CQ Roll Call’s News Head on Covering Congress, Iowa’s Unreliability and Trump

By Diane Clehane Comment

lunch at michaelsIf the ear-splitting decibel level was any indication, the media mavens and money men had plenty to talk about today. My lunch date, Steve Komarow, CQ Roll Call’s vice president and news director, certainly did. Up from Washington for a quick trip (he was catching the 3 o’clock Acela back to DC after our lunch), I was glad he made time to meet me and dish about the mood on the Hill, size up the head-scratching presidential campaigns and talk about CQ Roll Call’s position as the go-to source for news and analysis for Washington insiders. Lisa Linden, CEO of LAK PR, who knows more Beltway power brokers than anyone else I know, arranged our confab.

Steve-Komarow and Diane Clehane

Steve Komarow and Diane Clehane

Steve, who is celebrating his first anniversary at the helm, oversees the largest newsroom dedicated to coverage of Congress and has a CV that is ripe for the Showtime treatment. “I’ve never had a beat I didn’t like,” he said. He got his start in the ’80s as a local news reporter for the Associated Press in Washington. “Marion Barry was mayor — it doesn’t get any better than that,” he said between bites of Cobb salad. Then, he moved to Capitol Hill — “at the time of the Jim Wright scandal [the congressman resigned in 1989] and the end of Tip O’Neill’s term as Speaker.”

A decade later, he landed at USA Today as a defense correspondent, covering three secretaries of defense and military operations in several war zones like Haiti and the Balkans. He made headlines as the first reporter to cover a cruise missile launch from inside a B-52 bomber. When I asked Steve if he was an adrenaline junkie, he seemed amused and said simply, “I like to challenge myself.”

Steve was embedded with the U.S. Army during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and went on to cover the capture and trial of Saddam Hussein, reconstruction efforts, and the insurgency. In 2006, he returned to the AP as deputy international editor in New York, overseeing journalists in more than 90 countries before moving to the Washington bureau. He also did a stint at Bloomberg News before landing at CQ Roll Call.

It was clear talking to Steve that he is very much the political news junkie who enjoys the digital “deep dive” CQ offers to its subscribers. Although you might not know it from the exhaustive media coverage of the Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls,  “There is a lot of [other] serious stuff going on” in Washington and CQ Roll Call’s readers are looking for all the inside baseball intel they can get. “Our readers are professional people in the White House and Congress, federal agencies, lobbyists. They are very interested in process, policy and regulations. They are looking for a very specific level of detail. It’s our job to keep our eye on the ball.”

And so they do. Last summer, Congress was trying to pass an appropriations bill just after the Charleston, S.C., church shooting. “There had been several Democratic amendments and late one night, the Calvert Amendment from the Republicans came through that would have undone the ban [in the previous iterations] on the Confederate flag at cemeteries managed by the National Parks Service. No one caught it, but we did. It was pulled from the floor and there was an uproar on the Hill. After that they never passed another [appropriations bill].”

“Almost everything” is behind a paywall because, explained Steve, “Our subscribers are looking for an edge. We have to provide news and analysis they can’t get from other sources.” Gone are the days when hearings provided true “oh my god” moments, said Steve. “They’re scripted and more for show.” As for the information that comes out of Congress itself, “There’s a misconception that everything about Congress is online. It takes real work and a certain level of reporting to find out what’s really happening and give insight on what could happen next as opposed to what they tell you is happening. Congress is full of clues and we know the code.” The site also serves as a subscriber resource with lengthy profiles of every single member of Congress. The print magazine, CQ Weekly, serves as “a showcase for our reporters’ best work.”

Steve is expanding CQ Roll Call’s coverage of state news (“There’s much more being done at the state level than the federal level”) and is in the process of designing a new digital edition of the magazine. There are also podcasts on various topics available on iTunes. While the site is all about using the best technology to deliver the latest digital news, Steve believes strongly in accuracy over speed. “People pay for reliability and it’s our job to provide accurate accounts of what’s happening. That’s what the amateurs out there can’t do. We’re very much a gumshoe organization.” Next week, Steve will be making “a significant personnel announcement” that is sure to get people talking.

If you’re a reporter “who loves covering policy,” CQ Roll Call may be the place for you. Steve, who in his teenage years toiled as a butcher in a Westport, Conn., steakhouse, explained it this way: “You’ve got to love finding out how the sausage is made.” Reporters also have to be comfortable reading and interpreting data in the reams of reports out of Congress. “You’ve got to understand when someone is trying to bamboozle you.” And, of course, having a thick skin is absolutely essential. “Congress can be intimidating. I sometimes have to tell young reporters your job is to be the skunk at the picnic.”

That seemed like the perfect segue to ask Steve what he thought about Donald Trump. He declined to offer his own opinions (“I’ve got to stay objective”), but said the genuine discontent among some voters has helped fuel his rise. Still, “It’s too early to make predictions. In three weeks, after Iowa and New Hampshire, things are going to look a lot different.” After watching an episode of The Good Wife, which made the Iowa caucus look a high school popularity contest (A silly story line had Chris Noth‘s character running for president), I asked Steve to explain its true significance. “Iowa is an institution, but it’s actually not a very good predictor [for the election’s outcome] but it might narrow the field some.”

No doubt things will only get more interesting in Washington as the election draws near. “Congress is in turmoil. The Republican party is divided and the Democrats on the Hill are unusually quiet,” said Steve as we finished up lunch. “There’s a lot of quirky people in Washington. We’re doing our best to be useful.”

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman amid a sea of suits

2. Harry Macklowe

3. New York Magazine publisher Larry Burstein and Maurie Perl

4. Jim Abernathy with Penske Media vice chairman Gerry Byrne

5. Catie Marron

6. Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Jeff Greenfield and blink and you missed him Andy Bergman

8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia with Barbara Liberman

9. Lynn Nesbit and Kathy Lacey

11. Chris Taylor

12. Wenda Harris Millard

14. Keith Reinhard

15. New Criterion’s executive editor James Panero (who I ‘Lunched’ with a while back) and wife Dara Mandle chatting about her upcoming 10th anniversary Poet’s Night on April 5 at the National Arts Club. James has a lengthy piece on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in The Wall Street Journal next week. Quite the busy media couple, no?

16. Discovery ID’s Henry Schleiff sporting his usual country club couture — Loved the yellow v-neck!

17. Two of my favorite Michael’s regulars: PR maven extraordinaire Judy Twersky who is always connecting me to the most interesting collection of bold facers (Charles Spencer, Dennis Hof and Heidi Fleiss — bet you never thought you’d see those names in the same sentence!) and Susan Silver, the talented comedy writer and the female voice behind The Mary Tyler Moore show, Maude, The Bob Newhart Show and The Partridge Family. If you want have some laughs over lunch these are definitely two gals you should know.

18. Steve Komarow, Lisa Linden and yours truly

19. The ‘Two Joans’ — the fabulous producer Joan Gelman and the First Lady of radio Joan Hamburg who can be found on 77 WABC

21. Quest’s Chris Meigher and Peter Lyden

22. PR princess Maury Rogoff and Barry Frey, who stopped by our table to ask Steve about Donald Trump’s latest move involving his feud publicity stunt with Fox News

25. Tom Goodman

28. Bisila Bokoko

29. House Beautiful’s Kate Kelly Smith

81. Vicky Ward

Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.

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