From College Hill to Capitol Hill: A Political Reporter Talks Shop
Government and theatre majors in hand, Niels Lesniewski ’07 launched his career in political journalism just in time for the 2008 financial crisis. After he took a job at Roll Call, in Washington, D.C., the first big Senate story he covered was the crash and the Troubled Asset Relief Program that was meant to stabilize the financial system and economy.
After he became Roll Call’s fulltime Senate reporter his first major story was the Affordable Care Act. Now, as Roll Call’s senior Senate writer, Lesniewski covers the institution as it wrestles with the health care law and other momentous challenges under the Trump administration. An acknowledged expert in the Senate’s arcane rules and operation, Lesniewski, a C-Span regular, can explain anything anyone would like to know about the “nuclear option.”
His career thus far has spanned a time of remarkable transitions on Capitol Hill, and he recently visited College Hill to share some of what he knows. Lesniewski was here as part of a speaker series sponsored by The Spectator, where he once worked. While he was on campus, he sat down for an interview. Here are three of the questions he answered for us.
What’s the most challenging part of being a political reporter in D.C. these days? The constant questioning of what is real versus fake news. The biggest challenge is to both convince your audience that not everything they read on the internet is true and to some extent to not be lured into reducing your standards in the chase of what we call clicks. You know, you can have a lot of traffic that you can get on your website by pushing things that are not really newsworthy or in some cases might not even be true. And so the biggest challenge, really, I think, is to maintain those standards and to also demonstrate why those standards are important.
What’s the fun part of being a political reporter in D.C. these days? I get to spend most days of the week actually talking to elected members of Congress and senators. And most of them know me. And sometimes it’s not fun at all because you have to ask the senators about something that maybe the president tweeted or maybe about a scandal of some sort. And so some days it’s terrible. But by and large it’s very interesting to have a much closer relationship with and knowledge of these elected officials than most people will ever have.
What do you hope to impart to aspiring journalists at The Spec and young people who are interested in journalism as a career? I have friends who are fellow Hamilton alums who then go on to whether it be Columbia or somewhere else and get a graduate degree, but whether you go that route or whether you sort of just dive in, the ability to — and this is a risk of being clichéd — but the ability to write well, and maybe even more so the ability to research well, are advantages that I think Hamilton students generally have over quite a few other people.
And I think the other particular thing for someone who is coming from a place like Hamilton, who maybe writes for The Spectator or is involved in (The Spec in) a various way, or even is just involved in the life of a campus like this, is how many of the stories won’t be different from the College newspaper stories.