Jonathan E. Kaplan

Jonathan E. Kaplan is a reporter for The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress. Kaplan’s primary beat is the House Republican leadership and caucus. Prior to joining The Hill, Kaplan was an assistant editor at The American Lawyer magazine. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, The New Republic, The Forward, and New York. Kaplan spoke with CJR Daily as part of our ongoing series of interviews with reporters, editors and commentators.

Thomas Lang: How’s your access these days? Do you expect that to change in any way because of the House Republican leadership’s increase in power?

Jonathan Kaplan: No. I think Capitol Hill is probably one of the most over-covered places in the world, but it also has incredible access. They haven’t thrown reporters out on the House side. They haven’t thrown us out of the Speaker’s lobby. And once you’re there you can pretty much talk to anyone who will agree to talk to you. Staff is always going to talk. Lobbyists are always going to talk. And for The Hill, there is not the burden of getting X, Y, or Z on the record. It would be nice if it would be.

TL: Why is there not that burden?

JK: … From reading the Post and the Times, there has been a big push to move away from anonymous sourcing. For The HIll, Roll Call and other congressional weeklies and dailies, the same pressure doesn’t apply. That’s not to say that the goal isn’t to get someone to say something for the record.

TL: After the election you wrote that the best description you’ve ever heard of Tom DeLay is that he is “an alcoholic’s son, but he’s cagey and, as a reporter, you have to respect his skills. Amen.” Could you elaborate on that? And also explain how you go about covering a man who you say “rarely speaks to reporters one-on-one or takes time to cultivate relationships”?

JK: DeLay does speak to reporters — he holds a press conference, usually once a week when he’s here. You can debate the usefulness of those and there are some silly rules that go along with that. Now you can go in there and ask him whatever you want to ask him. Again, all the people around him — not necessarily those who work [directly] for him, but staff, lobbyists, people in the White House, lawyers — they all deal with him and they hear things. All you need is a tip to pursue a story. You don’t need a sit down interview with Tom DeLay to understand why he is doing or what he’s done.

Now I think there are a lot of reporters who go in there and find some of the stuff [DeLay] says to be harsh. Maybe it’s frustrating because it’s unclear whether he believes what he’s saying because there is sort of no emotion behind it. But that said, he is very good at what he does and he is what he is — the majority leader.

My sense is the more quickly you can depersonalize it — his rants against Blue State American, the rant, what have you — the easier it is to try to understand him. … Politics is about choices. The way I do my job is to try to understand why the House leaders are doing what they do, why are they making the decisions they are making, and what are the consequences of those decisions.

TL: Over the course of the election we often wrote about campaign reporters being stuck inside a bubble. Do you ever get that feeling on Capitol Hill and how do you avoid getting stuck in group-think?

JK: I don’t really buy that [idea about being in a bubble]. I think it’s different. You are not locked inside the capitol. You may be locked in Washington, and that’s a larger problem. Its not like you’re on that airplane. The Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t develop.

TL: To what degree is The Hill a trade publication and to what degree do you try to appeal to a wider audience? How do you balance those two?

JK: We don’t. First of all, I think The Hill is accessible to anyone who wants to read it. Our readers are members of Congress, their staffs, lobbyists, a few people on Wall Street, and political junkies. But there is no sense in trying to dilute our coverage so [John and Jane Doe] in Illinois can understand the nuances of it because The Hill is what it is — the paper for and about the U.S. Congress.

Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.