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Decoding DC

Andrea Seabrook ‘96 has seen Washington up close for years, and she has declared it broken. And not just Washington. Much of American journalism is broken, too, she thinks. But she remains confident in the citizens’ abilities to intelligently participate in American democracy, and of journalism to serve that cause.

So Seabrook, formerly of National Public Radio, has set off on her own to try to fix what’s broken.

She is founder and sole proprietor of the new news venture DecodeDC.

DecodeDC is a podcast. It’s a blog. It may be the next generation of public radio. But it is definitely a call to the citizenry to start thinking critically about American politics. Her main message:

“We don’t have to think about it the way we’re told to think about it by the two parties. They’re just giving us their narratives. We have to develop our own.”

Time For A Change

Many know Seabrook from her decade covering Congress for NPR. That’s where she gained the subject expertise she pours into DecodeDC.

It’s also where finally, during the Great Budget Standoff of 2011, she knew she just could not go on working as a megaphone for politicians.

She saw the legislators caught up in “shenanigans of party over citizenship that caused the problem in the first place. (But,) as a journalist I found myself in a position where I couldn’t say that. The whole thing was just maddening.”

She couldn’t say that because so much news reporting focuses on daily developments and demands daily reports even when there is no news. The format also calls for sound bites from politicians, even when they aren’t exactly being frank.

So Seabrook looked at her assigned mission to report news where no news existed by quoting people who weren’t being truthful. Then she looked at her beliefs that journalists perform a critical civic function and to do that the news must be completely truthful.

“I see us veering off the path of trying to tell the truth into something else… The compass is off north,” she said. “I just couldn’t do it anymore the way it had been done.”

Her religious roots helped her reset her compass back to true north, leaving a job with national visibility to work full-time from home. “The most important thing that Quakerism has taught me in this process is the ability to let go and leave the hot-shot job the job everybody wants for the ideal that I strive for.”

That ideal is quality journalism, journalism that really matters. Early episodes of DecodeDC looked at “The House of (mis)Representatives,” the neuroscience of politics (the episode is named “Mind Control”), and a presidential voters guide that left behind the issues heard about in mainstream media to look at the elephants in our national room: food policy, poverty, campaign financing and candidates’ deepest beliefs.

DecodeDC’s slogan is “Washington is broken. You are not.” So Seabrook’s work constantly challenges listeners to think differently, to think critically about what’s going on and to think — and act — independently. “If you don’t demand more of the parties they won’t do more,” she says.

Crowd-Funding a One-Woman Show

DecodeDC is mostly a one-woman show, although Production Assistant Lina Misitzis helps keep Seabrook on track and supplies other valuable assistance. But the two of them can’t do it alone, so they turned to the online crowd-funding site Kickstarter.com to try to raise the $75,000 they needed to finance a launch year.

They started a fund-raising campaign Sept. 25, 2012, and ended it 25 days later with a pledge total from 1,628 backers of $100,724, or 134 percent of the goal. Seabrook has promised 30 episodes this first year of production. More donations come in daily through a link at www.decodedc.com.

“It’s important to be funded by the people who are listening to your content,” Seabrook told an interviewer from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “It’s important not to overlay a profit motive on journalism because I think it changes your master, in some ways. When I have hundreds and hundreds of people giving me five, ten dollars, then I know my bosses are those people and I’d better provide them a real service…. That is exactly the public radio, public media model.”

Seabrook worked for WECI public radio all of her years at Earlham. She studied biology and Spanish, and she values that subject-area knowledge. In fact, she still uses it on a daily basis. One fall morning before the election, she faced critical deadlines for her podcasts and important interviews to publicize her work. But that didn’t stop her from spending precious minutes in her home office chatting on the phone in Spanish and then checking out Cornell University’s “All About Birds” Web site to identify a small critter spiraling up a tree in her suburban front yard. (It was a brown creeper.)

But knowing Spanish and biology is not her main take-away from college. “What ended up being important was being able to think critically and write sharply,” she said. “To me, the important thing you learn is staying curious…and (staying) true to your values, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Her public — her investors — agree. On her Kickstarter page, donor Jacob Conrad summed up his reason for donating: “I mean, it's Andrea Seabrook; untangling the BS. Wasn't that you, just the other day, going on about how ‘the media no longer does its job’? Well this is what it looks like when the media does its job.”

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