Reporters Who Don’t Grab Headlines

Posted May 27, 2005 at 5:34pm

As a court reporter for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Melinda Walker spent a year and a half taking down the gruesome details of one of the most brutal genocides in history.

Now, the effervescent Texan spends her days recording the words of American politicians mired in the minutiae of budget battles and entitlement programs.

And she couldn’t be happier.

“It’s not as traumatizing,” she says, adding that she enjoys being at the center of each day’s news cycle.

Walker is one of just a handful of official reporters of debates — an elite corps that puts in up to 14-hour days to make sure that Members’ words and thoughts are preserved for posterity in the Congressional Record.

By most accounts, it’s one of the toughest jobs on Capitol Hill. It’s mentally and physically taxing, with few rewards and little public recognition.

“We’re supposed to be invisible,” Susan Hanback, the House’s chief reporter, says matter-of-factly.

Completing the Puzzle

Jerry Linnell, a shaggy-haired, suspender-wearing self-described bachelor who moved to Washington, D.C., from Minnesota more than 40 years ago to work as a court reporter, serves as the Senate’s chief reporter. He compares each day’s process of transcribing and compiling the Record to “putting a puzzle together.”

The first piece is the ongoing reportorial “relay” on the Senate floor.

With stenotype machines slung around their necks like accordions, reporters such as Mary Jane McCarthy, a 17-year veteran of the Senate’s eight-person team, move around the chamber to where Senators are speaking, taking care to stay just out of camera range. She relies on subtle — and a few not so subtle — signals to let the previous reporter know she’s there to relieve them, such as a sharp “OK.”

When her 10-minute turn concludes, she yields the floor to a colleague, then returns to her office to pop her stenotype disk into a computer, which transforms the notes into readable prose. (In the House, where reporters are wired into the sound system and seated at a stenotype machine in the front of the chamber, turns last 15 minutes.)

After McCarthy edits her text, she sends it to one of four expert transcribers who offer additional polishing. Following another read, she forwards it on to Linnell, who, as chief reporter, is responsible for poring over each transcript with a careful eye. Once it passes muster, the text is sent to the Government Printing Office.

“Sometimes a few minutes can take two hours in production,” Linnell says. “Sometimes 10 minutes can be done in an hour.”

By the time each transcript hits his desk, Linnell is usually about “an hour and a half behind,” he says. That means the final batch of copy, which starts going out by early afternoon, won’t reach the GPO until well after the Senate has finished for the evening.

By 9:30 a.m. the following morning, the roughly 200-page daily Congressional Record will be delivered to each chamber. It also goes to Member and committee offices, federal depository libraries and federal agencies.

Band of Brothers

An oversized black leather King James Bible, tucked away in a cabinet, speaks volumes about the small band of scribes who have served as Senate reporters of debates.

When they join the office, reporters sign their name in the front of the Bible, a gift from then-Sen. Huey Long (D-La.) in 1934. Since then, only 35 names have been recorded in the book. In addition to their date of birth and first day on the job, their deaths will eventually be noted there as well. A similar Bible appears to have been given to the House reporters during the same time period (the first name listed in it is dated 1934), but its provenance is unknown and the reporters there have been less assiduous in recording names.

Most Senate reporters come in with far more experience than a highly specialized physician: Fifteen years prior experience is the norm in the Senate. House reporters typically have less — about six to 10 years.

“I don’t think anyone’s ever quit or been fired,” says Senate Reporter Joel Breitner, a quick-tongued 18-year veteran of the office. “Either you die or retire.”

“I got it in my psyche,” says the 62-year-old Linnell, who spent nearly two decades toiling as a reporter before becoming chief reporter.

That said, the job is also hard on families.

“I leave in the morning, and they don’t know when or if I’m coming home,” Breitner says of his wife and two teenage children.

“It’s like having a candle burning from both ends,” says Senate Reporter Patrick Renzi, the father of nine children. “You just do it.”

The long, unpredictable hours seem to have taken a toll on the House, however. Turnover there is on the rise.

Within the past year, one reporter left to spend more time with her daughter. Another exited in search of “more of a personal life,” Hanback says.

“If I had children I would say, ‘No, I can’t imagine doing it,’” says Hanback, who is married. “Get ready to rearrange your life. That’s just the way it is.”

In addition to the strenuous schedule, Senate reporters have the added challenge of maintaining round-the-clock coverage during a filibuster or continuous debate.

Most Senate reporters still have battle stories of the 40 hours of continuous debate over the Democratic filibustering of President Bush’s judicial nominees in November 2003.

After working through much of the night and into the early morning during the debate, McCarthy returned to her Shady Side, Md., home and collapsed on her sofa.

“Please, Lord, don’t let the Senate come back,” she remembers silently praying.

On days like those, the short jog up the back stairway to his attic office can feel like “walking the Washington Monument,” Linnell says.

History’s Fly on the Wall

It’s been years since Senate reporters worked out of a room just off the chamber floor with a half-dozen transcribers banging out copy on a bank of Selectric typewriters that “used to sound just like a prop jet,” recalls Linnell. Then, there “were no electronics involved at all.”

Beginning in 1989, the Senate adopted the Computer Assisted Transcription system. The system enables reporters to store their stenotype notes on a computer chip in their machines, and later convert these notes into a readable format on their computers. That same year, the last Senate reporter who used Pitman stenography — the handwritten system employed for much of Congress’ history — retired.

After the change, which came a few years later in the House, “I could do in an hour what would take four hours before,” says House Reporter Bob Cochran.

The official reporters of debates became Senate employees in 1873, the year the GPO started publishing the Congressional Record. From 1848 until that time, Congress contracted with stenographers to take down Members’ words, which were then printed by private newspapers.

Prior to that, the Senate and House elected public printers who in turn sent reporters to take down the debates. These records were sometimes accused of prejudice and inaccuracy.

Once in the 1830s, for instance, the tension between Members and reporters became so fraught that some reporters were forced to carry concealed weapons.

Today, one would be hard-pressed to find a hint of bias among the reporters that Senate Legislative Clerk David Tinsley calls “the best in the world.”

Most reporters are tight-lipped when it comes to discussing the Members themselves.

“We’re very reluctant to give any information away,” Breitner explains. “It’s a matter of honor and integrity.”

Few would divulge the more amusing or tense moments they’ve witnessed on the floor — or at least claim to have forgotten.

Still, Senate Reporter Paul Nelson recalls one speech by then-Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas), who “was out [on the Senate floor] all by himself talking about the Kurdish people and the Turkish people.”

“He proceeded to say: ‘Mr. President, the Kirks and the Turds.’”

“I looked at Bentsen and he kept talking, but his face got red as a tomato,” says Nelson. “You can’t find that in the Congressional Record. He knew I’d fix it. With a slip of the tongue like that we know better.”

Meanwhile, McCarthy was on the floor when then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) dubbed a bill to revise the Tax Reform Act of 1986: floccinaucinihilipilification.

“I wasn’t thinking anything” except how to stroke what she had heard into her stenotype machine, says McCarthy of the word, which, ironically enough means “trivial, of no value.”

When it comes to literary and historical eloquence, though, few Senators top Byrd, Linnell says.

Senate reporters keep a “Byrd book” — a black plastic binder that holds every poem the octogenarian Senator ever recited on the floor during his eight terms (so far) in the Senate.

“He might have said the same poem six or seven times” over the years, explains Linnell, so it makes sense to always have them easily accessible. “He’s very much a poet.”

Most reporters at one time have had a personal “nemesis” on the floor — a Member who sends frissons of fear down their spine when he or she starts to speak, says Linnell.

For years, Linnell would “cringe” when then-Sen. Russell Long (D-La.), a motor mouth, spouted quirky sayings such as “high popalorum” or “low popahirum” (a habit his father, Huey, was also known for). Nowadays, Linnell is rarely on the floor except to “pinch-hit,” though he adds that the “wonderful Northeastern accent” of Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) “can throw you for a loop once and a while.”

In the House, Reporters felt the same nervousness whenever then-Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.), known for his fiery outbursts, or the late Rep. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), who spoke “Mississloppy,” according to reporter lore, approached the microphone.

Cochran was on the floor when Dornan, a former military pilot, implied that then-Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) was taking money from “coke-snorting, wife-swapping, baby-born-out-of-wedlock, radical Hollywood” leftists. All hell broke loose.

“I was frantic. He was going as fast as he can. Everyone was yelling. It was scary,” recalls Cochran, whose father also served as a House reporter.

“It was the worst turn of my life,” says Hanback of one particularly frenetic Dornan special order. “I had to leave stuff out. … I couldn’t get the names down.” (To be fair to Dornan, Hanback adds, he was unusually generous with the reporters, bringing them cake and even flags flown over the Capitol on the Fourth of July.)

Given such pressures, why would these reporters — whose earning potential and hours are significantly better in the private sector — soldier on?

Reporters point to their unparalleled bird’s-eye view of history, whether it’s reporting on President Bill Clinton’s Senate trial or, as Walker recalls, getting a playful wink from President Bush while taking down January’s State of the Union address.

Or maybe, it’s just the thrill of working for an institution that, however corny it may sound, is truly the heart of the nation’s democracy.

“Sometimes, late at night, if we have a vote and you’ve got an hour off and you walk around outside and you look up at the Capitol, you just think what an honor it is to be here,” says Cochran. “I feel like sometimes people would pay to have my job.”