Twenty years is a long time in the evolution of a cable news network—and a career. “When I first started, it was Ted Turner’s CNN, meaning it was a very different kind of vibe,” CNN’s chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash tells DuJour. “He used to say, ‘The news was the star.’ I never heard the term ‘ratings’ uttered ever, because we were the only show in town.”
Of course, that’s changed with competition from Fox News and MSNBC and, now, CNN boss Jeff Zucker’s aim to “broaden the definition of news,” but the New Jersey-raised Bash, who began her career there in 1993, claims the network’s mission has remained the same. In the past year, she broke the news of conservative senator Rob Portman reversing his position on gay marriage, worked around the clock during the government shutdown and reported from the eye-opening “Alpha House” where three senators live like frat boys.
Despite her behind-the-scenes access, it’s not exactly the gasp-inducing stuff Scandal and House of Cards are made of. “Maybe I’m Pollyanna, but I don’t know anybody who sleeps with a congressman in order to get information,” says Bash. “But aside from that—and I don’t think members of Congress tend to murder each other—there is a lot of believability [on TV] in how some backroom deals get done.”
In fact, as Bash describes it, “legislating is art.” All that jockeying and negotiating takes Underwood-ian levels of concentration. “You have to learn your craft and there are a lot of new members in the House and Senate who don’t yet know that,” she says. Yes, she’s talking about Texas Senator Ted Cruz. “I’ve never seen somebody so disliked who so doesn’t care,” says Bash. “He’s not there to be part of the club.”
Ultimately though, a politician’s success can hinge on navigating connections and flawless, Olivia Pope-style crisis management. “The people who are the best survivors are those who understand that you can’t do it alone,” says Bash. (As for whether she’d ever want to guest star on Scandal, Bash replies: “Of course, are you kidding? Kerry Washington went to my college, she went to George Washington University!” Shonda, are you listening?)
But when events move so fast, there’s a need for lightning-fast reactions in covering them, too. Handling breaking news becomes a Herculean exercise in multitasking, which Bash describes as follows: “You have that moment when you get a scoop and there are three things you have to do,” she says. “You need to tell your bosses you have a scoop so you can get on the air. You have to get on social media so you can tell people to watch you. And then you have to physically get on the air.”
Indeed, amid the scrambling, Bash still takes the time to tweet—and is one of the most followed journalists by Twitter-scrolling members of Congress. But her adrenaline-fueled life comes with a price: “There are definitely times where my head is down and I’m walking though the Capitol and I bump into people by accident, because I’m trying to use my time wisely.” The news cycle means Bash juggles three digital devices at once (BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad) and charges forth on minimal sleep. She did, however, heroically give up coffee after being pregnant with her now two-year-old son. (Bash is recently divorced from fellow CNN anchor John King.)
Her nonstop work comes with wide recognition: In 2012, Bash and senior congressional producer Deirdre Walsh reported on a loophole in the STOCK Act, later winning multiple awards for the exposé—oh, and Congress managed to fix the flaw, too.
As a CNN lifer thus far, Bash has developed her own cunning to cover the politicians currently popular with only about 5 percent of the population, and she’s now familiar enough with the players to anticipate their next moves. “I think it matters that I’m comfortable with the legislative process and the ‘dorky’ side of Congress,” she says. “I get what makes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tick. I’ve been to his hometown and profiled him, and spent time with House Speaker John Boehner. To understand the people you cover is half the battle.” The other half, it seems, is adapting alongside them.