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?
For a long time I enjoyed being at the L.A. Times investigative team; it was great to be on the investigative unit of a major newspaper. I think it’s really juvenile when people talk about the big mainstream media and how horrible it is. The New York Times does amazing work. The Washington Post is a shell of its former self, but there’s some amazing work going on there. And at the networks and all over the place. I don’t have this issue with the big bad mainstream media.
How do you think bloggers have contributed to Washington coverage?
I’ve been blogging for while but I feel equally distant from much of the blogosphere. It’s predictable in the same sort of way. With so many of the blogs—even the best ones—all you have to do is read the headlines. Obama can get away with things that Bush would have been reamed for on liberal blogs. And anything that Obama does is ripped apart by conservative bloggers. It’s so predictable and boring.
I remember during the health care debate, I was driving somewhere and turned on the radio. They were talking to someone who I thought was an administration official making an argument in support of the health care plan. Then they had the station break and it turns out it was a blogger for a liberal outlet. I can’t tell the difference between what I read on the blogs and what I read from the DCCC and the White House half the time.
But Washington Babylon fit into that in a way, didn’t it?
I started off blogging by not really blogging, but doing short reported pieces. I used to spend all day reporting and writing reported pieces, trying to add insight and information rather than just my own opinion. But at a certain point there are only so many hours in a day and I didn’t have the pace or the energy to do that. So I resorted to a more conventional form of blogging for preservation. I didn’t find that very satisfying at the end.
I never really felt comfortable as part of the blogosphere. I have strong political beliefs, of course, but I never saw myself as an advocate for a political party. I’m not comfortable being an advocate and it seems to me that so much of blogging now is advocacy. I find it mostly uninteresting. But just as there is brilliant work being done in the mainstream media there are blogs that I love to read and there are blogs that are creative, politically diverse, and very appealing. I like to read Andrew Sullivan a lot. He does what a blogger is supposed to do, which is to round up interesting tidbits from all over the place and periodically offer keen insight. I like Glenn Greenwald a lot, too. I like his outrage and I like the fact that he’s just a relentless critic of insider reporting.
While we’re talking blogs, you had a dig at Howard Kurtz in your final post, writing: “When you can read an entire column by the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz and never once feel the urge to cut out your own heart with a dull knife, you know that you no longer have the sense of outrage that is essential to reporting from our nation’s capital.” Now that he’s leaving the paper, who do you think should replace him?
I think there are many interesting people out there who write about the media from diverse perspectives (there are a lot of people writing about the media who I think are complete hacks as well). But the problem is not the candidates; it’s the institution itself. The Post is such an unlikely platform for thoughtful and tough media criticism. I think there are top-notch reporters there, but the paper is so afraid of its own shadow, in terms of having an opinion, that to think it would allow an unconventional media critic is impossible. I’d be stunned. Kurtz was perfect—he’s a perfect product of that institution. My guess is that they’d hire somebody awfully safe. I’m not sure anybody could be quite as deadly as Howard Kurtz, but it’s hard to imagine that they would take on a controversial voice that might cause the newspaper grief.
In the great days of the automobile I guess it must have been very difficult to write about the auto industry for the Detroit newspapers. When steel was the most important product produced in Pittsburgh I guess the papers there couldn’t honestly cover the steel industry. In Washington, I don’t think it’s really possible to honestly cover politics or the media.
You’re staying on as a contributing editor at Harper’s. What will that involve?
I wasn’t very involved before other than writing the blog and doing four stories a year. My title of Washington editor may have suggested an editorial role, but I was basically the Washington reporter for the magazine. I won’t be doing the blog anymore and I probably won’t be writing four stories for them anymore. But I still love the magazine. It’s a place where if you’ve got a great story they’ll give you 10,000 words to write it. Or more.
And what will you be working on with the Open Society Institute and Global Witness?
What I find exciting, and what gives me hope, is that I will be well funded to do the kind of reporting I like to do best. It’s up to me to come up with projects, but if I have the project there’s funding to do it. It’s become increasingly difficult in journalism to find outlets or publications that are willing to finance any long-form reporting, let alone long-form international reporting.
Do you think such fellowships and grants are going to play a big part in the future of the industry?
I look around and I see places like Global Witness and Human Rights Watch, places that are not journalism outlets per se, doing really first rate investigative reporting. They will devote the resources to a project that a newspaper or magazine rarely will. For me, being able to fund this sort of work is harder and harder to do. Twenty years ago, if I had taken an OSI fellowship it would have been hard for me to go to some outlets and say I want to do a story—they would say they can’t accept the piece because I was working for an activist organization.
The media landscape is shifting in such a way that newspapers and magazines are going to have to take reporting from unconventional places like nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups.