Skip to content
Alumni Q&A

From Western to Washington

CBC’s Katie Simpson gives us a behind-the-camera look at the wild world of U.S. politics

Ambitious, stylish and politely tenacious, Katie Simpson, BA’06, brings a unique flair to Canadian journalism. Alice Taylor caught up with the Washington-based CBC foreign correspondent in February at a D.C. hair salon—with a full head of foil (a long story involving a botched dye job—“nine different colours!”)—and again in March for a candid and wide-ranging conversation on everything from January 6th to presidential politics to why Western was a happy surprise.

Thanks for making the time to chat with us. Especially on your day off.

My pleasure. Anything for Western! But I am going to turn my camera off now.

Your dance card is very full these days. What do your days look like?

It’s intense. The days are long, but they’re exciting. I start my day from home with a call to my assignment editor around 8 a.m. We chat through options and come to an agreement on the story we want to do. She pitches it and off we go. On a good night, I’m home around eight. But when we go live to The National, maybe I get home around 11 p.m.

I scanned The Washington Post politics section this morning and was struck by how eclectic the coverage is. Has this been your experience too?

Definitely. It’s the wildest range. Looking back at the stories I covered this week: Sunday was about the killing of three U.S. soldiers. Monday was the follow-up story on possible U.S. retaliation. Tuesday was funding pauses for UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency). Wednesday was tech CEOs testifying before Congress and their inability to keep children safe on social media platforms. Thursday was about Taylor Swift/Travis Kelce conspiracy theories. When I think about it—that’s just nuts.

You were in D.C. on January 6th. What was that like?

We were prepared for something to happen —though we weren’t expecting any violence during daylight hours. Many of the people there truly believed the election was stolen. They believed the lies about election fraud, and they were angry. We saw people starting to climb scaffolding they’d put up for inauguration and, while I couldn’t see it from my vantage point, shortly after people started breaking windows and rushing the Capitol building. I don’t know how to describe it other than surreal. Inside that building were law-makers who have a duty to oversee the peaceful transfer of power after a free and fair election and there was a violent effort to stop that. If this can happen in the most powerful country in the world, then, I don’t know.

What is the vibe you’re getting now in the run-up to the election?

It’s clear there’s frustration over the options at the top of the ticket. In a country of over 360 million people, one thing we’re hearing is: How are these the candidates we’ve ended up with? When it comes to Joe Biden, there has been a lot of talk about his age and his ability to continue to serve in one of the hardest jobs on the planet and function at a high level. Another concern, particularly among younger and progressive voters, is Biden’s response to the war in the Middle East. And Trump, well, he’s a super polarizing figure who has been indicted four times and is accused of trying to overturn the results of the last election. His supporters remain enthusiastic and energetic. There’s real motivation there. But there’s also a limit to his appeal outside his base.

You go into these tense, polarized situations, put a microphone in a voter’s face and ask them hard questions. How do you steel yourself for interviews like this?

The thing is, it’s not usually voters that you have the difficult conversation with. The most difficult conversation is with someone in a position of power, and it’s an accountability interview. In this context, the most important thing journalists can do is to be polite but keep pushing until they answer the question you’re actually asking them, not the question they want to answer. It’s all about treating people with respect.

We’re seeing all these media layoffs at places like the L.A. Times, Time Magazine, NBC News. Journalism has been a high-risk profession for decades now. What made you go into it?

The entire time I’ve been in journalism, everybody has told me the industry is crumbling, and you won’t be able to maintain a successful career. And they’re not wrong. I’ve seen a lot of peers lose their jobs and it is so difficult to watch. But I firmly believe democracy depends on having a free and fair press. And for that reason, I keep going.

Who are the journalists you admire?

Adrienne Arsenault (BA’90, MA’91, LLD’13). Full stop. She can see things the rest of us can’t. And no one works harder than Adrienne. She puts incredible effort into everything she does. There’s a reason CBC chose to make her chief correspondent and co-anchor of The National. And, you know what else? She’s incredibly supportive of younger journalists too.

And a fellow Western grad to boot. Speaking of, why did you go to Western?

So, we moved to London when I was 13. And I don’t know if I want to say this, but I really wanted to go to Ryerson, now TMU. But I ended up at Western, and it was such a great experience. I was a guinea pig in the first year of the media, information and technoculture program. I’m so glad I was. I learned a lot at Western. Being there expanded my horizons. I think my education sent me into the world knowing how to think and ask the right questions. And that’s what I do for a living, right?

What do you still want to do?

I’m in D.C. for another two years, at least. I do think my sweet spot is political coverage. And right now, my immediate future is focusing on this massively huge, consequential election. Where I go from here, I don’t know. I just want more. 

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.