The Pacific Northwest used to enjoy a vibrant, competitive press corps in Washington, D.C. As D.C. correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, back when the Hearst paper had money, I was present at what was a high tide of regional journalism.
“What is Seattle’s interest in this?” Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois would ask, more than once, when I showed up on the presidential campaign trail. The answer: we were and are part of the country, with not inconsiderable influence on Congress’s deliberations. In those years, senators from Washington, Oregon, and Alaska chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Tom Foley was House Speaker.
We’ve lost that journalistic presence in the capital, with media outlets starved or now owned by out-of-state conglomerates. We’ve severed our readers’ and viewers’ connection with a city almost 2,500 miles away. Our congressional delegations’ influence is arguably greater than ever, yet there is a disconnect. Being there, with ears wide open, once brought news to a region where the federal government has exercised outsized influence.
During one annual Salute to Congress dinner, I was chatting with Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Oregon. Hatfield was a fascinating figure, at once idealist and master of the pork barrel. He was shaped into a near pacifist after being one of the first U.S. servicemen to witness what the atomic bomb did to Hiroshima. He was also Oregon’s provider — witness the federal courthouse in Portland and marine sciences center in Newport that bear his name.
Hatfield had a leak this night: The Reagan Administration was on the cusp of shuttering the plutonium-producing N-reactor at Hanford in Eastern Washington. He was tipping me off to prevent last-minute reversal of the decision. The administration dared not tick off Hatfield as chair of Senate Appropriations. I delivered the story minutes short of the P-I’s early 9 p.m. deadline.
On another occasion, Rep. Al Swift’s staff uncovered a report on the then-pending Everett base for the carrier U.S.S. Nimitz. The city had campaigned to get the base, with support from Swift and colleagues. The report showed pains going along with gains, forecasting a housing crunch and waterfront congestion. Swift did not want surprised and angry constituents. Everett Mayor Bill Moore reportedly ripped up a copy of the newspaper, but the news was out.
What are we missing nowadays? Both of Washington’s senators chair powerful committees. Murray is boss of Appropriations, seatmate Sen. Maria Cantwell chairs Commerce. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, is chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., chairs the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Backstage, Cantwell hammered together legislation designed to restore America’s computer chip industry. McMorris Rodgers pushed the House to pass energy legislation that preserves tax breaks for fossil fuel manufacturers and keeps public lands open to oil drilling and coal mining. (It’s going nowhere in the Senate.) In the waning days of the Trump administration, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., joined with military brass to block the president’s attempts to politicize the Pentagon. Smith was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
In this Congress, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Colleague Rep. Susan DelBene chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Blunt-spoken Rep. Marie Gluesencamp-Perez, D-Wash., is the undisputed star of Congress’ freshman class, having upset a MAGA Republican in last November’s election.
We see these folk making announcements out here: The Infrastructure bill is paying for airport upgrades and such improvements as a new Lummi Island ferry in Whatcom County. Sens. Cantwell and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have joined forces to push successfully for new polar icebreakers – the U.S. currently has just one – likely based in Seattle. The two “Gentleladies of the Senate” have fiercely opposed each other on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But both are adults: Relationships matter on Capitol Hill, even in a polarized America.
Our long-serving senators are reminiscent of the long-entrenched “gold dust twins,” Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, D-Wash., who served together for 28 years. If you want to know what they accomplished, look around, from the Trident nuclear submarine base at Bangor to the giant third powerhouse at Grand Coulee Dam, which is heating Northwest homes on this chilly early spring day.
Magnuson used to repeat a familiar line: Congress is composed of show horses and work horses. We have an excess of show horses in this era of cable TV news, members who use televised bombast to raise profile and money. A prime example: extremist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia. The workhorses, effective backstage players, are underappreciated and not well known. They are vulnerable to being “primaried” back home. Joe Kent, a Fox News fixture, upset Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., who was of 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump after the 01/06/2021 insurrection that trashed the U.S. Capitol.
A substantial amount of journalism consists of uncovering secrets – e.g. the Department of Energy plotting to make Hanford recipient of the nation’s nuclear waste – and witnessing the exercise of power. The environmental writer with the New York Times used to say, “You’ll get more bang for the buck if you give the story to me.” True, but our region has been the scene of major battles over oil ports and wilderness areas.
As well, our capital is home to fascinating characters. Nicknamed the “widow of opportunity,” Pamela Churchill Harriman was once married to Winston Churchill’s son and later former New York Governor Averill Harriman. She used her salon to raise thousands of dollars for Democratic candidates, and she was a close friend of House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., through which I gained entrée. The Georgetown mansion was filled with great art and pictures of World War II leaders.
It was revealing to watch a Democratic incumbent or candidate stand up, positioned between a Degas and a Renoir, to argue that Republicans were out of touch with the working people of America.
Once again, Joel, a good trip down memory lane. Your time in Washington was during the civil discourse period of Congress. Unfortunately, that seems to have gone along with the journalistic presence in Congress. Seems along with progress there has come a regress in journalism. Along with the loss of journalistic presence in Washington has gone the journalistic presence on the airways. Today you can pick your poison based on your political leanings, but the fair and centrist reporting has been replaced by the blaring voices of this wing or that wing. NPR seems to be the only way to get a more centrist view to our news (or the BBC). We are old Joel, and apparently out of step with the more reasonable days of yore. The more reasonable voices of Congress are faintly in the background as the MTJs and Gym Jordans spew their vitriol. Unfortunately, I don’t see a return to the past in journalism in the future. Perhaps it will change. Hope?
Are there any initiatives you’ve heard of to help states cover their congressional delegations now that so many news outlets no longer have a DC correspondent?
And while walking down memory lane, remember when the National Press Club building teemed with regional bureaus? Over the last few decades, one by one they were whittled down. Eventually I’d encountered the one remaining correspondent for Buffalo or Chicago Sun Times working on a laptop in the club lounge. They no longer had their own office.
I loved your piece on The P-I’s coverage of the Northwest congressional delegation in the days of you and Shelby Scates covering Scoop & Maggie et. al. The Seattle Times was very much a part of that coverage as well, with a correspondent in D.C. Thanks for this look back to better days for newspapers. The (Vancouver) Columbian, one of only three dailies in the state whose owners live in their circulation area (Seattle Times and Spokesman-Review), is hanging in there, God bless ’em. But, sadly, it announced this morning it is going from 6 to 5 days a week beginning June 3, with one “weekend edition” on Saturdays and no Monday paper.
A good reminder of the good old days in DC. But I would argue that the dismembering of coverage in Olympia is the fire that is burning. One has to turn to boutique journalists (sometimes featured here) to learn anything. Dark as night there in the middle of the day.
Great trip down memory lane.
The internet and 24 Hours news with accompany polarization killed many newspapers ability to pay for regional – NW – coverage.
Also sad— did not know Columbian cut back again.
But kudos to Ben Campbell and family for maintaining an independent voice!
Loved it, Joel. Keep ‘em coming.
Well said, Joel. It was a high point of my career to be Fisher’s DC Bureau Chief during those days.
Imagine the national scoops (pun intended,) the PI, Times, KOMO, KING and KIRO would be breaking today. And how much more accountable the members would be to voters back home. The bureaus were costly to maintain, but in those “good-ol-days,” local media ownership—local being the point—believed the bureaus served the public’s interest. And for the broadcasters in particular, their licenses required them to make that their prime directive. What a quaint concept.
And while some may claim the advent of cable made the privilege of using the public’s airwaves an outdated idea, and thus no longer a needed measure of a licensee’s worth (who uses antennas anymore,) I would argue that with more people now accessing their news (local and national) on their mobile devices, it’s come full circle. Once again the public’s airwaves are in use, and how local broadcasters use them should be a yardstick by which they are measured come license renewal time, even if—particularly if—the “suits” have never heard of Walla Walla, the Tri-Cities and couldn’t begin to pronounce Wahkiakum.