For our 100th episode, we’re joined by Scott MacFarlane, who covers Congress and the January 6th aftermath for CBS News. Scott has been with CBS since January after leaving the NBC affiliate in Washington DC. He’s covered Washington DC for nearly 20 years and has a long career as an investigative journalist as well, having won more than 20 Murrow and Emmy awards for his work.
His Twitter is the go-to source for information on every January 6th court case: MacFarlaneNews.
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A transcript of the interview is below
Mark: What’s your journalism origin story?
Scott: I started in high school. I started when I was 16 years old. I loved the local radio station, so I wanted to go work at the local radio station. And one of the things they had us young folks do is become reporters too. Go out there and cover the school board meetings, cover the city council meetings. I actually enjoyed it, enjoyed it more than I thought I was going to, and never took my eye off the ball.
Mark: Was there anything from your upbringing that would’ve foreshadowed whether it be your reporting work or your investigative work?
Scott: I was a kid who loved to read anything, anything I could.
Usually it was the sports section first. Actually, it might still be the sports section first. But I was a ravenous reader and I think for journalism, that’s kind of a prerequisite, right?
Mark: Where did you grow up?
Scott: Upstate New York in the city of dreams, Highland, New York, which is across the Hudson River from a city called Poughkeepsie, all of which is the most distant suburb of New York City
Mark: What was your general exposure to news at that time?
Scott: I was a news watcher as long as I can remember, and a sports watcher. I think first, in second grade I started watching the news and sports on tv, and I think that’s because it was back in the day where you had three channels and if you were a kid and wanted to watch TV at five o’clock, That was your choice.
You’re gonna watch the news or you’re gonna watch static. So I think I was a second and third grader watching the newscast each night. I developed a developed a fondness for it, even though it was way beyond my years.
And I was fortunate enough to grow up in suburban New York City. So I was watching the best newscast in America. It was good TV. Dynamic personalities. And I gotta tell you, one of the best parts of working at CBS News is I get to be on the air on WCBS in New York, which I grew up watching. Still a little thrill each time, Channel 2 comes on and I get to be part of it.
Mark: So fast forwarding to now when January 6th happened. Where were you and when did you come to the realization that you were gonna cover it as exhaustively as you have?
Scott: I was home. You gotta remember, this was pre-vaccine for most people. And so everything was pooled, everything was done to minimize bodies in the area.
We had subdivided. Coverage of this, and I was truly supposed to do it from home, follow what was happening at the capital. We were not expecting a riot, but just follow the proceedings. The floor debate was supposed to be a marathon debate over disputed electors and report for the local NBC affiliate about what’s going on, what’s, what’s the story there?
Then when the riot broke, That, that changed the complexion of the story quite a bit. But the story moved as soon as the tear gas lifted. As soon as the Capitol was cleared, the story shifted from the Capitol to the courthouse. They were going to arrest hundreds of those people. They were going to have to prosecute hundreds of those people, and that was a uniquely journalistically-advantageous position for me because I had two specialties as a reporter.
I was particularly specialized in covering the Congress, having done it for a while, and I was specifically well rooted to cover the federal courthouse in Washington, which was part of my responsibility as well.
And those two worlds. Because there was an attack on the Capitol, an attack on the Congress, and every one of them was going to be prosecuted at the federal courthouse in Washington. The only equivalent I can give you is let’s imagine you’re really, really good at playing baseball and you’re really, really good at kicking a football and you become a two-sport player.
You can find work all year round. You know, these were two different skillsets I had, or two different specialties I had. They kind of morphed into a year-round beat, a 12-month-a year thing to cover because I had to cover all the prosecutions. I had to cover the investigation. I had to cover what’s going through the courthouse. I knew so well, and I had to cover how Congress is going to respond.
There’s going to be some changes to security. There’s gonna be some changes to the police. There’s gonna be some political implications. We saw those Tuesday (Election) night. That became a 12-month beat.
And here at CBS News, I am the congressional correspondent, one of two congressional correspondents, and I cover Congress. I cover the prosecutions and it’s quite a lot.
Mark: The thing that impresses me most particularly about your Twitter feed is how you keep everything straight. You mentioned there are all these cases, there are nearly a thousand going on.
As someone who worked in tv, big tv I’m often very interested in the minutiae of organization and how you’re able to keep everything organized so that you can keep track of every case.
Scott: Yeah, that’s getting more and more difficult because when I started on this endeavor, there were a few dozen defendants.
There are now nearly 900 defendants. And what makes it trickier, and I think this is true in many different types of news and in many types of storytelling, sometimes it’s the lower-level person who can be the most interesting. I mean, there are people who, who are accused of conspiring to attack the Capitol, of.equipping themselves with money and weapons of preparing for this horrendous moment.
Then there are people who didn’t even realize they were inside the Capitol illegally or who didn’t touch anything, realized all hell was breaking loose and ran right back out. They’re charged with crimes too, and their backstories may make them more interesting.
What’s up with the the grandma who did this? What’s up with the person who brought his teenager or younger inside the Capitol. What’s that all about? Even if he or she didn’t take anything, break anything or punch anyone. So what that means is you gotta cover every case because you don’t know where the twist is going to be.
That makes that one uniquely interesting. And I can just tell you as a measure of engagement in editorial meetings, when I pitch reports, we should do a report on this person. Or when I’m on social media, the engagement can be, for the lower-level case, if there’s a curiosity to it, people are not just interested in the alleged conspirators or far-right groups.
They’re interested in the mom, they’re interested in the person of means, the person with an education. The police officer who was charged who came from a different city and laid hands on a police officer here. So that just means you gotta check it all.
Mark: So do you have like databases and spreadsheets?
I know that, and I’ll use this much smaller example. When the Mitchell Report came out for baseball, I was tasked with creating lists of things like what team every guy played for so that they could figure out which managers had the most players and they could figure out which managers to talk to.
I was someone that worked in the research side, essentially helping the sports equivalent of the people like you. So I’m curious, what kind of lists are kept, what kind of things you’ve got files on that you’re willing to kind of share that would help educate people that are or aspire to, to be in your position?
Scott: I started off with spreadsheets and then found them to be a little cumbersome because there was just so many people. Too much of my time was. working on the spreadsheet and not enough time was spent on journalism.
I was better off keeping just an alphabetized list of people and working, you know, off memory over whose cases have I found interesting or marking them down, noting them, and drilling deeper on those.
As I mentioned earlier, any one case when you’re covering the metro report, when you’re covering the largest criminal prosecution in American history, which is when you’re covering an NFL team, any one player could have the most rich backstory, but some just don’t.
Some just some just are uninteresting and too much like the others, not different enough and you can kind of let them atrophy. And I’ve kind of done that. So rather than spending too much of my time working on what would at this point be a nearly 1,000-person spreadsheet, I’ve kind of triaged what I think’s curious, interesting, different, and gone deeper on those and under my system, you know, keeping lists or files is easier. Just because then I don’t spend so much of my time on data entry.
Mark: Some of the lists that you do keep, at least based on what I can tell on Twitter, are weapons used and reasons given for being there. Are there any others?
Scott: Those are the key. At one point I was trying to keep track of how many of what states.Pretty much all the states now are represented in this criminal prosecution. Almost every state has a defendant who came and was charged with a crime.
I think what’s also interesting is outcomes. There is a subset of Americans, I’m not sure how large, but sizable, that thinks everybody who stepped foot into Capitol that day should be doing time in prison because this was a uniquely horrendous American moment and a scar on our country and a trauma to our country.
But not everybody who did is going to prison. And I want to see the range. There are people who are sentenced to probation, some who are sentenced to home confinement, some who are going to prison for sentences that can be measured in days or weeks, but not months or years.
And there are those who will ultimately, likely serve more than 10 years in prison. And I think that the, the outcomes are interesting.
Mark: I imagine as a veteran reporter, it’s easier to do this than someone might be a little younger: How do you separate the desire in your own mind as a human being to just kind of react to some of the things that come out compared to what you’re trying to do in your reporting.
Certainly some of the things that come out you, there has to be the incredulous reaction. How do you deal with, with things of that nature?
Scott: It was a problem at first. It was a real problem the first few weeks after January 6th, 2021, because it was one of those moments in history, maybe the only moment in history, where the size and scope of what happened became more clear as time went on.
And outrage grew as time went on and engagement in the reporting on it as time went on. That’s not typical for coverage of news events. Usually the further you get removed from an event, the less people are interested in it. This was the opposite. People became more desirous of information after months went by because the sheer enormity of it wasn’t known immediately.
There were some images we all saw that day and night and looked terrible. There were some accounts we heard that day and night that sounded awful. Certainly historic. But when more came in, we learned more. We learned how close the insurrectionists came to the vice-president who was running for his life with Secret Service.
When we learned of the masochistic or misogynistic, vulgar things that were said by the rioters, it became known how bad this was. When we saw how close America came to losing its democracy that day. That wasn’t known for days or weeks after in some instances. So, I had trouble at first muting my visceral reaction about it because this is a horror show.
It looked bad that day. It was worse than we thought. And as weeks went on, we realized that Now I think we’ve gotten a good sense of the scope and size and it’s easier to process when I hear a new nugget that is troubling.
Mark: Can you give us an example of a day in the life for you in terms of trying to report specifically on these cases where you’ve got four or five different things going on?
Scott: I’ll give you an example. I think this is not a typical day, but it’s illustrative what I think some journalists can pursue. It was a day in this marathon legal process of the accused Oath Keepers. The Oath Keepers are the far-right group charged with seditious conspiracy, top-line defendants accused of some of the most deep plotting and planning of attacks on January 6th, and the most notorious of the defendants that had the most notoriety. Whatever process was going, it was gonna consume the entire day at the courthouse in Washington and I think there were truly dozens of reporters there covering it, rightfully so And I made the counterintuitive decision that me being there might be redundant. Me, me staying for this whole thing may have diminishing returns because I think one of my colleagues was there as well.
Or one of our affiliate news services was there as well, and there were dozens of other journalists there. So instead I went to the other courtroom in the courthouse where there are four or five other January 6 cases going to sentencing or going to plea hearings or going to another stage of interesting matter and found four or five stories that day that nobody else was covering.
It was the same overall umbrella of capital riot, but I was zigging when other people were zagging. And I think when journalists do that, it may be a strategic decision, maybe because they have no alternative, but I think we’re all better. I think everybody was better served that day because somebody was laying eyes on the things everybody else was ignoring.
And I think, if I remember correctly, somebody told me you got a lot more engagement on those than we got on ours because they were subdividing the same pie. Now my news organization wanted to be kept abreast of what was going on in that trial. So I think maybe I asked a colleague to sit in while I moved elsewhere, but I moved elsewhere.
I always find that interesting in the postgame locker rooms where 50 cameras surround the running back or 50 cameras surround the pitcher. And I know you wanna be there, you don’t wanna miss something, but the other cameras are there. They got you covered.
Why don’t you go talk to the shortstop talk to the left tackle. He may just tell you something different. And isn’t everybody betteriIf we spread out our resource and ask the person who doesn’t get as much or check out the thing that doesn’t get checked out much. It might be the most dynamic news or interview of all
Mark: You utilize Twitter extremely well and extremely intensely. And I’m curious about specifically the video reports that you do on Twitter, why you do them and what the response has been to them.
Scott: I’m a big believer in those. I’m a big believer in providing something on a social media platform that is differentiated from what you’re doing elsewhere.
And give you an example. I will post when I think it’s worthy, some of the videos that we broadcast, some of our news stories, some of our news videos on social media. And there’ll be some people who like it, who react to it, who comment on it.
When I specifically record something exclusively for the social platform, wildly more. Wildly more engagement because I think what the audience craves is something that is specific to them. Yeah, I did this special for you. Here’s something I got in my notebook that is just for you here, and I don’t know, I don’t say it in so many words, but I think people sense it and they realize that they watch, that they watch a social media video, they’re gonna get something they can’t get elsewhere, and that’s why those work.
As long as you can communicate formally, informally, directly or indirectly that I’m about to tell you something, you’re only gonna see here, or at least in a style or format you’re only gonna hear here. I think those work, if I just regurgitate something that I put on a broadcast platform or another platform, it gets a proportionally less engagement. That’s how I think about it.
Mark: What’s the, what’s the relationship like for you, the reporter-defense attorney relationship, like in a situation like this? Because I imagine you’ve been in DC for 20 years, you’ve covered, criminal trials, covered all sorts of different things. There’s a certain reporter-defense relationship that happens. What is it like for these cases?
Scott: I’m pretty sure most defense lawyers would rather I shut up. It’s hard for defense attorneys to evoke sympathy in any criminal case with defendants. I mean we’re not running around telling a story of woe for their client and getting tears from people or getting empathy from people.
Very often I think it may be harder, and still in this case, when people share accounts of what their clients have done or accused of doing or admit doing or say it’s sentencing, there’s not a lot of sympathy for those who participated in the capital riot, and so defense lawyers maybe would rather their cases fly under the radar.
And a lot of these defendants, I’ve heard it, consistently complain openly in court about their Google problem, that their name is now Googleable and linked to January 6th in perpetuity, hurts their chance for employment, maybe hurts their chance for romance or friendships and they don’t like it. And us reporting on it doesn’t help that problem at all.
And I think defense lawyers, on behalf of their clients would rather we stop or not look at their filings. We’re not gonna do that. We’re gonna look at their filings. We’re gonna listen to what they say because somebody needs to pay attention to every one of these cases because every one of these cases involve somebody being part of a historic American moment.
Mark: What’s the hardest part of the job?
Scott: This requires Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays to keep up on these things because these cases move at all hours any hour of the day. There can be a new case filing on a Saturday morning, on a Sunday night, on Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day.
So it’s kind of a 360-degree beat. And you gotta keep up with it because, it’s not that I don’t mind if I get scooped on this beat, because there’s a couple really good reporters on every beat in America, and there’s some good reporters covering this too. What I mind is if I don’t keep up with it and you’re gonna fall behind if you miss something that happened Thursday.
You’re not gonna know why Friday’s thing was important. You’re gonna lose the context of what happens next week. In that case, if you didn’t find out what happened last Thursday, you fall off the cliff more than you you fall behind.
So I’ve gotta keep up with it and at some point I’m worried my wife’s gonna throw the phone out the window of the car cause she’s about done with it.
And she’s a wonderful woman. A patient woman, but it’s been nearly two years now and every single day I’ve gotta click through, punch through some court documents and that’s gotta be fatiguing her at this point.
Mark: How do you deal with the mental stress?
Scott: I find it, I, I feel like I’m getting desensitized to some of these details, which is not good, but maybe it’s a protective measure.
There’s some hassling that goes with it. I think everybody covering this particular story gets some nasty grams from people unsolicited. And I don’t just mean to people involved, I mean people who are sympathetic or who view this as political and have their politics on their sleeve. That gets annoying.
That gets frustrating, but it also underscores the significance of it. If somebody’s that passionate to scream bloody murder at me, I’m obviously covering something important.
Mark: We talk to reporters of varying experience levels, and whenever I get someone on who’s been a reporter for 20 years, I always try to ask this question, whether it deals with this thing that you’re covering or something in your past.
Do you have a good story about a journalism lesson you learned from a mistake?
Scott: That’s where I get most of my journalism lessons from: A mistake. I always say this, that you can’t always please everyone with what you’re reporting, but you can always be fair.
And I think when I started at this, I thought that simply reaching out to someone to give them a chance to give comment or give their side was sufficient in all I needed to do to be fair.
And you certainly need to do that. To be fair. You need to give everybody who’s a party to a news report time to tell their side of the story. You have to give somebody time to respond. You have to give somebody a fair opportunity to respond and a fair sense of what you’re actually doing with that comment.
And I always thought if I check the box, send, make the call, leave the voicemail, send an email. I, I can go to print a minute later, I’ve done my part and think I got some kickback when I was young doing that. As you know, you gave me a chance to comment, but in practicality you didn’t.
And so I always tell myself and reporters: Did I give sufficient opportunity for somebody to give me their side of the story? Did I give ’em a true sense of what story I’m pursuing so they give me the right side or the right part of their piece? Did I give them enough time? And I try to always err on the side of waiting a little longer, give ’em a little more time.
II make a point on social media as to not post that somebody’s been charged with a crime until I’ve given the defense attorney sufficient time to respond or until I at least notify the defense attorney that I’m prepared to announce the case. Now if there’s a news release sent out, that’s one thing.
But for example, if somebody’s arrested tomorrow in the. Western District of Texas with an obscure crime, and I spot that case filing in my daily searches. I may report that the case is filed. It’s gonna be interesting for people to know it, but I’m not gonna do that till I find or try to find the defense in the case or the person charged to let them know I have a chance to say their peace.
It’s not fair. And like I said when I was younger, I wasn’t as either judicious about it or I didn’t give them enough time to.
Mark: I have three questions left. Just so you know. You’re so immersed in everything that’s related to January 6th, but I’ve noticed that you’ve gone off the path a few times to report on other things, including baseball, apple farming, and a West Virginia Radio host.
Why do you do those stories?
Scott: I wanna enjoy the range of stories. I just, I’m a journalist who likes to have variety in my life, much like everybody likes variety in their lives. I also want to be valuable, and I think I provide a value to my employer by covering something a mile deep. But I also think they find some value in me helping them cover some other stuff too.
But also, this story is localized to Washington, DC. By necessity, all these cases are coming through Washington, DC. They’re all being prosecuted here. I’d like the chance to see the rest of America. So other stories give me that opportunity.
Mark: How has being a journalist shaped how you view the world?
Scott: I get to talk to more people. I get to see more people, have more diversity in my life. I love that. Love that. I get to talk to people who aren’t my age from my background, from my town, where I live, grew up where I grew up, has the same interests. So journalism gets you a chance to be more empathetic and understand more people.
Now, I was in midtown Manhattan for the past week. Last month I was in Morgantown, West Virginia. You’re gonna see lots of different people as a journalist, you get the chance to meet a range of people. I find it to be the best.
Mark: Election coverage is still going on essentially as we speak on November 10, and I did wanna just at least touch on it in this respect. How have you found the touchscreen experience in trying to report on the election?
Scott: I find it to be stressful at first because you’re only as good as the equipment triggers the equipment. The equipment fails, you fail. Yep. But find it fun. It’s much more challenging than just talking. It’s much more challenging than reading. And after you do this for a while, challenges are invigorating.
Mark: So we’re here to salute you for your good work. That’s the point of the episode. But is there someone that is in the industry, a group or a person that you would like to salute for their good journalism work?
Maybe someone we don’t know.
Scott: There’s a news director in at our CBS affiliate in Los Angeles at KNX Radio, one of the great radio stations in America. Hia name is Alex Silverman. He a young guy and one of the smartest, sharpest, and best students of broadcasting I’ve ever met in my life. And that’s usually not what you say about a young guy. He’s going to run the world of broadcasting someday, so I’m trying to stay on his good side.
He’s going to be my boss, I’m sure, someday. I’m trying to stay on his good side, but if you look him up, Arguably the most talented broadcast mind I’ve ever come across.
Mark: Scott MacFarlane thank you for taking the time to join us. We’ll continue to be following you on Twitter and watching you on CBS News.
Scott: Thank you.