The Iranian Women in American Journalism (IWAJ): Neda Semnani

June 22, 2022 • Interviews

Originally published in Foreign Policy Association Blogs 

Her name is Neda Semnani. She writes for Roll Call‘s Heard on the Hill (HOH), one of the venerable and decades-old institutions in Washington. With 1300 followers on Twitter, she tweets on the latest on Capitol Hill in 140 characters or less. A product of the Iranian revolution by birth (1979) and London School of Economics by education, Neda is a fearless journalist with a firm belief in gender equality and social justice. A rising star on the American journalism scene, she is known for her bold and life-changing decision:  quit waiting tables and apply for a job on the Hill to cover the Congress. Neda hates “dictators of all sizes.”

How long have you been in the journalism profession and what is your current line of work? 

I started working in media in 2008. I was a researcher, editor, and freelancer for several years before I made the leap to full-time reporter in May 2011.

Were you born in Iran? How long did you live there?
I was born in Tehran in 1979, a baby of the revolution. We left in 1982. I moved back briefly in 2003.

Tell us about your education please.

I received my Bachelors in Government and Politics with a minor in English Literature from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2001. In 2006, I received my Masters from the London School of Economics and Political Science in Gender and Social Policy.

How did you choose the path to journalism? What news media organizations have you worked for?

Well, my path to journalism was a long and winding one. Out of high school I fell in love with travel and humanitarian work after spending four months working in Uganda and a year doing City Year in Boston, Massachusetts. After college, I worked in not-for-profit organizations in the States and abroad, including Iran, Uganda and England, but I always wanted to write–I just never had the balls to do it. Honestly, some days I still don’t. I finally got a grown-up job in international development and hated it–it just wasn’t for me. I spent most evenings in tears. So I quit. Bummed around India for a month or so; went back to waiting tables. I have over a decade of waiting tables and bartending experience, and I realized that’s kind of the same thing as reporting. You read people, listen, talk, and draw out stories (and tips). So, I convinced the guys at Congressional Quarterly to take a chance on me. Somehow they did.

For the next three and a half years, I covered legislation as it made its way through both chambers. I fell in love with Congress and the crazy, wonderful characters that make up this place. When I started HOH, it was this amazing coming together of Congress, actual news and snarky fun times. And the rest, as they say, is history.

For those who don’t know much about American politics, what are Roll Call and Heard on the Hill (HOH)?

CQ-Roll Call are two of the oldest and most prestigious publications covering Washington. CQ covers every turn of the legislative screw while Roll Call sorts out the personalities and politics behind the legislative process. Basically, [it’s] a couple hundred of the nerdiest, smartest, most dedicated political journalists they are. Like in the world. That’s right. I said it.

Heard on the Hill is Roll Call’s gossip column. It’s kind of an institution on the Hill. I prefer to call it “The Onion” but in real life. In all seriousness, HOH is the oldest political gossip column in Washington and has been a training ground for some of the best journalists in the business.

I knew nothing about the column’s history before I took the job, and that was probably a good thing. If I had known more, I probably wouldn’t have applied or been so confident during the interviews, proving the rule [that] ignorance is bliss.

What are your responsibilities at Roll Call and how much interaction do you have with U.S. lawmakers on a daily basis?

Well, we have a column to put out four days a week not including any web stories. That’s between five and six items a day, which should be scandalous, hilarious, or bizarre. Some days our cups runneth over with the funny, but most days you hustle chasing down leads and sources–and then hope at least one joke hits the mark.

As for our contact with lawmakers, I think it depends. I spend most of my time hunting down their spokespeople, but you can always catch a Congressperson at votes or a Senator at weekly lunches. You could stake out their offices. It’s not terribly hard to get in their face, it can just be intimidating.

In the past, you have managed programs for nongovernmental organizations in the Middle East. Can you tell us about them?

I worked for Hamyaran Iran NGO Resource Center for several months in 2003 and 2004. While I was there, the Bam Earthquake hit. My mother’s side of the family is from Kerman so I had visited Bam my first few weeks in Iran. The Arg-eh-Bam was one of the most gorgeous, breathtaking places I have seen in my life. I feel incredibly lucky that I can say I was able to see it whole.

When the earthquake hit, I think, I couldn’t wrap head around the fact that some place so ancient and beautiful could be there one minute–like for centuries–and then, minutes later, be completely leveled. That it could all be gone in moments–all those lives, history, beauty…I don’t know. It just blew my mind. Also, I had been right there. Like right there. It was dumb luck that my uncle and I had a gorgeous day in the town when a few months later the place was destroyed.

Anyway, I became fixated. Hamyaran gave me the go ahead to help with a broad coalition of Iranian NGOs and international NGOs working in Iran after the disaster. I was seconded to Save the Children, worked closely with the UN and several other international NGOs. I was in a unique position: a young American who had spent several months working with civil society organizations, NGOs, and the government in Iran before disaster struck. It was a case of dumb luck, but then I think most success is capitalizing on whatever luck comes your way.

It was a life-changing experience.

Who would you name among some of your main source(s) of inspiration in your journalistic achievements?

As a female reporter, my main source of inspiration is Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson in Howard Hawk’s His Girl Friday. She’s the best. Done.

When I was in high school, I read “All the President’s Men.” This was before the Internet was everywhere. I had an internship my senior year in high school, and for one of my assignments they had me organize the Rolodex.

I found the number for the Washington Post, so I called, because obviously. And [I] asked for Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein, because obviously. They told me Bernstein hadn’t worked at the paper for years, but Woodward was in. Excellent, I said. I would like to speak to him, because obviously. Weirdly, he was not thrilled by my phone call.

Aside from that my co-workers are a huge inspiration. They love this business just like I do. And they are the best. No story is so small that a little investigative reporting wouldn’t help it.

All my investigating reporting skills I learned from Paul Singer and Veronica Mars.

In the course of your career as a woman working in an American news media organization, what have been some of the key challenges you have encountered?

Well, people have said that what I do isn’t “real journalism” because it falls under the rubric of gossip. They’ve called me a “social reporter” and “party columnist.” The day I got my job I was told it was called “Paid to Party” column. My co-columnist, Warren Rojas, hasn’t been hit with those. No one has ever asked him, “what are you going to do with this?”

Eh. What are you going to do? I got my Master’s in Gender. I work as a reporter. I cover Congress. It’s tough for women. You put your head down and be the best you can be. Being dogged and steady is the best way to prove everyone wrong. Truth is, since I’ve started with HOH I have spent more time investigating Congress than I have snagging free drinks, but, then [again], no one ever said I had my priorities straight.

Would you say that being an Iranian woman or a woman of Iranian descent has played itself out in your career in a significant way? If so, could you elaborate on it?

So, I’m a child of the 1979 revolution. My father was executed. We escaped on horseback. My family–both the Marxists and the Shah loyalists–are in exile. I am American because of this past. I am committed to the political process and journalism precisely because of my family’s political history. I know how lucky we are as Americans to have certain freedoms and I feel an obligation to shed light and some humor on the system. When it comes down to it, politics, activism, and writing are all connected branches in my family’s business.

If you are a mother, how many kids do you have?

I am lucky to be young enough, child-free, and single.

How do you think the Arab Spring will impact women’s social status in the Arab/Islamic world? Are you an optimist?

I don’t think I have room enough to say here, but I don’t think we can know how it’s all going to shake out. As long as female protesters are sexually assaulted and report it, subjected to virginity tests and report it, and demand their rights at the top of their voice, I think it can only get better.

Here’s the thing–and apologies for the generalization–if you’ve ever met a Middle Eastern woman, be they Arab, Persian, Israeli or whatever, you’ll know what I am talking about. These women are too tough–and too funny–to be held down indefinitely. As with everything in this world, it’s only a matter of time.

Actually, I do feel pretty cocky about the bad-assness of Middle Eastern women. And to all the men and women out there who doubt progress, I smirk in your general direction.

Ten years from now, what kind of an Iran do you envision in your mind?

An older one.