This column is prompted by the pictures of the Capitol assault that triggered fond memories of where I had been an NPR reporter for about six months before I was recruited to start MU’s State Government Reporting in Missouri’s Capitol.
While the invasion of our U.S. Capitol raises several major issues for our country, this column addresses just one — the impact on reporters who have spent their careers in these centers of American democracy.
Capitol reporters spend such extended hours in these buildings that we come to think of them as second homes.
For this column, I reached out to a former student of mine, Sarah Wire, who covers Congress for the Los Angeles Times and also chairs the Standing Committee of Correspondents which allocates news media access to Capitol resources.
During the Capitol siege, she spent more than four hours secreted away in a locked room with Congressional members, staffers and other reporters to avoid being detected by the rioters.
Talking with her a few days later, Sarah agreed with me that a Capitol is like a second home because of the very long hours we spend in the building.
But she cited another component for this feeling — the proximity in the Capitol that fosters relationships from the frequent informal access to sources.
She said members of Congress would ask about her child and she knew about their children.
Good point. In both Washington and now Missouri, that close interaction helped me foster conversations that I’ve found so critical to understanding the issues and the process.
In no way do those interactions affect coverage of a source, but they do open lines of communication.
For Sarah, the riot was an example of the friendships that develop in the Capitol. Huddled down to avoid exposing themselves in the House chamber as rioters banged on the door, a legislator hugged Sarah and asked about her child.
Sarah wrote, “she took my photo with her phone and posted on Twitter, tagging @latimes to alert my colleagues I was OK.”
Being an outstanding journalist, Sarah quickly began interviewing the legislator about her thoughts while hiding in the building.
Sarah also said the long history of a Capitol building is a physical reminder of the monumental importance of what we are covering.
For many decades, on the first day of orientation for my journalism students I would sit them down at the press table inside the Senate chamber which resembles an ancient Roman temple.
I would stress to them that the ornate setting helps demonstrate the importance of the issues and process to senators, visitors and reporters alike.
So, seeing my former U.S. Capitol “home” trashed by invaders had an emotional impact on me. I fondly remembered almost every location shown in news accounts of the riot.
I end this column with a confession.
I now restrict my physical presence in Missouri’s Capitol as much as possible for fear of COVID-19 infection because so many legislators refuse to wear face masks.
Sarah has done the same, although she told me, “It makes me homesick.” Exactly my feeling as well.
Unfortunately, at least three members of Congress tested positive for COVID-19 in that room where Sarah took refuge during the Capitol riots and where many did not wear masks.
Search the LA Times for the headline, “I’m in a roomful of people ‘panicked that I might inadvertently give away their location,’” to read a powerful account of her experience.
In her article, she demonstrated her commitment to the process when she concluded her story: “More than four hours after being locked inside, I was permitted to leave. There was only one place for me to go. I headed upstairs back in the [House press] gallery — to chronicle history.”
This article by Phill Brooks is republished by permission of the Missouri Independent.