Alumni “were part of a national moment”: Discussing news and media from a C-SPAN perspective

Victoria Gill-Gomez

News Editor

Washington College’s slogan “Do you. Do it all. Do it here” is reiterated by alumni who come back to share their stories of how the College prepared them for careers beyond academic interests. Seth Engel ’93 and Gerard McGarrity ’90 are such alumni. 

Engel and McGarrity did not plan on careers in journalism, but they found their ways to the craft, finding comfort in their roles as public servants and tellers of truth.

Engel and McGarrity are Senior Producers at the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network, a nonprofit public television station that covers federal government proceedings and other public affairs programming. 

C-SPAN is an open newsroom where there are thoughtful discussions about how to present issues. Much of this, according to McGarrity, is quick decision-making. However, according to both McGarrity and Engel, having collaborators “going in the same direction” creates an ease of coming to a consensus about goals and knowing immediately what words should not be used to filter the truth behind events.

“We’re not looking to sensationalize, we’re not going to have big flashy headlines or tickers or anything like that,” McGarrity said, because C-SPAN is more about providing information as a public service than delivering a narrative. “We’re going to take that route almost every time even sometimes to the detriment of sort of how exciting it is.”

“I know how much Gerard, myself, and all our colleagues care about accurate presentation of information,” Engel said.

According to Engel, C-SPAN is not about investigative journalism but looking to other reporters and information in order to provide a more detailed and well-rounded resource for viewers, paying close attention to how their language, graphics, and headlines depict a story. 

In the world of politics, Engel said that it is easy to quickly become jaded or cynical towards the partisanship.

Politics is a comfortable topic to Engel, a fourth-generation Washingtonian, coming from a family of government workers, “so politics was something that was always discussed at my kitchen table growing up,” which led him to study political science at WC. However, he did not want to engage in “the snipping” that the topic brought.

Engel’s immediate employers after his undergraduate education included the National Association of Broadcasters and The Washington Monthly Magazine. Those jobs scaled the periphery of both politics and journalism. 

In between jobs Engel bartended, which is where he met a producer at C-SPAN who suggested he apply for a job with the network. He rejected the idea at first but decided to apply after some time because he wanted to try something new.

When Engel first arrived at C-SPAN, he was under the impression that the job was going to be boring with “no thrills,” but now sees that this job has been “beyond [his] wildest dreams.” 

In the 25 years since, Engel has held “a front row seat” for two impeachments, a presidential election that was decided by the Supreme Court, the first African American president, a complete dynamic shift in Congress, and so forth. 

McGarrity joined C-SPAN a few years later, after realizing that his “jump into politics” clashed with his personality and desire to be objective when crafting a story.

McGarrity was a humanities major and, after taking a film class senior year, attended the University of Utah for a master’s degree in film studies with an emphasis on documentaries. 

“I was [at the time] romantically thinking of making documentaries somewhere…You have such a different vision and a much more holistic vision of yourself,” he said.

He first interned at a public affairs television show, and later freelanced as a videographer and editor to get more experience with media and video production. McGarrity’s education in politics began with an opportunity from the Democratic National Committee to edit news video reels for former President Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign run in 1992.

“I set out on a journey and ended up here and am very happy about how things worked out,” McGarrity said.

As both men continue to work from home, 90% of their work can be done remotely with minimal interruption to their viewers. This is oftentimes due to a time lag from phone to screen as the producer is contacting master control from afar. 

“I don’t think the IT workers of this country get as nearly enough credit as they deserve,” Engel said.

An estimated 250 workers at C-SPAN, including producers, reporters, and editors, moved to remote work in about a week and a half. Engel and McGarrity said that the nature of their jobs made them believe it was impossible to do remotely, McGarrity even comparing the idea to being asked to work from Mars. However, the actual switch was phenomenal in its efficiency.

On the occasion that either McGarrity or Engel do enter C-SPAN’s office, it is for “big-ticket” events, such as the upcoming impeachment, which require more formal coverage with a host and crew.

Though these last 25 years have brought a sense of security and excitement, Engel said that tensions have become worse by degrees and now exponentially with overt violence occurring in the streets, especially towards journalists.

Due to the shift caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and growing social issues this past year, it all seemed to capsize on Jan. 6. Engel said he now fears for his and his team’s safety due to political attacks on journalists as “enemies of the people.”

“If there’s any bias I’m portraying, it’s biased towards journalism which is what we do. It’s not pro or con the Trump Administration,” Engel said.

C-SPAN covered the rally at the White House live but Engel and McGarrity were set to focus on the joint sessions between Congress and the Senate. According to them, they were both so focused on the electoral vote counting that the rising tensions at the pro-Trump rally “was kind of just off to the side,” until those events later overtook what was happening at the Capitol.

Due to the nature of the breach of the Capitol, it is on the “onus” of the reporter to not take things at face value,” according to Engel, as they experienced that historical moment minute to minute with an immediate reaction instead of going back to properly characterize and sift through the proper language.

“The story transcended politics all of a sudden and we were a part of a national moment,” Engel said.

Engel and McGarrity continue to cover the changing policies implemented by President Joe Biden, the impeachment trials, and National Guard protection over the Capitol. This culmination of moments leading to what Engel said is hopefully the most accurate and direct representation of current circumstances in the country currently to C-SPAN audiences.

According to Engel, who continues to stay in routine contact with WC, what he misses currently is being able to host current WC students at C-SPAN for job shadows and internships as he enjoys being a network link for those looking to have a future in television, politics, or journalism.

Featured Photo caption: Seth Engel ’93 and Gerard McGarrity ’90 stand in C-SPAN’s Washington D.C. headquarters on Jan. 6, prepared to oversee the coverage of Congress’ joint session to certify electoral votes from the 2020 presidential election. Photo Courtesy of Seth Engel.

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