Interview with David Broder
by Steve Talbot
July 11, 1996
ST: Mr. Broder, do you believe the polls that say Americans dislike us in the media so much?
DB: Yes. I think that's... I have no reason to doubt it. It's what I hear every time we go out door knocking. People think that we are part of the establishment and therefore part of the problem.
ST: Are they correct? Or is that a false perception?
DB: Well, I think it's futile to argue that the public has got something basically wrong. I think there is a distinction that they're not making very clearly, and maybe because we're not drawing it clearly enough ourselves between what the role of the press is and the role of the government.
Government is supposed to make policy and solve problems. From my point view, the basic job of the press is to try to hold that government, and the people in it, accountable for the way in which they're doing their jobs. But, the public's come to see that the Press and the politicians, neither of them are serious about trying to deal with the things that are worrisome to them.
ST: You've been doing this for a long time. How bad is it compared to previous eras?
DB: The cynicism about our political system is much deeper now than I can recall. I mean, we obviously went through very tough times from the mid-60s through Watergate, and its aftermaths, where people were shaken by what they learned about duplicity from the heads of their government.
But this is now just sort of endemic. I mean, if you are in politics, you are, by virtue of that fact, a subject of distrust. And if you are part of the press, they also figure that you're playing some angle of your own. Or that you're in bed with that sort of closed group--the insiders. And this is a country that is very suspicious of insiders.
ST: What do you think of Jim Fallows book "Breaking the News"? It was published earlier this year and touched off a lot of debate within the press corps. There was a signed editorial in The New York Times calling it "the Fallows Fallacy."
DB: I think, by and large Jim's argument is correct. He's certainly correct about the dangers of careerism. and about the blurring of the lines between what journalists do and what politicians or policy advocates do. I think, in part, the indictment is overstated, particularly his chapter on health care reform, which he describes as the press's Vietnam.
I don't think the criticisms of the Press are ill-founded. In fact, Haynes Johnson and I make very much the same criticisms in our own book on that subject. But I think it's an overstatement to say that the press killed health care reform. There were a lot of assassins in that plot.
ST: Fallows proposes as one possible solution public journalism. Sometimes it's called "civic journalism." Does that make any sense to you?
DB: Well, again, I have sort of mixed feelings that I had a part, inadvertently, in launching that movement by making the argument in 1990 in a lot of speeches and to journalism groups and columns, that we ought to set ourselves up as consumer reporters on political campaign ads. That we ought to specifically, just reposition ourselves from people who were admiring, explaining and sort of building up the reputations of these manipulators, and say, "Our job as journalists is to give the public the information that they need to evaluate these ads with which they're being assaulted in every campaign."
That is one of the starting points for this movement. But the movement has gone far beyond that. My own view is this: I don't think any of us can afford to be complacent about the fraying of the lines of confidence and support between us and the public. So I'm very glad to see people experiment in different ways to try to reconnect.
I have some skepticism when public journalism carries news organizations into the role of trying to organize the community response to a problem. I think our society works best when people perform the role that they ought to be performing in a society.
I think public officials who have the mandate of the voters are the ones who ought to try to organize and move forward on the public agenda. I think our job in the press is primarily to try to hold them accountable for the jobs that they're doing.
And, to some extent, I think once the news organization becomes the catalyst for saying, "This is how our community's going to deal with the crime problem or the race problem," or whatever it may be, in effect you've bought in on that solution. I think you give up some of your freedom, then to stand back and try to measure the results and to do the accountability reporting that I think is still uniquely ours. If we don't do that, nobody's going to fulfill that function.
ST: Since it is our job to be skeptical, maybe not cynical, but to be skeptical and questioning, and you know, as they say, "Speak truth to power," we're never going to be popular, as long as that's our role.
DB: It's not important that we be popular. What's important is that: One--our role be understood, which means that first of all, we ought to be clear about when we speak to the public about what we, how we see our role. And Two--that there be some appreciation, that whether we are popular, or unpopular in doing it, that there is a value to the community and to the country to have that role fulfilled.
That's where I think we've gotten in trouble, and I that's where I think Fallows is dead right. Because when the picture the people have of journalists are men and women sitting around a table arguing with each other in the loudest voices that they can muster about what the President ought to do next, or what Bob Dole ought to do next, or what the Congress ought to do next... then it's impossible to maintain a distinction in the public mind about what journalism is about and what politics is about.
The crossing of the lines back and forth...of which Jim himself is, ironically, an example. Of people who start out in politics and then become journalists. Or people who start out in journalism and then become politicians. Or people like Pat Buchanan and Jesse Jackson who at any given moment, you can't tell whether they are journalists or politicians. That's really dangerous to us.
ST: Has television been the main culprit there? On television, on the McLaughlin Group, on Crossfire, those sorts of shows, it seems to me that you get the most blurred lines -- Not only between news and entertainment, reporting and punditry, but also between politicians and journalists.
DB: Yes. Well, we've got a wonderful example now. Fay Buchanan is going to be running her brother's campaign at the Republican National Convention. But before and after that, she's going to be a commentator on CNN. So tell me, you know, what is Fay Buchanan at this point? I think television has pushed all this forward.
Because television loves the insider celebrity... And has created a category of people drawn from both journalism and political life whom they mix and match there.
But it's not just television. After all, we've had some notable examples in our business, of people who have moved from the political world, to doing very prominent jobs on the print side.
ST: Such as?
DB: Well, Bill Safire or Chris Matthews. I mean, there's a whole lot of folks there. I tell you one of the things that worries me is kind of the message that that sends within journalism, because I think that what it says to somebody who is a young reporter on the San Francisco Examiner, is that the way you get to be the Washington Bureau Chief is not to do a very good job covering City Hall in Sacramento and then maybe you get sent to Washington.....the way you do it is to sort of leapfrog all of that, become a press spokesman for the Speaker of the House, in Chris's case, and then you just sort of parachute in at the top. I think that sends the wrong message within our own business.
ST: What sort of rules do you have for yourself about appearances on television?
DB: I don't know that they are rules. I mean, there are places where I'm comfortable and places where I'm not. Jack Germond once lured me onto the McLaughlin Group saying, you know, "You'll find it's fun and nobody takes it seriously." I went once and it was not fun. And I never went back.
I think there are two things that I'm comfortable doing -- one is interviewing which I do a fair amount of for Meet the Press. And one is the kind of analysis thing where you're talking to the camera in much the same tone, and with much the same purpose, as when you're writing a news analysis piece, or a column for the Post. And I do that for CNN and Washington Week In Review.
ST: We asked Jack Germond why he does it, and he said it put his daughter through colege and medical school. What do you think about that?
DB: Well, I love Jack. He's one of my oldest friends and we've had this conversation many times ourselves. Jack and others like him are really good, serious journalists when they're working in a serious journalistic medium, and they regard the kind of food fight show as: "That's not what I do," but the public sees them in that forum and they lend their legitimacy to that kind of a forum, which I think is bad for the business.
ST: We also spoke to Fred Barnes....he was saying, it used to be that his highest aspiration was to be a reporter for a major paper covering the Capitol Hill or covering the White House. But now, it's a whole new world. All the rules are off. And you can lecture, take big speaker fees. You can be on television. You can be a pundit one minute. You can be a writer the next minute, a reporter the next minute. Does that sound like an accurate description of the way things are these days?
DB: I didn't know that that was Fred's view, but it confirms my old geezer perspective -- which is that the rules are off and what bothers me is the notion that journalists believe, or some journalists believe they can have their cake and eat it too. That you can have all of the special privileges, access and extraordinary freedom that you have because you are a journalist, operating in a society which protects journalism to a greater degree than any other country in the world. And at the same time you can be a policy advocate, you can be a public performer on the lecture circuit or television. I think that's greedy.
And I've, I've always thought that one of the things about journalism is that you give up some things when you have the privilege of coming into people's homes every day as a source of information which is vital to them as citizens. And when we would say, in effect, "We're going to do that, but we're also going to do all these other things for our personal aggrandizement, I think we are being greedy."
ST: So what should be done about "buckraking," as Howard Kurtz has called it?
DB: It's clear that some journalists now are in a market category where the amount of money that they can make on extracurricular activities raises, in my mind, and clearly in the public's mind, exactly the same kind of conflict of interest questions that we are constantly raising with people in public life.
I think it's fatuous to argue that because we are not in elective office our private activities have no valid concern to anybody else. Obviously, we are, or they are, influencers of public opinion, which is a very, very powerful force in this country. And it seems to me that disclosure is the minimum requirement for journalists who find themselves in that kind of category of, of speaking and outside income.
ST: Do you do outside lectures?
DB: I do and The Post has very strict rules. All outside activities here are monitored and must be pre-approved, and I have set additional rules for myself as to what I will and will not do.
ST: What are those rules?
DB: Well, I don't speak for any partisan organization. I accept no reimbursement from any group of public officials. You know the National Association of Secretaries of State like every organization, is always looking for somebody to come in and speak and I said, "Thank you very much, but I can't do it."
And the Post's rules are very clear. We do not, uh, accept fees and basically stay out of public appearances before groups that are major players in the stories that we're covering....legislative battles or anything else.
During this long period of time that Haynes Johnson and I were working on the health care book, the first rule we set for ourselves was no speeches to any health advocacy groups or on any side of that issue. It's just, it would be a totally improper for us to be doing that.
ST: We talked to Michael Kelly, um who is at the New Yorker and about to take over at the New Republic. His father worked for a now-defunct Washington paper. One of the things he was talking to us about is that the education level and even the class background of reporters in major newspaper has changed over the years and that now, for better or for worse, we're a bit of an elite group.
DB: Yeah, the evidence is a little shaky. You know Moynihan made that charge, and Dick Harwood did what only Dick Harwood would do and said, "Well, let's look at the facts" and examined the backgrounds of people in this and other newsrooms. And it wasn't quite as elitist as, frankly, I would have thought... But there's no question that with the elevation of economic rewards and educational standards for organization that there has been, we are remote in socioeconomic terms from most of the people that are in our audience. And that's a very significant fact.
I don't think it's a crippling fact, but what it does mean, and it's one of the points where I think the fundamental premises of public journalism is right. You better damn well spend a lot of time understanding the view of the world, and the ideas, and the priorities, and agenda of the public that you're writing for.
And that's why we spend an increasing amount of time, of our political reporting at this paper, off doing very old-fashioned kind of shoe-leather reporting. I mean walking precincts, knocking on people's doors, not asking them to respond to our questionnaires, but asking very broad questions: What are your concerns? What kind of shape do you think things are in, in this country? In your community? And use that to inform our perspective. A perspective we wouldn't automatically know from the conversations in the newsroom, or the conversations among our friends.
ST: What do you think of--a different subject entirely--Paul Taylor, who was a reporter here at The Post and who quit and is now on a campaign to get free television time for candidates in the closing weeks of the election. What do you think of that proposal?
DB: Well, first.....Paul Taylor is one of the best political reporters I've had an opportunity to work with. His decision to leave the paper was a terrible blow, personally and institutionally to the Post because we were going to rely on him very heavily in this election cycle.
When we had lunch and he told me what he was planning to do, it was very clear that he had reached the point where he really felt that he needed to engage in trying to change the election process, rather than just describe it as it was existing. And I told him, and I believe that he made the right decision for himself.
The proposal, as I said to him then, is a very interesting one. I see absolutely no down side to it at all. I can't see how in any way it would make the dialogue of the campaign worse than what it's been. I am more agnostic than Paul is himself, that it will elevate the dialogue, but it might. And so it's an experiment which I very much hope we'll see conducted this Fall.
ST: This has been an odd election year. It seems that there are a lot of books that have come out very early on this election and on the candidates. Is that unusual?
DB: I don't know whether it's a matter of concern. I guess if I were in the Dole or the Clinton campaign, I might worry about how many people were spilling their guts to Bob Woodward, in the period before the conventions are even held. But, no, I don't think... this is a matter for concern. I mean from the public point of view, the more you know... It's fascinating to find out what's been going on from some of these books.
ST: What do you make of the Bob Woodward book, "The Choice"? Have you read it yet?
DB: Yes, I think what Bob's done once again is just peel back the sort of, the layer of spin that we have to deal with constantly in daily stories, and getting what appear to be the authentic recreations of the conversations as they were really going on, It confirms a lot of things.
I mean it was not a great surprise, I think to discover that Leon Panetta and George Stephanopolos were really upset when Dick Morris arrived at the White House with this different theory about how Clinton should behave as a candidate. Uh, not a terrible shock to discover that people running Senator Dole's campaign often don't know what the hell Senator Dole is gonna do until he does it. He lays it out very clearly, and it sort of confirms for you that, yes, the impression that you had was, was probably right.
ST: And what do you make of the "seance" story that was kind of the news hook or at least got the most press initially?
DB: Well. It's so peripheral to the book. If you've read the book, that is, I wasn't bothered or actually terribly much intrigued by it. I'd known from our interviews with Mrs. Clinton that she had focused very much on Mrs. Roosevelt as a role model. Had had long conversations with Doris Kearns Goodwin to draw on Doris's knowledge of how Mrs. Roosevelt dealt with the pressures. I mean that was to me one of the least intriguing things in the book.
ST: There have been a number of books that have made a lot of news with salacious information about the Clintons. Is that problematic for journalism?
DB: Well, Woodward does not belong in that category. I mean, Woodward is, from my dealings with him, the best reporter I have ever seen. He is also the most literal reporter I have ever worked with. And, unlike the other books, no one has stepped forward to say, "No. That didn't happen."
ST: What do you think of all these dinners? I mean, there are a half a dozen a year. Uh, the Gridiron Dinners. What role do they play in this city?
DB: Well, I can only speak for myself...I mean, I've been two or three times to the White House Correspondents' Dinner, but it's uh, it's a little bit too much of a party, of a drunk for me. [Laughs]
But I am in Gridiron, and I enjoy that. I mean there is obviously a conspicuous and deliberate mixing of worlds at that dinner. I mean, there are basically three groups of people there. There are publishers and editors -- our bosses. There's the reporters who are the members of the club, and there are big shots from government there.
But what I like about the Gridiron is that there is an underlying tone of irony to the whole thing, which we try to express in, in the songs and the skits, which skillful speakers exploit wonderfully to sort of deflate the pomposity of the evening. A few years ago Ann Richards, who was Governor of Texas, was the Gridiron speaker. And she came to the lectern, looks out over this audience, all you know, white tie, tails, gowns and so on. And said in that wonderful Texas drawl of her, "So this is what y'all do on Saturday night up here. I can't imagine why anybody thinks you're out of touch." [Laughs]
I mean that's, that to me was absolutely the perfect remark for the Gridiron. It said, "What are you... Isn't this ridiculous?" And at the same time, "Aren't we lucky to be here?" [Laughs]
ST: Many critics of the press say there is to much character assassination in reporting today. What do you think and what is important about journalism delving into the character issue?
DB: This territory has changed, not because somebody announced that it should change, but because along with the rest of the country and indeed the world, the press learned that questions of character, magnified by the power of the Presidential office, could have enormous consequence. Um, I can tell you what was the light bulb, I think for a number of us. When before the 1984 campaign, I believe it was, there was a session out at the American Press Institute in Reston, with people who were going to be covering the next election cycle. Doris Kearns Goodwin came in to give us a talk. Has somebody told you this story already?
She told a story about when she was working with President Johnson on his memoirs down at the ranch, and Johnson had told her in one of the, you know, oral interviews, he had told hundreds, thousands of audiences about his grandfather who had died at the Alamo. Her job was to, you know, be the fact checker. You know, verify everything. So she said, "I summoned up my nerve one day and said, 'Mr. President, I have gone through all the records and I can't find your grandfather's name on the victims at the Alamo.'"
He shot her this really hard look and finally said, "Well. That's right. He didn't. He actually died at the Battle of San Jacinto. And Texans know that that was much more important in our history than the Battle of the Alamo. But nobody outside of Texas ever heard of the Battle of San Jacinto. So I moved it."
She said, well, you know, that sounded plausible to her. And then the next step, obviously, was the check the records for the Battle of San Jacinto--he hadn't died... He had died in bed.
She said, "The reason I tell you this story, is that when you come across something in the personal account of somebody who is going to be President of the United States, no matter how trivial it may seem to you at the time, that is a myth and not reality. Pay attention."
And I can still hear her voice, and the hairs go up on the back of my neck. She said, "Because somebody who can invent and believe the story that his grandfather died at the Alamo, can take a very equivocal incident in the Gulf of Tonkin and turn it into a pretext for war that gets thousands of people killed."
That was, I tell you, a shock to the heart. Because it meant, you better watch very carefully, the way these people have constructed a picture of their lives that does not reflect their real lives.
It should never, ever have been reduced to the level, "Are they screwing around?" That may be, in some ways the least relevant thing. But that was the first sort of thing. And I think we've gotten better at exploring character seriously.
I think what David Marinis did with Clinton in the course of those pieces in the 92 campaign and in his book, "First in his Class," is a serious effort to examine, as far as a journalist can....we're not psychiatrists....what the person's formative experiences are. And the pattern of behavior tells us how this person might act as President of the United States.
ST: Liberal media bias. It's a charge that's been around for a long time. What do you think? Liberal media bias in the Washington Post?
DB: I grew up in the Chicago area. The complaint that I heard growing up, was of course, the other side. That the Chicago Tribune dominated everything. The Democrats complained about how it was a one-party press. I think the evidence is overwhelming. Newsrooms in this country have voted consistently more Democratic than the country as a whole has done. I don't know the reasons for that, but it is a fact.
It is also a fact that editorial pages in this country, publishers who are businessmen and have the typical cultural view of business people... Editorial pages have been overwhelmingly more Republican than the country as a whole.
I think 1964 is the only year in the modern era when as many newspapers and as much newspaper circulation supported the Democratic Presidential candidate as the Republican. The proof of the pudding is in the content of the paper. Our values obviously shape what we write. It would be stupid to deny that.
But there is also an ethic that operates in most news organizations that is designed very specifically to strike and force much more balance and fairness in the coverage than if we were all just sitting down and saying, "Here's how I felt about what I heard yesterday."