Courtesy of ABC News

‘Everything in My Life Is About Politics’

Alexandria Neason talks with Averi Harper, deputy political director of ABC News

September 16, 2021

For much of its history, political journalism has trained its cameras, recorders, and notebooks on the most powerful players: politicians and bureaucrats, along with the businesspeople and lobbyists who influence them. But the constituents who elect public officials, and to whom they are meant to be accountable, are often invisible in news coverage. The 2016 election and the Trump administration made those deficits glaring, as fault lines in neutrality and “objectivity” cracked before the eyes of the public. Journalists collided with a White House prone to lies and cruelty. Since then, reporters have been tasked with the challenge of self-evaluation: What mistakes did we make? In what ways were we reactive, instead of forcing politicians to engage with questions important to the American people? What have we learned, and how can we do better with Joe Biden and whoever comes next?

In March, ABC News promoted Averi Harper, who is thirty, to deputy political director. Harper has covered local politics and national elections, including the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, now vice president. Recently, I spoke with Harper about her new role, the need to grasp the complexities of diverse communities, and how political journalism can realign itself post-Trump. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Neason How are you?

Harper Can’t complain. I just ran to get coffee. I’ve been up since five o’clock in the morning.

Neason Do you have fixed hours?

Harper Hopefully I’ll be done after World News Tonight, which ends at seven o’clock. But it’s really whatever the news cycle demands, right? So there are days when I am working from sunup to sundown, especially when it comes to election time. I’ll be working around the clock. And I think that just has been normal for me—for all of us. Sometimes I get a break here at seven o’clock at night on a Friday, and, you know, the entire news division and all of our resources go to covering that big story. That’s just the name of the game.

Neason Since the inauguration, what have you spent your days doing?

Harper Well, I get up and I’m reading every bit of political news that I can before I hit morning meetings. Or I’m talking to our reporters about what they’re working on for the day, or to the heads of different platforms at ABC News to figure out what they are covering for the day—how they’re planning to approach coverage. And then one of the great things about my role is that it’s not only a management position, but I still contribute editorially. So I am making source calls. I am talking to lawmakers. I’m talking to different folks within the political world in order to get their read on what’s going on. Some days there’s presidential remarks. We’re always keeping our eyes on what’s happening on Capitol Hill. And then I spend a lot of my afternoon writing. We have a political newsletter that goes out every day that I contribute to. I’m also thinking of ways to stay ahead of the news cycle and figure out how I can get all the great minds together at ABC News to make sure that our coverage is inclusive, that our coverage is strong, and that our coverage is differentiated from what other people are doing. So that’s kind of my day-to-day.

Neason On that note, about differentiating ABC from what others are doing: How do you do that when—particularly for political journalism, which has traditionally revolved around the White House press corps, press gaggles, campaign events—all the reporters from all the outlets go to the same event?

Harper Right. There is a tendency—the term is pack journalism—to try to just match everything with what everyone else is getting and not necessarily generate your own ideas. And I think that’s where diversity sometimes comes into play. I am very proud that ABC News had one of the most diverse broadcast teams covering the last presidential election. And because of that, we were able to kind of pool our ideas and figure out: What are the questions that I should be asking, that I know that my colleagues at the other large networks are not going to be doing? For me specifically, in the coverage of Kamala Harris—Kamala Harris is the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant. I am from the West Indies. My mother is from Jamaica. My father is from Trinidad and Tobago. And so I leaned into that specialized knowledge that I knew that no one else who was covering her had, to generate stories, to generate content, and to put out some understanding about where she comes from and why she might appeal to different segments of the electorate.

Sometimes it’s just as simple as geographically where I live. I covered Bernie Sanders during the primary, and I’d lived in Northern California as a reporter for a local station there. So I knew how important the Asian-American vote was to California. About 15 percent of the electorate in California is Asian American. And Bernie Sanders, at the time—he was printing campaign materials in so many different languages, Asian languages. It wasn’t just Mandarin. It was Japanese and Korean. It was all these different languages that other campaigns just were not doing. And so I had been there for a campaign event in Oakland, and I had gone to the farmers’ market that I would frequent when I lived there, in Chinatown, in Oakland. And I noticed that the only campaign materials that I saw at that farmers’ market were from Bernie Sanders. And so I said, Well, that’s a story. That’s how you differentiate. It’s just leaning into who you are and where you come from and your experiences in order to find ways to highlight communities and people who are not typically included in the conversation when we’re talking about politics. I think when you look at political journalism as a whole, it’s very white and very male. And I am not any of those things. So I bring a different perspective.

Neason You mentioned being at the farmers’ market. It wasn’t just that Bernie Sanders was the only candidate placing material, making an effort in that location. But also that you were there, and that you were asking questions other reporters weren’t. That brings up the question: What is a political news story? There are the traditional routes to what has been considered a story for a political reporter. We know where we go to get those, and that perhaps doesn’t include the Chinatown farmers’ market. Are we broadening our ideas of what political news is to better fit the reality, that basically everything is politics?

Harper I think there is a tendency in political journalism to cover things in the abstract. What I’ve said to the team of reporters that I manage is that politics is about the people. It’s about how policy is impacting people at home. You don’t necessarily start with Capitol Hill. So for example, for voting rights in Georgia, I encouraged our reporters to find the people who were impacted. It’s not just talking about or listening to the committee meeting in the statehouse, in Atlanta. It’s about who’s outside the statehouse, who cares enough to be outside the statehouse to protest, who’s going to be impacted if and when those restrictive voting bills pass. And so across our network, I’m always going to be encouraging folks to find the character-driven story, to bring life to these issues that can be really hard to digest in the abstract.

“It’s about finding a way to present the fact that there’s common ground in stories in order to reach the broadest amount of people.”


Neason When you talk about character-driven stories and turning our attention away from politicians and toward the people who are affected by the work that politicians do—I think certainly there are a lot of outlets and a lot of reporters who have tried to do that, with varying degrees of success. But a general criticism is that political journalism, particularly in the Trump era, has been so obsessed with our figureheads, to the detriment of the people who are materially affected every day by their decisions. So I wonder, who do you see? Are there particular segments of the public that you’re especially interested in focusing the camera on?

Harper I think that covering Latino voters in the midterms and in 2024 is an imperative. The AAPI community is an imperative. Black voters continue to be very important to the outcome of elections, particularly for the Democratic Party. This country is growing more diverse, and it behooves us to ensure that we are covering these communities appropriately and thoroughly, because these communities are going to be the margins in elections. I also think rural voters—you know, we’ve been talking a lot about climate justice. I have a colleague who has spent a lot of time focusing on water issues in places like South Carolina, among those who are poor. And it’s not to say that any one community is more important than another, but it is to ensure that we see all of these communities.

Neason I want to kind of zoom out a little bit. In your view, just as a Black woman in America, what is your conception of what we even mean when we say “politics”?

Harper When we say politics, I think of policy—any sort of legislation that impacts the way I live my life every single day. So it is how much money is taken out of my paycheck. It is where I can afford to live. It is if I can afford to go to school or if I can afford to send my children to school. It is how good those schools are. It is if I can afford to go to the doctor; it’s if I feel comfortable about going to the doctor, as a Black woman. There is not a part of my life that I can say politics does not touch. And as a woman, and a Black woman at that, that impacts me differently than it would some of my white colleagues or my male colleagues. And I think it is important that we acknowledge that. I say often, as a Black woman, how much of everything in my life is about politics: how I wear my hair is about politics, the clothes I wear when I go out in the street, how I talk to you versus how I would talk to my mom versus how I would talk to my boss. That’s politics. Oh, that is politics. And so it is finding ways to illustrate that, and make it understood to our viewers. A lot of times people think that, Well, politics is something that happens far away, in Washington, DC. That’s not it. It is every single thing.

Neason Given that, do you think that the center of gravity in political journalism is in the right place now?

Harper I think it’s people’s tendency to look at the very biggest picture, the biggest figurehead, which is the president of the United States, and think that is the person and that is the office that does the absolute most for them. Not knowing, necessarily, that it is their county commissioners, or their city council person, who’s making decisions that are the closest to them, that impact them every single day. I mean, that’s not to say that the president doesn’t have power and the president is not important. But it is all of those offices, it’s all of those things. So I think we are kind of seeing a whole recalibration after four years in which everybody was focused on the president, because the Trump presidency was inflammatory in so many ways. Now, because we’re not focused on the erratic behavior that we saw coming out of the White House, we have more time to focus and say, Hey, what’s going on in statehouses? and What’s going on locally? How are our rights being eroded?

Neason You can tell me if you agree or disagree with this, but I think that there’s a perception that, at national outlets in particular, the people who cover politics treat the presidential election as the most important and the most newsworthy event. How do you address that with a viewer who maybe has this idea that, like you said, politics is a thing that happens far away?

Harper For national news outlets, because there’s so many states, it’s about tying together trends. So that’s why I keep coming back to the curtailing of voting rights, because that’s a trend we have been seeing for some time. We identify that Republican lawmakers in several states are putting forth legislation that holds back access to the ballot box. We’re continuing to tell our viewers that, and continuing to talk to state lawmakers. We had on Park Cannon, from Georgia, who was arrested after she knocked on Governor Kemp’s door while he was signing that very restrictive voting bill. When George Floyd was killed at the hands of police in Minnesota, we had leaders from that area come on our air. So it’s not just the president—it’s the governor of Minnesota, it’s folks who come from the city council in Minneapolis.

Neason When it comes to social media, how do you consider the merits and pitfalls of focusing attention there?

Harper This arose as we were covering the pandemic—when there was no campaign coverage because everybody was at home, for the most part, unless you were an essential worker. We couldn’t be on the ground and cover stories in the way that we normally would, because we couldn’t get close to people. And so we started to rely on social media to find characters for stories, to get information from folks, and to get information from our politicians. But you have to have access to the internet to do that, right? And so that counted out a swath of the population, because you couldn’t reach them. Everybody’s not on Twitter. Twitter is not the entirety of this country. And sometimes I have to remind myself of that, and we remind our reporters of that as well. When we see something trending on Twitter—that’s not official polling. That’s just a composite of what folks think who are using Twitter. Especially if you talk about politics with people who tend to be a little more educated—they tend to be a little more liberal. And you can’t use that as the basis of reporting. And so it is important to consistently remind yourself of that.

Neason Certainly we saw the danger in focusing on Twitter, what people are saying on Twitter, during the Trump administration—and even before he was in office, during the 2016 campaign. What have we learned in political journalism coming out of the Trump era and transitioning into the Biden era?

Harper I think it concerns the ways that information is passed, as we’re seeing misinformation influence large swaths of the population. Be it in relation to politics and campaigns, or conspiracy theories about all kinds of things—the backgrounds of politicians, or the behavior of politicians. Be it things like the vaccine, or covid: How do you keep yourself from getting sick? I think that all of us are paying attention now. And the politicians are paying attention now. It’s kind of funny, because sometimes we watch some of those congressional hearings about social media and disinformation, and it is very clear that a lot of our lawmakers have no idea how some of these platforms work. So identifying the immense power that these platforms have, while also at the same time understanding that not everybody is on these platforms, is something that I think has become very clear since 2016.

We have conversations all the time: Do we give our air to someone who is going to spout conspiracy theories? Are we going to write about the event in which so-and-so politician spouted conspiracy theories? How we’ve dealt with it is, we run a lot of fact checks.

Neason Do you see it as part of your responsibility to figure out what to do when the fact check isn’t enough?

Harper That’s totally part of my job. It’s a layered approach, and I’m lucky that we have so many platforms, because it’s about reaching people where they are and giving them the information that we know is true. You know, there is a saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Well, I’m going to try my darndest. I am going to make sure that we are saying the correct information over and over and over and over again.

“To me, raising a question—I don’t think that is a violation of any notion of objectivity.”


Neason How are you thinking about your audience in terms of who your work is for?

Harper This is the largest audience that I have ever been in charge of providing content for, because it is everyone. ABC is one of the largest news organizations in this country. And that’s why it’s so important to have a newsroom that is skilled in finding different ways to reach different segments of the population. Our audience in the morning—we know that’s an overwhelmingly female audience; a lot of moms are watching in that audience. That’s a different audience from our World News Tonight audience, which is the most serious audience. On our streaming platforms, those audiences might be a little younger, right? Because the folks who are streaming, they don’t have cable. All of our platforms have different specific demographics. The entirety of ABC News—the audience is very broad. And so sometimes it’s about finding a way to present the fact that there’s common ground in stories in order to reach the broadest amount of people, especially when you’re dealing with a story that doesn’t affect a large amount of people. And if it’s a narrow segment of the population that your story is covering, it’s about finding ways to pull people who might not necessarily click on that story or watch that story or watch that documentary—pulling them in so that they can learn something new. That’s the beautiful thing about working for a news organization that reaches so many people. You have the power to expose your audiences to things and people that they’ve never thought about and stories that they never thought that they would hear. Especially when things are really important, you have the power to reach everybody and give them the information that they need to know.

Neason So what’s on your radar?

Harper For me, after the past election cycle, it’s really about covering the Biden administration and making sure that they’re following through on a lot of the promises that they’ve made. This is the first time we’ve seen a president directly confront the notion of institutional racism in a way as plain as Joe Biden has. But it’s about making sure that that’s not just lip service. It is making sure that we are holding his administration accountable every single day. So, for example, I wrote about police reform. They decided that they were not going to do a police oversight commission. And that was one of the promises for his first one hundred days. That’s fine. They said they were going to focus on passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Well, what are the actions that you are taking to ensure that the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act gets to the president’s desk to be signed into law? I raised that in the newsletter that I write. It’s sometimes just the idea of raising that question and putting it into folks’ minds, to effect a whole news cycle.

Biden talked about the Daunte Wright shooting. But before he acknowledged the pain and the anger within the African-American community, he talked about looting. And I raised the idea of, you know, there are so many people who are out there who would wish that the Biden administration would address police reform with the same urgency that the Biden administration addressed looting. That’s how my friends and my family are thinking. That’s how people I know in my neighborhood are thinking. But it’s not necessarily how the folks who are in the White House press corps are thinking. So that’s why it’s important to have folks that come from a variety of viewpoints and different places and different backgrounds, in order to raise those ideas.

Neason That’s sort of a deviation from really ingrained ideas about what the role of the journalist is. We’ve been having this conversation across journalism for years, about notions of objectivity: what we mean when we use that word, what it looks like in practice and in coverage. What it sounds like you’re describing is a reporter taking an active role—that it’s not just showing up to the press gaggle or whatever, hearing what whoever is speaking says, and then writing the story about what they said. Like you were saying, if what you’re hearing in your neighborhood and in your family is reflecting one thing, and that’s not necessarily what’s coming out of the mouths of politicians and reporters, you’re saying, Hey, what about this? As opposed to just being there to sort of receive.

Harper I’ll push back. To me, raising a question—I don’t think that is a violation of any notion of objectivity. I’m not going to advocate for one politician over the other. I held President Trump just as accountable as I hold Joe Biden. But, you know, journalism, just like politics, is about the people. And, you know, you write for your audience. If there’s a question that you’re hearing people ask, it is your duty to ask that question. These are the things that I raised to our team: It’s not that I have a personal agenda in asking this question. But I know that there are frustrations within the Black community in the way that the Biden administration is addressing police reform. There’s folks who are out on the street protesting about it every single day. So it is our duty to hold folks accountable. And it’s not just the Biden administration. It is state leaders and local leaders in our domestic coverage, looking at police organizations and holding their leaders accountable. It’s about asking the questions that folks want the answers to. That’s what our job is. And the notion of objectivity—I think we all come from different places, right? So I think as long as you are not in a newsroom advocating for any certain policy—I’m not advocating for any policy. I’m asking a question because that’s what folks want to know. And I’ll continue to do that.

Neason How we experience the world is different based on these different characteristics that we have. So what does it look like for you, as a newsroom leader, when people on your teams are not all experiencing things that perhaps are faced by the communities they are reporting on—and on behalf of?

Harper It’s important to work for a news organization where you can have those conversations. I’ve had those conversations with folks across our network, where I can talk about the way that I experience the world as a Black woman. And what can we glean from those experiences to strengthen our coverage? Sometimes there’s just nuance when we’re covering these different areas, when we’re covering these issues, and if you don’t necessarily come from those communities, you might not get that nuance. It makes our coverage the best it can be when we have folks who come from all kinds of places.

Neason What do you see as your main challenge moving forward?

Harper I mean, I think the way that we cover news, just logistically, because of the pandemic, has changed things. The world has changed. In terms of the content of coverage, I think the challenge is to find ways to take topics that can be considered very dense and make them digestible and easily understood for audiences. It’s hard to talk about an issue that’s big, like climate change, right? And to cover things that are state or local issues, and find through lines. We are always trying to find a through line to get people to understand that topic’s significance.

Alexandria Neason was CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Recently, she became an editor and producer at WNYC’s Radiolab.