Jonathan E. Kaplan on Tom DeLay, Baseball, and Advice to Freshmen

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.

And I don’t think those two are incompatible. If someone who is not a practitioner of politics wants to take a look at the way Congress works they can just pick up The Hill. It’s like baseball. If you have never seen a baseball game but watched it for a week straight you’d understand how the game is played. You wouldn’t be Dave Anderson of the New York Times so you could write about it, but you’d at least be able to organize a game in your backyard.

TL: You recently wrote a piece about new congressional candidates. What advice would you give them for dealing with the press?

JK: Always say more than they should. Leak often. Don’t be afraid. Some members are so suspect of the Washington press corps. We are just doing a job the same way they are. From my perspective, [members of Congress] have a heavier burden to be open because they are public officials. That’s just the way it is. It’s a higher standard.

TL:What sense do you get from the members of Congress? How do they view you? As someone doing his job? As a nag?

JK: It varies on a case-by-case basis. Some members of Congress view The Hill and Roll Call as papers they are never going to speak to. They’ve got their local daily back home and that’s all they deal with. Some members of Congress know that here we are, that we aren’t going anywhere, and are more than willing to cooperate. I could name names but I don’t need to be on any more enemy lists than I already am.

Now, the ones that we don’t talk to [and won’t talk to us], it’s just kind of mind-boggling because we are not practitioners of gotcha journalism. We are “Here’s the story, here’s what happened.” More power to you if you explain what you did and why you did it so people know. Secrecy breeds anxiety. My advice would be the more candid you can be, the less nagging or prying and the more selective in our questioning we will be.

Not to say that if there is a good story we are not going to go after it, but we might do it in a more subtle way.

The other thing I wanted to say is something we always talk about in the newsroom. There’s one member who will talk to me but he won’t talk to someone else. Then there’s another member won’t talk to me but will talk to someone else. So it’s just chemistry more than “I work for The Hill” or “I work for the Times.

Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.