Kathy Kiely ’77, a former reporter and editor for several news organizations, including USA Today and National Journal, has covered every presidential campaign since 1980. Since last December, she has been managing editor of the reporting group at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing transparency in government. She talked with PAW about the current presidential race and how politics has changed.
You have covered a lot of campaigns. Have they gotten nastier and less substantive?
Whenever people tell me they think that politics has gotten as bad as it can get, I remind them about Sally Hemmings, who, as most people know, was a slave and Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. We know about her because of James Callender, a hack journalist whom Jefferson hired to dig up dirt on his opponents. When Callender discovered that Jefferson’s opponents paid better, he switched sides and began digging up dirt on Jefferson, including the Sally Hemmings story. So campaigns have always been dirt-throwing operations.
However, I do see more nastiness in Congress itself. When I first went to Washington, covering Congress was fun because it was unpredictable. Now members of Congress are like little robots, and their party affiliation pretty much determines what they are going to say and how they are going to vote.
What has caused that polarization?
Some people blame jet travel, which enables members to travel home on weekends, so they no longer stay in Washington, where they might get to know each other a little better. I think the new forms of media are another reason. The Internet gives us fantastic opportunities to broaden our perspectives, but it also enables us to put blinders on. If we use this wonderful new technology to get news that is by, for, and about people who already agree with us, it limits our perspective. We stop realizing that there are other people who may legitimately have different points of view.
What effect are the so-called super PACs having?
They have become an avenue for unlimited money raising and spending, and that doesn’t even count the money that corporations now can spend to influence elections in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case. Corporate spending is not just limited to large, well-known, and publicly traded companies like IBM or General Electric. We’re also talking about incorporated nonprofits that don’t have to disclose their members or donors.
Some people rebut calls for campaign-finance reform by claiming that Americans spend more on potato chips than on elections. How do you respond?
When you’re watching a commercial for potato chips, you know who is paying for that commercial. When you’re watching a commercial that is brought to you by some group with an Orwellian name like Americans for a Better America, you have no idea who is paying for that commercial or what their agenda is. If you’re electing a president and someone is trying to influence your vote, you have a right to know about them.
Do journalists have less access to candidates than in the past?
In 2008, I had far better access to then-Sen. Obama and Sen. John McCain when they were on the Hill. That’s one reason why I liked covering Congress, because I could walk right up to the newsmakers and talk to them. On the campaign trail, it’s a much more stilted environment. I don’t entirely blame the candidates for that. It’s part of the digital era, where everyone has a flip cam or a smartphone and can video anything. You just can’t have those off-the-record conversations with candidates anymore.
For citizens who want to follow politics in an intelligent way, what sites would you recommend, besides your own?
My rule of thumb is to check at least one source that you don’t agree with. If you’re a conservative, tune into MSNBC or NPR once in a while. If you’re a liberal, tune into Fox or read The Weekly Standard. People who have grown up on the Internet need to be taught to be skeptical about what they find online. Some of the techniques of Journalism 101 need to become part of our training in Citizenship 101. With so much unfiltered information coming at us, everybody has to become a more intelligent consumer.
— Interview conducted and condensed by Mark F. Bernstein ’83