Reflecting on a 40-Plus-Year Career Covering Politics
BU alum on why the best journalism is subjective
To read political journalist Thomas B. Edsall’s columns in the New York Times and elsewhere is to be educated. His opinions are interlaced with quotes, statistics, charts, and references. If you couldn’t hold court on the subjects covered in “Dark Money Politics” or “The Fight over Inequality” before, you could after reading Edsall’s columns. Since the 1960s—most notably with the Washington Post, where he worked from 1981 to 2006, and more recently as the Huffington Post’s political editor and a New Republic correspondent—Edsall (CAS’66) has been a political reporting staple. The five-time book author is Columbia University’s Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of National Affairs Journalism and is currently a regular opinion columnist for the Times online.
BU Today: Your writing is very analytical—why is that?
Edsall: Some reporters love to simply report; I like to look at issues, examine. I’m interested in why. Why, for a long time, was the conservative movement doing so well? I’ve always been interested in the balance of power between the left and the right, the Democrats and Republicans, and why one side is gaining and another side losing. What are the forces behind those shifts? And I’ve also been into the influence of money—and this broad issue of inequality and mobility. All of these are good subjects that have been constant themes.
How do you want readers to react to your articles?
Well, I hope that their knowledge on the subject is enlarged. It’s not as if I write so much with a cause that I’m pushing, but I think there are a lot of issues that are not well understood: why is Congress adopting tax policies that help one group over another? Those kinds of issues. My goal is really to try to illuminate those processes and the results.
Do you try to be objective in your reporting? Is it even possible?
It’s a complex answer. It’s important to keep a kind of a reportorial commitment, but everyone is going to be driven by their own personal interests. People are motivated by their own views, and it’s best, in fact, to let those motivations work, while at the same time remaining committed to an accurate presentation of the facts that support or oppose the position or the views that you may be motivated to pursue. Often the best reporting is done by someone who has a strong interest….You may illuminate and be critical of the ideological side you personally might be on, but it actually would be better reporting and more revealing of what’s going on than someone who just reported in a blank-slate fashion.
Is that an attitude you’ve learned or one you started with?
My attitude at the start was more objective. Over time, I’ve come to see the legitimacy of having a point of view, but you have to be aware of your point of view and acutely sensitive to not letting it distort how you describe reality.
You’re also a professor of national affairs journalism at Columbia. What one lesson do you hope students take from your classes?
Well, it’s a cliché, but if you look at the successful people in the field, they work like dogs. It’s an unrelenting job. You don’t have tenure; you don’t have protection. The field of political reporting and the nature of politics are changing constantly. And just to stay abreast of that—getting ahead of it is something else even—takes a huge amount of work. Every year—this is not so much about reporting, but it reflects on what a reporter has to do—I have to redo my syllabus almost completely because what was true the year before just isn’t; it may not be untrue, but it’s no longer relevant in the same way that it had been before.
When I started teaching, in 2006, Republicans controlled both branches of Congress; by the next year, Democrats had taken over both, and it looked like the conservative revolution was over. Then Obama gets elected, the first black president; then in 2010, the Republicans come back strong. These are just practical matters, but they also reflect real volatility in the political landscape. Staying abreast of what’s being done in political science and economics, and to a lesser extent in sociology and psychology, has become increasingly important if you really want to be able to figure out what the trends are in politics.
You’ve been called one of the country’s “most prescient political observers.” What do you think the trends will be this year, and what will people be reading about in their papers?
The real question will be going into 2014 and the midterm elections. Normally, an off-year election in the second term of a president is bad for the president’s party. The Democrats are probably going to lose seats, but the big question is whether they’ll lose the Senate, which could happen. Conversely, everyone is predicting that there’s going to be very strong economic growth in 2014—better than 3 percent, I think. If that’s the case, that may take a lot of the edge off anti-incumbent feelings.
The other big ongoing story is the struggle within the Republican Party over the centrist wing, which argues that the party needs to moderate its stand on social and cultural issues—immigration, gay rights, especially, and perhaps even abortion, but certainly, the tone and tenor toward women’s rights—and the more conservative wing that argues that the party has to hold firm and stick with its principles.
That’s a very interesting struggle, and the question further is what is the business community going to do? If the business community begins to see the Republican Party weakening and becoming no longer a strong, reliable ally, will it start to switch its attention to the Democratic Party in an effort to slow down what the business community would be fearful of, which is higher taxes and tougher regulation? There’s actually quite a dynamic situation. But making real predictions is very hard because of the likelihood of unexpected developments—there always seems to be something that comes up, that throws things off course.
Do the things you write about make you feel optimistic or pessimistic?
I am a pessimistic person…I tend to see the bad side of things. I’m not an optimist.
Has that always been the case or has reporting on politics affected you?
I have become more—and probably too—cynical, reporting on politics. I would say that in my youth I was more idealistic. And I think most of the kids I teach are idealistic. And I think it’s a good thing. I’m suspicious of motives all over the place. It’s probably too jaundiced a view to have, but it is my view.
Is there one thing all good political reporting should do?
I think all reporting, in fact, should be aimed at providing the reader with—this sounds impossible, but—the truth. And that’s the first obligation of a reporter, actually, and a lot grows out of that. If the first premise is to get the information out accurately, that should be a first consideration when examining questions about whether something should be on or off the record, how close to a politician you should let yourself get. The first priority in determining the ethical answer is that the obligation of the reporter is to provide the reader with as much of the truth as he or she can. And that makes it a lot easier to address many of the dilemmas that reporters face—you always basically tilt in favor of publishing.
A version of this story was published in the fall 2013 edition of Arts & Sciences.1 Comments