Kimberly Atkins: I am Kimberly Atkins. I am the senior Washington correspondent at WBUR. And I am based in Washington, D.C.
Alex Schneps: So can you explain for people who may not understand: why is it important for WBUR to have a reporter present in D.C.?
Kimberly: Yes. So I am the first Washington based reporter for WBUR. And the idea was, although WBUR obviously has the benefit of all the great reporting that NPR reporters do in D.C., many of whom are my friends and I know, there are specific things that are Boston focused, Massachusetts focused, New England focused, that it is good to have a pulse on.
Alex: I would imagine that also maybe the point of being in D.C. is that you get access to all of these people that you wouldn't normally otherwise get. Has that changed at all since the pandemic started?
Kimberly: Yes and no. It has changed in the venue, of course. Normally my job would involve me spending a great deal of time on Capitol Hill, whether it's meeting with lawmakers in their offices to do interviews or going to press availabilities that lawmakers will hold or hearings that they hold or Supreme Court arguments. None of that is happening. All of that is gone right now. And they've been replaced by things like telephone calls, Zoom meetings. Lawmakers love Zoom, by the way.
Alex: Oh really?
Kimberly: They love getting on and having these meetings. In the beginning there was a lot of, you know, one lawmaker telling another that he or she was muted. For the most part, I think, especially right now when the response to the coronavirus is so important and there's such a focus of folks here, they've been very willing to make themselves available electronically. And what just about every lawmaker has been doing a lot is having tele-town halls, whether on Facebook or Zoom or some other form, which literally allows anybody who can get through with their call, or who can email in or Tweet in their questions or comments, to get in touch with lawmakers. So, in one way, it's probably a lot easier for some constituents to have that direct line through the use of technology. I mean, there are a lot of calls that I'm on and so is, you know, Sharon from Swampscott. We have the same access to the lawmakers. So at times it sort of democratizes the process.
Alex: That access, which is so important, it's such an odd irony that maybe there's more of it happening now. Do you see some of this sticking around when things start to return to in-person venues?
Kimberly: We'll have to see. I mean, I think one reason that it can happen now is that the lawmakers are in one place. They're in their homes, just like you and I are. Lawmakers are constantly on the go. The biggest challenge that we as reporters have is catching them. A lot of times that's why I'm in the hallways, because there'll be a hearing and I know they'll be in that hearing. And I can probably grab them as they're walking out of the hearing and walk and talk and get my question into them before they go to a constituent meeting or another sort of hearing or meeting.
Alex: Because you said the words "walk and talk," I'm going to nerd out for a second and ask you if the depiction of the West Wing on the Aaron Sorkin TV show is anything like your experience in your walk and talks?
Kimberly: Oh, you know, it depends on the moment. One thing that I loved about the West Wing was the interaction between C.J. and the reporters. And you have staff really pushing back and trying to figure out what the story is going to be and get their interest across. That does happen a lot. A lot has been made about how Elizabeth Warren, prior to her presidential run, never spoke to the press at all. And one of the fun activities would be seeing all the ways that members of her staff would, you know, either jump in between myself and the senator or, you know, give her a chance to run. She's really fast, too. She can run and hop in an elevator so fast. Elizabeth Warren is speedy.
Alex: Yeah. I imagine you can't necessarily have people just jumping into your Zoom calls either to save you.
Kimberly: No, you can not!
Alex: Have you also had that experience of seeing politicians homes and people you see everyday, and you're like, "Oh, my God, that's where you live? That's crazy. I wouldn't imagine it looks like that."
Kimberly: It's very true. Different people have different looks. Elizabeth Warren likes to use her sunroom at her home in Cambridge. If you've seen an online forum with her, you usually see that. On the flip side, you have someone like Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island, has a very, very formal looking space in his home. There's an American flag and that, you know, it looks very much like a congressional office when he does his video appearances, so everybody has their different style.
Alex: Are you asking anybody if they're just professional from the waist up?
Kimberly: [laughs] I have not asked that question!
Alex: Fair enough, fair enough.
Kimberly: But I wonder it. I just wonder.
Alex: Yeah. We'll just keep that keep that to ourselves. Politicians are obviously playing a critical role in planning and policy and just in leadership in general. And it's clear that things can still remain partisan even in a crisis of this magnitude. But is there anything that you're seeing in D.C. that is giving you some hope that people will be able to continue to work together in some way beyond just this this first stimulus bill?
Kimberly: Yeah, you know, I think it's pretty clear that for the most part, although a lot of partisan battles can feel very ugly and very personal and nasty - and I know the American public often doesn't have a lot of faith in its leaders at times, particularly here in Washington, D.C - one thing that I have seen from just about everyone that I cover and everyone who I see, particularly on Capitol Hill, is a genuine desire to get through this epidemic to ensure that the United States and its people make it through as best as possible. I think that it is the job of journalists like me to fairly report what our elected leaders are doing, and nonelected, what all leaders are doing, and saying and putting it into context. I think that's my job every day. And I take that very seriously because that's the information that the public relies on to make their determinations of how leaders are performing. And I think the rest is up to the public.
Alex: Kimberly, thank you so much for your work and thank you for your time. For anybody who is watching, you can stay informed with all of WBUR coronavirus coverage at wbur.org/coronavirus. Please sign up for Kimberly's newsletter, "Boston to the Beltway." You can sign up for that wbur.org/newsletters. And always tune into 90.9 F.M. Thank you, Kimberly.
Kimberly: Thank you.
Producer - Alex Schneps
Assistant Producer - Candice Springer
Technical Advisor - Niall Foley
Music and Audio Mixing - Adam Straus
Animation - Michael Diffin