Skip to content
The Dispatch Monthly Mailbag with Haley Byrd Wilt
Go to my account

The Dispatch Monthly Mailbag with Haley Byrd Wilt

Haley answers questions from members about working as a reporter on Capitol Hill, why she thinks Lazarus could be the "Beloved Disciple" in the Gospel of John, science fiction, and more.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Dear Dispatch members, thanks for sending in questions—and for giving me an excuse to talk about science fiction (among other topics, of course) during a “work” activity.

We’ll start off with work-related questions, though:

Aylene Wright asked about the pros and cons of print journalism and TV journalism.

I rely on written journalism more for my own news consumption because it is almost always more detailed and nuanced than a TV news hit about the same topic. I also enjoy writing more than being on TV—I only did a few hits when I was at CNN. But TV journalism often has an easier time reaching larger audiences than print, and it can be used for really compelling storytelling and investigations. The best journalists I worked with at CNN were adept at both, using TV to push their written stories further.

“Exhausted” asked if working at CNN clashed with any of my political beliefs and if I was ever pressured to give my work products a leftward tilt.

I was never pressured in that way, and everyone I worked with at CNN was very professional. I was working with their Capitol Hill team most of the time, which had an incredible pool of experience. I got to learn so much from them! The difficult part for me was the fact that CNN covers just about everything. It was overwhelming to be so tuned into the news, and I got pretty burnt out by the end of it. Being at The Dispatch gives me more time and space to work on thoughtful stories.

Kevin Johnson asked how I got journalism jobs without a college degree.

The earnest answer is God opened doors. The semi-earnest answer is Twitter. Journalists spend far too much time on that site, and during the 2016 election I was posting a lot of goofy tweets and… memes? I made some journalist acquaintances through that, and when one of them—Joe Perticone, who was at a startup called IJR and is now at The Bulwark—was hiring an intern to help out with Capitol Hill reporting, I applied. The Twitter connection helped, and I had a few clips to demonstrate that I could sort of write. I published an early attempt at a “news story/opinion piece” online that year, about American libertarians and Russian propaganda outlets. (Spoiler: It’s repetitive and could’ve used a thorough edit.) But it was enough to snag the job. IJR gave interns a monthly stipend that mostly covered rent and made it possible for my incredibly supportive parents to send me up here. 

I’ll never forget turning in my first story to Joe. He was baffled by all the transitions I’d used at the start of each paragraph. (“Howevers” and “Therefores.”) He laughed that I had written an essay instead of a news story. I had a lot to learn! But I loved it. I was there at a really hectic moment: the Affordable Care Act repeal attempt soon dominated the headlines, and I spent way too much time on the Hill following late-night meetings and every twist of the story. After a couple months, it became clear I didn’t want to go to a traditional, in-person college like I’d initially planned. I’ve been doing online school since then, but my pace seriously slowed down after having a baby in 2021. I might finish one day—something like a decade from now.

Seth B asked what my favorite course in online college has been thus far.

I go to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and because it’s an aeronautical school, my program has an Aviation History requirement! That one was a lot of fun. I hadn’t learned most of the material before, and it was very applicable to the real world.

I’ve also done a lot of homeland security courses that have been useful for work. A fun one was industrial security, where we came up with risk management plans for fake companies.

Amytotty1 asked about a comment I made on a recent Dispatch Live: Someone tried to get me to predict an election outcome, and I tried to sidestep answering by saying I don’t do politics. What did I mean by that? How do I avoid that while covering Congress?

I’ve reported a few campaign stories in the past, but I struggled with the nebulous nature of it. Nobody really seems to know how elections will unfold, and so much of the reporting is about what candidates say they’ll do even if they’re not being earnest or specific. It’s obviously important to know who candidates are and about trends in the parties, and my colleagues do a great job covering it. (Subscribe to Dispatch Politics!) Writing about Congress allows me to dig into policy debates that are more concrete, even if I still have to broadly acknowledge how electoral politics are playing into those policy decisions. (I also love Congress as a beat because it’s a gateway into all kinds of other stories: Yes, politics, if you’re into that. But also outer space! Need a break from the daily news cycle? Perhaps it’s time to listen to a committee hearing about going to the moon!)

Bradley Alpert asked how important it is to ferret out deception by lawmakers and their staff while reporting on Congress.

This really depends on the office and the story. I try to bring a critical eye to all the information I receive from folks on the Hill. Longer relationships with some offices make this easier—at a certain point you know when someone is generally a straight-shooter. It’s always useful to ask: What angle is this lawmaker/source trying to get me to take in my writing? What questions did they avoid answering? And then I go from there: What context do I need to include to clarify any misleading talking points they gave me? What other sources should I talk to?

Charles Richert wrote that he studied with my husband for a semester in D.C. and wants to know how he’s doing.

Evan says hello! He is in his second year of law school. He’s doing George Mason’s evening program, and he takes care of our toddler during the day. He’s a great dad. (And yes, he is still emotionally recovering from the Ravens game a couple weeks back.)

John Daly had another Evan-related question: He wondered if we regret failing to monetize Evan’s Kit Kat controversy with some kind of Youtube channel dedicated to him failing to eat food items properly. 

We probably should have! At one point we did try to create a little cooking show—Evan is a fabulous chef—but production was a challenge because I was a useless camerawoman and kept getting hungry while we were filming. We have two episodes (and an original theme song) to show for it: buttery biscuits and hot chicken.

Grace Prigge asked about balancing my career at The Dispatch with raising a toddler.

I’m blessed with a lot of support from Evan and a fairly flexible work schedule. As long as I turn in my newsletters on time, it doesn’t quite matter if I write them during the work day or after Lewis goes to sleep. The middle of the week is usually busier for me because that’s when Congress is more active. I’ll spend time on the Hill pestering lawmakers during votes and tuning into various events and congressional hearings. But during recess weeks I can often work from home. My colleagues are also very understanding whenever we’re having a chaotic toddler moment (yay, urgent care trips).

JohnM wanted to know where Evan and I would like to retire one day.

We’d probably want to be close enough to family to visit often. My parents live in Florida and his are in Baltimore. It’s not retirement, but I would love to spend a month or two exploring Italy one day. In the meantime, I’ll have to be content with watching Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy

Patrick.Beecher asked what in D.C. still gives me a sense of wonder and a feeling of optimism for the future of this country.

The local church. Folks at the church we attend and our friends at other churches are very focused on serving others, spending quality time with each other, and growing in faith each day. It’s a really refreshing base to have in a city where everything often feels transient, busy, and bitterly divided.

Since I mention church, I might as well get to the Lazarus question. I set myself up for it in the first mailbag email because I’m kind of obsessed with it, and many of you wanted the follow-up. Why do I think Lazarus may have been the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John?

Disclaimer: I am not a historian or a theologian and I’m very much open to this being incorrect. But I found this argument by Ben Witherington III, a New Testament scholar, pretty convincing. Some main points:

  • The first mention of Jesus loving someone in the gospel comes in John 11:3, referring to Lazarus. Witherington argues listeners at the time could have naturally taken this to be the first narrative introduction of the Beloved Disciple.
  • The locations of miracles included in this gospel compared to those in the Synoptics suggest the source material came from someone closer to Jerusalem than the 12 disciples. (There’s also the fact that the turning point in this gospel is Lazarus’ resurrection from the dead.)
  • The Synoptic gospels indicate the 12 disciples deserted Jesus once he was taken for execution. They record only women being at the cross. These details, Witherington notes, aren’t contradicted by John 19:26, when Jesus is on the cross and names the Beloved Disciple Mary’s son and her his mother, if the Beloved Disciple is Lazarus instead of one of the 12. And which follower of Jesus would have less reason to fear death and flee than one who had already been raised from the dead?
  • The editor of the gospel takes such clear pains in John 21:23 to deny a rumor that apparently spread among believers that the Beloved Disciple would never die. This makes… a lot of sense if that person was Lazarus. Witherington writes: “No solution better explains all the interesting factors in play here than the suggestion that the Beloved Disciple was someone that Jesus had raised from the dead, and so quite naturally there arose a belief that surely he would not die again, before Jesus returned.”
  • Finally, the Gospel of John has such a different style and tone than the others. Witherington writes that the author “wanted and needed to shout from the mountain tops that Jesus was the resurrection, not merely that he performed resurrections.” If the Beloved Disciple “had been raised not merely from death’s door, but from being well and truly dead—by Jesus! This was bound to change his worldview, and did so.”

I’ve left out some of his other points for space, and he also responds to some of the arguments in favor of the traditional view in the full blog post. You can read it here.

Now, on to China policy. Hartzlk wants to get solar panels installed at home and asked if forced labor concerns would be straightened out now that the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act has gone into effect. 

This is difficult. So many solar products rely on inputs from Xinjiang. Customs and Border Protection has been stopping a lot of solar shipments under the new law, an encouraging sign for folks who want to buy products without contributing to human rights abuses. But it’s very likely customs officials are missing some that are tainted with forced labor. Here are some companies that manufacture panels in the United States, but these still probably rely on components from other countries, including China. You could try contacting them to see if they’ll walk you through their supply chains, but it may be tough to get them to be upfront about it.

Rdtomasello51 asked if the new House select committee on China will produce legislation to help oppressed minorities in China, like the Uyghurs.

Both the Republican chairman, Rep. Mike Gallagher, and the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, have told me they’ll focus on human rights concerns. But I’m not sure if that will translate to legislation, or if the pre-existing Congressional-Executive Commission on China will continue to spearhead most China human rights bills.

There’s a big opening for Congress to exercise oversight of the forced labor law this year to make sure it’s actually working, and to step in and beef it up if it’s not. 

I’d also expect to see some members continue to push for Uyghurs and others affected by the genocide to receive priority refugee status. The effort has gotten bogged down by broader immigration politics in Congress. President Joe Biden could do it unilaterally if he wanted to. He just hasn’t yet.

Christopher Cerone asked why China policy seems uncoordinated, unsophisticated, and ineffective even though Democrats and Republicans broadly agree about how to approach China right now.

It’s a little simplistic, but I’d mostly blame the executive branch. This isn’t a recent political observation, it’s a dynamic that has existed for more than two decades. Congress often wants a tougher approach to China, given its human rights abuses. And presidents of both parties want trade with China because it’s lucrative and means lower-cost items for American consumers. Other policy priorities come into it as well: Read this section of my story on the forced labor bill about the push-and-pull between congressional Democrats and the Biden administration over human rights versus climate priorities, for example. The revolving nature of American administrations also means it can be tougher to have long-term strategic planning that the government will actually stick to. I’d recommend Josh Rogin’s book, Chaos Under Heaven, on the Trump administration’s dueling factions and unpredictable approach to China issues.

Clarke Moody asked if there is a practical way that the U.S. and China can forge a healthy competitive, as opposed to an unhealthy combative, relationship.

It’s clear the Biden administration would like to cooperate with China where possible, but the Chinese government’s aggressive behavior is making that nearly impossible. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to China being delayed last week because of the Chinese spy balloon over the United States is the perfect example. It would help a lot for forging a healthy relationship if the Chinese government stopped committing genocide, offered basic human rights to its people, and left Taiwan alone.

Okay, I saved the science fiction topic for last. Dr. Livesey asked what attracts me to SF books.

I love that it’s very much a genre of ideas. And of course I agree with the popular defense of science fiction as a powerful tool for examining our own societal structures, etc. But my most honest answer is that I just think space travel, aliens, and anything remotely related are cool and fun to read about!

Schroc4 asked what I see as the differences between science fiction and fantasy.

I’ll crib from Analog’s definition: “We publish science fiction stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse.” That’s not to say stories that don’t meet that definition aren’t science fiction! I really enjoy books and stories where those lines are blurred.

Schroc4, RrHorton, Dave Carson, Marty, and others asked for my favorite science fiction books. These answers are in no particular order because I can’t handle the stress of figuring that out. Some folks asked for underrated books too—one or two of these may fit that question:

  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. 
  • Ender’s Game and sequels by Orson Scott Card.
  • Dune by Frank Herbert.
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons.
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. (Zvpastormitch asked about sci-fi that approaches faith in a positive way—this book and its sequel grapple with the problem of suffering which is… hard to pull off. But they’re very well written and compelling.)
  • The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov. (It’s my favorite of his because it’s so weird and pokes fun at his own writing tendencies. I loved the original three Foundation novels too, especially the episodic style of the first one!)
  • The Expanse series, particularly Abbadon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, and Nemesis Games.
  • And I have to mention Oxygen and The Fifth Man by John Olson and Randy Ingermanson, which are such a delight and were some of the earliest science fiction books I became obsessed with. The romance! The scientific accuracy of the Mars missions! The suspense!!! I really recommend these if anyone is looking for options for middle or high school-aged readers.

Pat @ Tavi Hall and RrHorton asked about my favorite science fiction short stories.

The Last Question by Isaac Asimov is my favorite. It has a fairly silly conclusion but is executed so well—a peak example of the genre. There Will Come Soft Rains is my favorite Ray Bradbury story, but the Ylla story in the Martian Chronicles is a close second.

For those who asked about newer stories, Ted Chiang’s Exhalation collection is incredible. My favorites are The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, and The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.

(Writing these lists has reminded me I have entirely failed to read enough sci-fi written by women! Would love recommendations. I’m at haley@thedispatch.com.)

CatRudolph and Timothy.Newitt asked about more recent science fiction writers.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie is so creative. I loved it once I got past its quirks. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine is good too. Billy.Faires mentioned Children of Time—I enjoyed this book by Adrian Tchaikovsky and its sequel because they’re really unique. The human characters aren’t super compelling, but the good news is it’s mostly about non-human characters!

Jack asked if I have ever thought about writing a science fiction book.

I would love to, but it would be a huge challenge for me! I have no practice or skill with creating coherent plots. I did enjoy reading the late Ben Bova’s Notes to a Science Fiction Writer last year to learn more about the craft of writing short stories.

This was a long edition of the mailbag (apologies to my editors) but I still had to skip a few questions for space. If I missed yours, feel free to email me to follow up! Thanks again to everyone for sending in questions.

Haley Byrd Wilt's Headshot

Haley Byrd Wilt

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.