By his own account, The Baltimore Sun Washington correspondent John Fritze wasn’t supposed to end up in the field of Congressional reporting. He was “fully expected” to continue in his father’s footsteps and become a goldsmith. Alas, Fritze lacked the talent to become a jewelry maker, but found his niche in journalism instead. Fritze is a 2002 alumnus of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and has also worked as a political reporter for The Indianapolis Star and USA Today.
Fritze attended the NPF issues briefing on the debt ceiling in June, just as the debate was heating up on the Hill, and has worked ceaselessly in covering it specifically from the Maryland constituency’s point of view. When I spoke with him, he was just about to follow Congress’s lead and take a vacation.
Give me a sample of your typical day.
Today [Aug. 10] is cool. Cal Ripken, Jr. is doing this thing where he’s going to go to Japan and bringing in some Japanese teenagers to do baseball clinics, teens who were affected by the tsunami. Tuesday through Thursday I usually go up to the Hill. I have a seat up there. Those days there’s a certain rhythm to reporting up there which took me a long time to figure out. Lately I write basically every day so I try to get in early and read the Hill papers. A lot of people don’t do that and I think it’s really critical to do that. I do more White House stuff now which is kind of fun. My typical day can really change. Sometimes I don’t get to my desk until four in the afternoon.
When did you first start reporting on the debt ceiling? How sick of it are you by now?
I’m glad it’s over. I got here in 2008, and first it was TARP [the Troubled Asset Relief Program], then we went right from that to the stimulus, then we went right from that to health care, and then it was the 2010 midterm elections, and then it was the special-session at the end of last year dealing with the taxes. And now it’s the debt ceiling. Since Obama has taken office, Congress has sort of lurched from one crisis to another the last couple years and so that has been difficult. Schedule-wise, it’s been a lot of hours. So yeah, by the end of the debt crisis I think everybody was tired. It’s palpable up there.
The atmosphere around the health care debate seemed more exciting. The debt ceiling debate just seems more frustrating.
The exciting thing about health care was that you could tie it to real people much more easily. It was easy to identify how it impacted people. The debt ceiling much less so. My job is a little bit different at the Sun. My job is to connect these stories back to Maryland. That was difficult to do on this story because it’s not a local story necessarily.
How do you give Washington issues a Maryland angle?
It’s hard. That was the issue I hit on the most. Federal workers are one issue, and the biggest one, and sort of in tandem with that are the federal contractors. Maryland has a huge contracting base, Lockheed Martin being one of them, and a lot of the cuts being contemplated were defense contract cuts. Maryland, because of its relationship with Washington, was in greater jeopardy of losing its own bond rating, and there’s still some talk about whether Maryland is going to lose its own AAA bond rating. At one point Moody’s had threatened to downgrade Maryland as well. So that’s an example where you can really tie it in. You can say, what were those bonds for? Well those bonds were for school construction. What school projects needed to be done? And how does a downgrade of Maryland’s bond rating affect state taxpayers?
We also had a couple players in the state delegation and that’s the way a regional reporter frequently does this stuff, is to localize it through the delegations. And there’s a service in that. I think it’s important for readers to understand what [Senators Ben] Cardin and [Barbara] Mikulski are saying on this and what the House members are saying.
In your story on the final debt deal, you started and ended your story with Sen. Ben Cardin, who ended up voting in favor of the deal. How do you decide which Congressmen to center your story around?
Whoever is the most compelling story. Cardin was a compelling story that day because he was not going to tell me how he was going to vote. I knew how most of these guys were going to vote. Cardin was kind of a holdout. He said he decided on the way to the floor.
What is your opinion of the deal that was reached?
It clearly doesn’t solve the problem. It pushes things off. It pushes off the hard choices, particularly on entitlement reform and taxes and what’s going to be done on that front. I think that’s part of the reason S&P did what it did. I think everybody is so boxed in politically that it makes compromise very hard.
In talking with people who are facing the cuts, what do you hear the most?
I went to one rally where the federal workers weren’t talking about themselves so much as the people, their clients, they call them. For instance, Social Security recipients. [The] Social Security [Administration] is based in Maryland. I went to a union rally out there and I heard a lot of people independently talk about, well we’re hearing from all these Social Security recipients who are worried about not getting a check, and we’re not sure what to tell them because we’re not sure if we’re going to get a check. Obviously, concerns about pensions was a huge one for the federal workforce. That still may be on the table. It’s still unclear to me what’s going to happen with federal workers under the super committee. So they’re worried about benefits, clearly.
What are you hearing in terms of emotions?
I think there’s a resignation about government and a disappointment. People are really angry and that’s clearly what spurred the Tea Party movement. So it’s clear to see how that movement came to be, but I’m not sure that satisfied people. I think it satisfied a certain contingent of people, but I think there’s this vast swath of people who are still just as angry and upset, and they don’t have a Tea Party movement to hold on to.
How are you preparing for future problems that will arise from the debt ceiling?
Right now I’m not. [Laughs] Right now I’m taking a break. This is going to be the topic for the election, clearly. This is all they’re going to be talking about. There were several pressure points along the way. One is the super committee, one is the extension of the payroll tax cut that Obama first put in. There are all these usually routine votes that are going to become huge fights. It’s going to be one right after the other.
I think it’s going to be hard. None of these guys want to talk about these specific cuts. One of the hardest things about my job is figuring out exactly where the cuts are because it’s not always clear. Look at this thing that they just passed. It’s not clear who exactly is going to take the hit. And it’s certainly not clear who’s going to take the hit under the super committee. In some ways it may be easier once some of those details come out and we can look at constituencies in our state and say, look, here are seniors who are going to take a cut. A unique challenge to us as regional reporters is to figure out where this connects to slices of our readership.
Have you noticed any gaps in coverage of the debt talks by the mainstream media?
I think we could have done more in looking at the credit rating agencies and seeing what they were doing. I was surprised that the threat came down about the Maryland credit score. I would have liked to have done a story looking a little more deeply into the factors that went into that decision by Moody’s. There just wasn’t time. I think we, the media, have to be careful about being spun about the impact. I think it will be interesting to see what the impacts are beyond the stock market issue and if it’s as bad as some were threatening.
What did you take away from the NPF program?
I go to a lot of things like that just to learn, not to do any reporting out of, not for anything that’s going to show up in the paper, but just to learn what people are thinking and saying about stuff. So if ever I have time to go to something like that, I will. I try to make it a priority. I think it’s part of being a good journalist, being a reporter, to take a step back occasionally and listen to what experts are saying.
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