Sarah Kliff: An Author’s Voice in Policy Reporting

12.14.18

This is part 3 of Moxe’s conversation with Sarah Kliff. Find part 2 here.

Even when the word “I” doesn’t appear, “I think all of our writers have voices,” says Sarah Kliff, senior editor at Vox.com, and perhaps the nation’s leading reporter on healthcare policy. “That comes through in their stories.”

She’s been at Vox since it launched in spring, 2014. A veteran of The Washington Post, Kliff has appeared as an expert commentator on PBS’ Newshour and Washington Week, National Public Radio, CBS, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.

“It’s been great. I’ve been really, really happy” at Vox, she says. “It’s really nice to be in a newsroom that’s growing, a newsroom that does a lot of experimenting with different sorts of storytelling, a place where I’ve been able to get involved in podcasting and crowdsourcing projects and just test out a lot of new ways of telling stories.”

One of those ways has been to occasionally write in first person, which is usually taboo for reporters.

“I kind of had to be pushed into it,” she admits. “It’s been good. I don’t think I would have been able to do it five years ago. I think I’m only comfortable with it because I’ve been reporting on the material for so long.”

Even when she doesn’t write from personal experience, “I’ve written other pieces here about how this is such a secretive healthcare process, and that was told very much from my vantage point,” she says, “the vantage point of someone who’s covered Congress and healthcare for the last decade, and could speak to how it’s changed over that time period.”

That expertise was important on May 3, 2017, very early in the repeal/replace debate, a day when Kliff’s headline jolted official Washington:

Republicans exempt their own insurance from their latest health care proposal;
Republican legislators want to keep
popular Obamacare provisions for themselves and their staff.

“That [went] out late at night one night, like 10 at night, and a law professor who I’ve known for a very long time e-mailed me and said there’s a provision in this that exempts Congress from all these regulations,” she recalls. “And I said what?

The professor then phoned her. The exemption “was not obvious at all,” she says. “There were all these cross references and I would have not found it on my own. But he walked me through it and I thought he was right. I emailed the legislator who was involved in that provision and they confirmed that it was right, which shocked me.”

She wrote and filed the story. And then . . .

“I did feel the morning after was crazy. Mark Meadows (R, North Carolina) who runs the ‘freedom caucus,’ was talking about how this story was completely wrong. There was no exemption.

“I am freaking out. What if I got this wrong? I am calling more people who are telling me it’s right. It was very weird to wake up and see a Congressman on national television saying this story was absolutely wrong.

“And it wasn’t. But that was a weird position to be in.”

In the end, a separate bill was passed to close the loophole. “So I felt really good about that,” says Kliff. But in the front lines of healthcare policy reporting, the pressure is always on; recently she was specifically called out by the White House, comparing her in “in spirit to Lenin and Mao.”

Her rebuttal begins, “Some days you go to work and not much exciting happens.” Other days . . .

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