For 50 years, PBS' "Washington Week" has gathered a rotating group of reporters to share and discuss information about the nation's most pressing issues. It's an approach that's satisfyingly wonkish and, amid a TV sea of partisan megaphones and questions about journalism's role, especially important.
An "oasis" is how Robert Costa, The Washington Post reporter who was named the show's moderator last April after the loss of much-admired Gwen Ifill to cancer in November 2016, describes it.
"We don't have polemicists on. We don't have people who are columnists. We have reporters," he said. "No snark, no apocalyptic ventilating about the news, no snide opinions, no praise. Analysis. It's not complicated."
Costa said that's what draws respected print and broadcast journalists to the program that airs Friday nights (check local listings for times). They include Washington Post veteran Dan Balz; Peter Baker of The New York Times; Jeanne Cummings of The Wall Street Journal; Erica Werner of The Associated Press; and Nancy Cordes of CBS.
The show's half-hour format offers viewers in-depth conversations about complicated topics including health care, foreign policy and, on this week's show, the mass shooting in Las Vegas and the renewed gun control debate it's provoked.
"We want to be a show that every political junkie loves," which encompasses the Trump administration's West Wing tumult, Costa said. "But when I travel around the country as a reporter, people love that we're covering policy."
As a former "Washington Week" guest and now as its eighth host— Ifill was among the longest-serving at 17 years, topped by Paul Duke's 1974-94 tenure — he feels a sense of responsibility to the traditions of the show produced by public TV station WETA in Washington. But Costa and Jeff Bieber, executive producer (with fellow WETA executive Dalton Delan) of "Washington Week," believe it can find a larger voice in the expanding digital world.
"At this time in history, where the country is, people are hungry for information," Bieber said, and younger viewers routinely expect to find it online. To reach that digital audience, a "Washington Week" podcast will launch next year, with other components in the works to add to the show's website.
"Washington Week" will be ready for the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential contest that Costa said is going to be "wild," with a probable Republican challenge to President Donald Trump, perhaps 20 Democrats seeking their party's nomination and outside contenders who could include Mark Cuban and Michael Bloomberg.
Whatever technological or political changes lie ahead, Costa is adamant about retaining his neutrality as a moderator, in his Washington Post stories and as a guest on other news programs, with "based on my reporting" his trademark phrase in TV appearances.
"I've always worked to be highly disciplined in my reporting. ... to be sensitive to constant objectivity," he said. "I have a strong professional rapport with Sen. (Bernie) Sanders, and I have a strong professional rapport with President Trump. ... I come at my reporting with no assumptions that you're good or bad, a success or a failure. I want to hear your story and report on it."
A native of Yardley, Pennsylvania, Costa, 31, said his father's love of politics was a big influence. Costa recalled wrangling credentials to get into the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia with his brothers — before 9-11 and tightened security — and delightedly roaming the floor. For him, appointment TV viewing meant Sunday mornings watching Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Costa, who earned a bachelor's degree from Notre Dame and a master's from Cambridge, was a reporter and Washington editor for the National Review before joining The Washington Post in 2014.
National political reporting is invariably "competitive, ruthless, and not everybody's going to love you. If you can accept those things, you can have a ton of fun," he said, enthusiastically noting his cross-country trips covering Trump, Hillary Clinton and Congressional races.
"What a life," said the affable, low-key Costa. "I'm not only honored, I'm lucky. And to do 'Washington Week.' Every day I'm reporting front-page stories for the Post, and every week I'm thinking, 'How can we have the greatest conversation Friday nights?'"