Ken Silverstein left his post as Washington editor of Harper’s late last month after four-and-a-half years, and he left with a bang. In a final note on his Washington Babylon blog, Silverstein wrote, “I just no longer have the energy to cover Washington. I frequently find myself numb to political news and, even worse, to the lifeless, conventional wisdom peddled by the Washington media.” Now, the former AP and Los Angeles Times investigative reporter returns to his roots, writing on international energy— Silverstein picked up an Overseas Press Club award in 2004 for a series on the politics of the international petroleum market. With a fellowship from the Open Society Institute and a new job leading investigations for Global Witness, he looks forward to the investigative work. As he shifts his focus from the beltway to the world, Silverstean spoke to CJR assistant editor Joel Meares about the press, the president, and his future. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
You say you’ve lost the energy to cover Washington—when did it start to wane?
I’ve had this generalized sense of being uninspired and bored by Washington for a while now. I think it’s beyond midlife crisis, but it’s nothing that I can exactly put my finger on. I moved here in 1993 from Brazil where I was working for the Associated Press, and I’ve always loved what I’ve done—long form investigative reporting. I’ve generally woken up in the morning and couldn’t wait to get going; I had to make myself stop working at the end of the day. But I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with politics in Washington and with the media as well, and my own role in it.
I talked to Mediabistro a little bit about this, but I began to feel like every story I wrote, I’d written five years ago or ten years ago or fifteen years ago, or all three. “Lobbyists Kill Off Health Care Reform” or “Private Special Interests Pouring Money Into Campaigns.” It’s not that I don’t think these are good and important stories, but I started feeling like I didn’t want to be writing them anymore. It’s been frustrating having arrived here in the Clinton years, then gone through the Bush years, and now with Obama—it just feels that nothing really seems to change much in Washington.
And why are you leaving now?
At the L.A. Times, when I was on the investigative unit, I traveled to Angola and Kazakhstan, and was reporting on Equatorial Guinea, and Chad, and Cameroon. I love international reporting and long form reporting and opportunities arose that would allow me to focus more on that. I felt a lack of motivation to be covering Washington, and I wanted to re-energize. And I felt that Harper’s needed somebody who was more energized by covering Washington politics.
You’ve expressed your disappointment in Obama—did that contribute at all to the waning enthusiasm for D.C.?
I voted for Obama but I’m not a registered Democrat, and I was never a big backer of the president. I do feel like it’s been a disappointing administration, but I think my dissatisfaction and lack of inspiration is a whole lot bigger than the Obama administration. It’s a generalized disenchantment about politics. For a journalist, bad news is good news in a certain way. If Obama had come in and run a perfect administration without controversy, I guess life would have been even more boring in some ways than it is.
Was there a final straw?
I realized that I very seriously needed to think about leaving my job when I found that the thing that most excited me to write about this year was the World Cup. That’s a bad sign. You can’t cover Washington when you’re more interested in soccer than politics.
Your final post was pretty scathing about the kind of reporting that’s done in Washington.
I’ve long been critical of and skeptical of conventional beltway reporting and just find that so much of it is access reporting and very uninteresting. I do find that, especially being in Washington, people are so unlikely to think in any creative or interesting way. Someone will spot a trend and others then follow—whether it’s anti-incumbency or something else. Once there’s a perceived wisdom, everybody piles on. To me, David Broder is the ultimate expression of someone who cannot see beyond the absolutely narrow confines of established wisdom in Washington. And, it’s not a hugely original thought, but I obviously see a problem with the horse race coverage that everyone complains about and then goes right back and does year after year and campaign after campaign.
Is it a problem with the quote unquote mainstream media?