Comment: For Capitol Hill reporter, Jan. 6 was last straw

The longtime AP reporter quit, he says, because a ‘both sides’ approach isn’t telling an accurate story.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

Andrew Taylor began his journalism career in the late 1980s, clipping newspaper articles for the politics reporters at Congressional Quarterly.

This spring, more than 30 years later, he quit his longtime job as a Capitol Hill reporter for the Associated Press.

He leaves daily journalism disgusted by what Congress has become and traumatized by the Jan. 6 riot; which he witnessed from inside the Capitol. He also leaves the profession doubtful that traditional, objective-style journalism is up to the job of covering today’s politics and government.

His is not a simple cause-and-effect story: At 59, with a spouse who works full time as an editor and the demands of three school-age children, Taylor was thinking of wrapping things up anyway.

But he’s very glad to be out of the Capitol; not just for the unanticipated danger he experienced there but the political and societal culture surrounding it.

“I’ve been covering the Hill for a long, long time, and the Hill right now to an unacceptably large extent is a real cesspool,” Taylor told me in an interview.

Taylor was at his desk in the Daily Press Gallery on Jan. 6 when the Senate abruptly gaveled out of session. “I jumped to check it out,” he wrote later, in a rare-for-him first-person story. “Soon word came to huddle in the chamber. ‘Lock the doors,’ gallery staff was instructed. … Maybe a dozen reporters and aides in the gallery and virtually the entire Senate huddled inside.”

Taylor said he never felt himself at the time to be in physical peril. It only sank in for him in the days and weeks that followed.

“I was having a hard time with it,” he told me with characteristic understatement. He became angry and agitated, and increasingly uninterested in returning to the place where he had spent decades as a particularly knowledgeable and respected reporter.

In the view of my colleague Donna Cassata, The Washington Post’s politics breaking news editor, only “two reporters over the last 25 years knew the appropriations process as well as Hill staff. ” One was David Rogers, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and now with Politico; the other was Taylor, with whom she worked at both Congressional Quarterly and at the AP, where for a time she was his immediate editor.

“Those were the two everyone wanted to emulate,” she said. “Few did.”

The Capitol was Taylor’s second home, the focus of so much of his daily life and conversation. He still speaks of “the sanctity of the place”; it’s clear that on a certain level he became accustomed to its rhythms and routines. “You become invested in a functional ecosystem,” he said.

But that place was already beginning to change long before Jan. 6, he said. “I was there when the wheels came off,” he told me, during the Obama era, when the tea-party caucus of conservative House members seized increasing influence. From that point on, “a large percentage of congressional activity was being spent posturing for political bases” rather than, say, putting together the budget.

He now sees the dysfunction as irrevocable.

He has particularly harsh words for House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, as prominent among those in Congress whose “approach to their jobs is too often bad-faith bull****.” For similar reasons, he’s tough on Mitch McConnell, too. On his now more freewheeling Twitter account, Taylor quote-tweeted the Senate minority leader’s recent bluster about raising the debt limit and how Republicans “will not facilitate another reckless, partisan taxing and spending spree.”

“So glad I don’t have to cover this,” Taylor wrote, along with a reminder of some inconvenient facts: “When Republicans controlled the government in 2017-18, Pelosi and Schumer facilitated debt limit increases both before and after enactment of debt-financed tax cuts.” Taylor added: “McConnell is wholly inconsistent here and I am being generous.”

Overall, Taylor fears that Congress is like a coral reef that has sustained so much piece-by-piece deterioration, with the departures of some of those who have integrity and respect for their elected roles in the democracy, that “you can’t put it back together again.”

And while he calls the Associated Press “a wonderful, essential organization” and praises many of his former colleagues in Washington journalism, he has become increasingly worried that traditional reporting can’t — or at least doesn’t — tell the full, disturbing story.

“The rules of objective journalism require you to present facts to tell a true story but the objective-journalism version of events can often obscure the reality of what’s really going on,” he told me.

As he sees it, the typical practices of putting everything that happens in the context of normal behavior, of giving “both sides” an almost-equal say, and describing events in a neutral tone has an overall, damaging effect.

Put simply: “It sanitizes things.”

So where does a lifelong congressional journalist go from here?

Taylor doesn’t see himself back on the Hill as a daily news reporter. In his own estimation, he has seen too much, knows too much, and has been too deeply affected.

“I realized that my impulsive decision to quit doing journalism was the right one,” he said. But he would like to use his hard-earned knowledge and experience in a different way.

“Eventually, I want to write about all of this in greater detail and in my own voice,” he said. It’s not clear yet what form that might take, but there’s no question that the story will be worth hearing.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.

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