How to Cover Congress Without Leaving Home

Journalism’s optimists sometimes describe a moment in the future when technology is so easy and ubiquitous that citizens everywhere can do journalism that matters, the crowd can sort the good from the bad, and democracy is stronger than ever.

A handful of pioneers are leading the way toward this future, and they are starting with Congress as their subject matter. Five bloggers gathered at Netroots Nation 2010 last week in Las Vegas to teach others how to do what they do. Their panel, titled “Covering Congress: The Art of Insider Reporting,” was a primer on how to help others understand what’s going on in government and how to hold elected politicians accountable.

Right now, the number of Fifth Estate journalists covering Congress is still minuscule compared to the Fourth Estate. That’s likely to change as technology makes it easier to access congressional calendars, documents and the live stream of public meetings.

Anyone can do this and more people should, the bloggers told their audience. Each person on the panel has parlayed his or her passion and dedication into some sort of salary.

“You don’t need to be in D.C. to do this,” David Waldman told the crowd of 40. Waldman is the blogger behind Congress Matters, and a contributing editor to Daily Kos. He’s also the public affairs director for Main Street Insider, a non-profit organization that is fighting for live-streaming of all public hearings and meetings, and organizing a central calendar describing all these events in plain English.

It’s a concept Waldman dubbed level-two transparency. Level-one transparency is just getting the congressional calendars all published and updated in one place, so that citizens know when hearings are scheduled and when bills are coming up for a vote. But level-two transparency is explaining all the mysterious procedure and jargon.

Technology and computer programming can solve most level-one problems. For example, Main Street Insider is advocating for streaming that works on all computers, and programs that pull in updates to a central calendar in a timely fashion.

But level-two requires the human touch. Main Street Insider is working on that too. They are hoping to employ people who can explain, for instance, that amendment No. 79 to H.R. 5136, tucked into the House calendar and scheduled for a vote, is really the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”

“We want to be able to provide the same information that members [of Congress] and their staff get, but almost no one but members and their staff knows what that means,” said Jeremy Koulish, executive director of Main Street Insider.

OpenCongress.org is another nonprofit dedicated to helping citizens understand the legislative process. Donny Shaw is in charge of its editorial content. In the same way the National Press Club helps the Fourth Estate do its work, organizations like Main Street Insider and OpenCongress.org enable the Fifth Estate and beyond to do theirs.

Shaw described a recent experience. A congressman introduced a bill to restrict ownership of large snakes as pets. Snake owners wanted to influence the outcome so they turned to OpenCongress.org.

“It’s important to give people like that who are for the first time trying to interface with Congress, to give them a good experience,” he said during the panel. “We don’t want to turn them off. Civic engagement is good for democracy.”

Covering Congress or a statehouse can look like a lot of different activities. Mike Stark got started by helping out fellow blogger Jane Hamsher. On her behalf, he took a Flip cam to the Hill and asked representatives about their opinions on the public option in the health care reform bill.

He followed up by asking representatives whether they believed that Obama had an American birth certificate. Some of those videos were used by MSNBC.

“My reports are stark, you get what I got. It’s raw. There’s no filter between you and the material I collect,” he said. “There’s a downside, 90 percent of it is boring as hell.”

Stark is a generalist and his own blog, StarkReports, bounces from issue to issue, trying to assess exactly where elected officials stand. By contrast, Marcy Wheeler is an expert, a Ph.D. and book author, with deep knowledge of national intelligence. She watches congressional hearings on her computer, from her kitchen in Michigan while she’s cooking dinner.

“I design what I do around the things that don’t get covered by traditional media,” she said. “When they are covering a committee hearing, they are covering one story. But there’s usually more than that.”

Wheeler offered these tips for citizen journalists:

  1. Stay until the end of the hearing.
  2. Read the documents. “Nobody actually reads the document. They let the press person highlight for them,” she said. (If you can’t dig through it, crowd source it, ask readers to help.)
  3. Look for the QFRs, you know, the “question for the record.” Those are the questions that get asked at the end of the hearing that no one knows the answers to. At some point, sometimes months later, a staffer will come back with answers, often substantive ones.
  4. Pay attention to the administration’s response to a bill. One of the most informative documents about the massive surveillance program was a letter from the president’s office.
  5. Go beyond the soundbite. Once you get beyond the predictable response, things get interesting.

“There a number of congress people who tend to speak the truth,” she said. “You just have to figure out who they are.”

David Dayen was the writer on the panel with the most experience in the Fourth Estate. In addition to his work at Firedoglake.com, he has published articles in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post. His advice to aspiring bloggers was similar to what a grizzled reporter might tell the young pup who’s just shown up to replace him: Work harder, be skeptical, know the issues.

For all the similarities to their Fourth Estate counterparts, when bloggers cover Congress, especially partisan bloggers, they are likely to have different standards for the material they publish.

“Remember your story,” Wheeler said. “My goal is not just to report the news, but also to advance a progressive agenda. It may be that your standard for the truth is not the same standard held by the New York Times. For your purpose, it’s often good enough to ask the question.”

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