equal say “sanitizes things.”
But in his interview with me a few days later, Taylor said he still generally supports the objective approach to journalism.
“I believe objectivity is still the best way to retain credibility with a broad swath of the public,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s a better solution. Certainly in the case of the Associated Press, they are trusted by both sides and it’s a very valuable, essential organization.”
There’s a raging debate over what “objectivity” is, of course. Some think it means treating both sides equally, regardless of whether one may be lying or delusional. Some think it projects a white, male, centrist viewpoint as the norm. For New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, it’s basically: “Let somebody else call it a lie.”
The way Taylor practiced objectivity, he said, did not mean doing mindless stenography for liars. “I would never quote someone telling a lie unless I also revealed the truth,” he said.
But his preferred solution was not platforming liars in the first place. “My approach to people who say lies is not to quote them,” he said, “because if you want to say somebody is lying you first have to repeat the lie and then debunk the lie. And that might not be information that is worth 150 words in a 700-word story.”
Then again, he acknowledged, a devotion to objectivity also means “you can be manipulated by message makers in Washington.”
The occasional fact check doesn’t make much of a difference, he said. “The media does a great job of fact checking and all that,” he said, “but it just doesn’t seem to be affecting people’s behavior.”
Taylor said he wishes reporters were allowed to slow down. “I think the fast pace that the internet demands of reporters makes them prone to putting out stories that aren’t necessarily fully baked,” he said. “It has worn the system down, I think.”
Ideally, reporters wouldn’t have to react to every provocation. “Politicians know that through Twitter or some of the campus publications [The Hill, Roll Call, Politico, etc.] they can affect the narrative. Simply responding to a lot of that typically does not produce great results,” Taylor said. “There’s too much emphasis on clickbait — about the crazy things that Marjorie Taylor Greene says.”
But at the end of the day, Taylor said, it wasn’t the state of journalism that made him leave his job in despair. It was the state of Congress.
“If it wasn’t for those two senate races in Georgia, we would have complete dysfunction,” he said. “And the Democrats still may not be able to do what they’re hoping to do. But this relative burst of activity is going to be short-lived, and then it’ll be dead zone again.
“My point is that like global warming killing off coral reefs, I don’t think it can be fixed. I think it’s too far gone. And that’s really upsetting.”
(This, hopefully, will be the first in a series of “exit interviews” with newly or not-so-newly departed members of the Washington press corps, probing their concerns and suggestions for improvement going forward. Have any thoughts about who I should talk to next? Let me know.)