Interview with Geneva Overholser
Interviewed September 96
ST: You came here from the Heartland. From Iowa. One of the things we've noticed in doing this story is how insular and how a provincial a town this is. How self-referential it is.
ST: Especially among the Washington-based press corps, what's your view of it, having come from the Heartland?
GO: It really is breathtaking. I mean there is such a kind of insular, circle-the-wagons, let's-all-see-what-one-another-does feel. And it's easy to forget out here that there are people all across America who are interested in the election, who are influenced by lots of things other than the Washington press corps.
Still, I think it's a valid thing to do to look at how the Washington press corps operates, because there is simply no question that it is a very potent force in shaping all media. But I do like to remind us and others that there are other media besides those based here.
ST: Some people have said that there should be term limits for reporters who cover Washington, so they don't get Beltway fever.
GO: I think there should be celebrity limits. I'm less worried about the people who spend all their time here than I am the way people spend their time when they are here. And I really do feel strongly. And it's not just the rap about, "Oh, print people want to be on the tube, because then they can get big, fancy speech invitations that pay them a lot of money.
It's something about the way people retain a sense of their role. Some journalists, long-time, respected, well-known journalists, manage to do it; and other just get their head turned. I think it really has something to do with the solidity of someone's sense of who he or she is as a journalist. So I'm not sure it's related primarily to length of time here.
I think it's related to how much you respond to the seductive lure of becoming the story yourself... becoming the charming, witty person who appears, not just on TV, but on the radio, or in other publications than your own. The person who is looked to for pronouncements on things. I really don't think that's the point. That's not what we're supposed to be doing as journalists. And I think people lose sight of it
ST: What are journalists supposed to be doing? Just to remind people.
GO: Well, I think we really need to realize that we are essentially public servants. We're serving the public by informing them, being a conduit primarily of information. And one thing that would help to inform is to give voice to the candidates themselves more. One of the things I like in this election is what The New York Times is doing, "In His Own Words". There are not many "In Her Own Words" unfortunately... but I think that is the kind of thing citizens really want.
One of the things I hear from readers over and over is, "Let me form my own judgements about what he meant when he said, 'let us do this tax cut.' Or to whom he is appealing when he made this proposal about college tuition assistance. Let me provide my own cynicism." It's part of what we hear: "Just tell me what he said." You know, kind of "Get out of the way."
Well, celebrity journalists are right there in the center of things, thinking they're more charming and more informed than your candidate. I think that's part of what happened at these conventions. You know, a lot of television people said, "Well, what's happening here is not interesting enough, it's not conflict-ridden enough, and so we're going to pay less attention to it."
In fact, we did go on paying attention to it, all of us. But the arrogance of saying they're not doing what we think they ought to be doing... mainly they're giving a bunch of speeches. Maybe that's what the Republicans wanted the public to hear. And I do understand the public didn't listen in great numbers, so it's a conflict situation.
ST: One of the things that really struck us at the GOP convention was just how people like Robert Novak, Sam Donaldson would walk through the crowd and were treated as celebrities, as if they were Hollywood stars.
GO: That's why it's so seductive. But I don't find it very helpful to journalism...I've often found that, that kind of adulation breeds its opposite, immediately, and you have all these people thinking, "Well, who the hell are they in the press to be such stars?"
You know, on the one hand, well, people are creating a star, and so they must like it. And on the other hand, people feel legitimately, "This guy is just a journalist. Why is he such a celebrity?" And I think it contributes to the resentment.
I think we should work against that seductive lure of becoming the story. We are not the story. Sam Donaldson is not the story. I mean, he's obviously something other than just a journalist. He's become a celebrity, and I realize it's sort of like whistling in the wind to pronounce against that, plus it probably sounds like sour grapes. [Laughs] But I don't think it's healthy for journalism.
ST: When did this happen?
GO: Well, that's an interesting point. I do think, you know, a lot of people have talked about the late 60s and the 70s for a number of reasons. Part of it Watergate, of course... when Woodward and Bernstein really became famous reporters. I mean, who knew reporters' names before then?
But partly also, if you look at things like whom Reston was hiring in The New York Times Bureau in Washington, you will see the change. When he died, there were a number of interesting things written about how he went out and sought out the best and the brightest. And he started selecting people from Ivy League schools and that sort of thing.
Before that, we really did have a lot of kind of hacks, but some of them real interesting guys off the street, who probably drank a little too much but could just write like a dream. And I would argue, that we've lost something in not having that kind of person around as much as we used to. So journalists became more respectable, which led the way, at least in part, to its celebrityhood.
ST: Let me ask you about the pressure.... I'm not sure that this succeeded or not... to hire more women, to hire minorities... Some of the people we've talked to said there have been some gains there, but what we've lost in newsrooms is economic and class diversity. At the elite papers, are we really talking more and more about Ivy League backgrounds for reporters?
GO: Well, I think that's an absolutely valid criticism. But I would hesitate to tie the two together....I think it's because the craft has become more respectable, and we can get people who are college educated. But yes, in an odd, ironic sense, we have become more diverse in this one way, but less diverse in terms of reflecting society's socioeconomic levels.
I've thought about this. Readers will write me and say... I have a current reader, who's just a lucid, interesting thinker, who writes me weekly, a little letter that reports on her block... her block in D.C. She started doing this because she said, "I'd like to just let you know the kind of thing that happens in the District of Columbia that is nowhere reflected in The Post." And she recounts how the nephew next door went away to college and all the neighbors gathered. It's a mostly black block, somewhat racially mixed, fairly poor, I can tell, just from her description of it, but very lively and very civicly engaged in many ways. And she talks about the neighbors next door. And one of them has a drug problem. And the little boy with sad eyes who's dropped off there.
But, you know, she is recounting the texture of a city that really you do not find anywhere in The Washington Post. And I would argue that one reason you don't is we don't employ people who live in neighborhoods like that. We certainly have people that are in D.C., but they are in affluent neighborhoods of D.C.
ST: In a sense this is a company town. I grew up in Hollywood and The Los Angeles Times is still filled with entertainment news and the business of entertainment that you don't find in any other paper, in that depth or that many articles. And here I come to Washington. The Washington Post is filled with political coverage that you don't see anywhere else. And yet you're also in a black, poor city for the most part.
GO: That's a huge schism. But another question I would ask, is whether, although The Washington Post is filled with politics and government, is it filled with the kind of political and government reporting that really empowers a citizen to act? That's one of the complaints I hear from readers a lot. Yeah, you've got all this kind of inside stuff. You can recount the "ins and outs" of Congress like nobody else. And I'm proud, for one, that The Post does that, but this paper needs to be the paper of record for Congressional action. And I think it is... supremely so. And that's an admirable, an important trait. But are we sure that we give the citizens the information soon enough, so that those who want to act, can act? Are we sure we give it to them before it becomes a conflict? Or that we give it to them in ways that don't just shape it as a conflict.
If we gave citizens information about an interesting proposal that seems awfully starry-eyed, wouldn't it be interesting if it worked? Then it might work, because people become active. It's that kind of thing that gives citizens the information to act. And in fact, I think the argument, I'm sure you've heard it again and again as you look at this issue... the argument that the kinds of reporting all of us do today... especially in the major media organizations...is far likelier to give people lack of faith, and lack of hope, than it is to give them a sense that, "You know this is an interesting proposal. It could go somewhere. Something could work. There might be a solution here. And if I did something about it, I would greatly enhance the chances that those things would happen."
ST: You're in a very interesting position. I mean, not all papers have ombudsmen, or ombudswomen.
GO: No. Only 37 or so.
ST: When we're dealing with what some people sort of call a crisis in the profession -- that we're losing readership or we're losing viewership on network television, because there's a disconnect between what we report and what people care about -- what are you hearing from readers as ombudsman of the Washington Post?
GO: Some of it is exactly as you would predict. And I don't mean to be too cynical about this. But this is a little hard to hear day after day after day. What you hear is the totally opposite judgment about the same article, based entirely on the reader's perceptions and ideological stance.
So I'll see one article in The Post and I'll get callers who'll say, "When are you guys gonna drop your liberal blinders? I just can't stand how liberal you are. This is totally unfair. You don't really pretend to be a fair and straightforward newspaper, do you?"
You know, there's a lot of vitriol in this stuff, which is kind of hard to take. And that very same article will elicit someone on the other side saying, "Now when are you guys gonna quit just attacking Clinton? Every pore of your being causes you to attack Clinton."
...Sometimes prejudice is in the eye of the beholder, and I can't worry too much about that. But I don't really derive from that the sense we're going a great job if everybody's angry. In fact, I would argue that part of what that leads us back to is being sure that we give the reader a great deal of raw material on which he or she can make his own judgment.
And I do think that we often will start out a lead, "In a bid to gain the support of women 20 to 35 year old, President Clinton did this." Or, "In a desperate effort to save his failing campaign, Bob Dole did this." I think we should leave it to the reader to figure that out. They're not dumb. And they resent our framing everything in that way.
We have gotten to a point where we can almost not take anything that a major political figure says at face value, and just believe, he might mean it. Maybe he made this proposal, because he hopes it'll work. You know, we just don't ever act as if that could be the case.
We ought to just shut up, get out of the way and tell the voter, the citizens, that this proposal was made. But we're too clever for that. We don't want to be taken. The other guy might be more clever about how he poses this.
ST: Would you say the press does not, in general, take to criticism well?
GO: Is that ever an understatement! Oh, man! It's amazing... both the arrogance and the defensiveness. It's inexcusable! Who are we to be beyond or above criticism? It's remarkable. And it's a real problem. I mean, the reader correctly thinks, "Well, now wait a minute. Would you exist if we didn't buy you?" You know, we wouldn't, and yet we can hardly be bothered.
Sometimes I'll approach editors or reporters and I'll say, you know, "I have this interesting question from a reader." And they sort of look at me like, "You're listening to the reader?" That's really misguided. That bothers me.
ST: Are you very popular here, among the reporters?
GO: No, I don't think so. But I like to believe that a beloved ombudsman would be a weak ombudsman. Well, you know, actually, I have to say, to the Post's credit, this job is so well-established here... It's been here 25 years. And it has certainly had some interesting and thoughtful people in it. And The Post, as an institution, believes in it and gives you absolute independence.
The most interesting thing I do, I think, is internal memos, which raise issues -- sometimes issues from readers, or sometimes issues I myself want to question. They are posted just in the newsroom but executives of The Post also see them. And often I'll have reporters or editors come in and say, "You know, I want to talk to you about this because I didn't agree with it."
But the fact is that this is an extremely interesting job, but no one should take it if they are looking for friends.
ST: Anonymous sources.... The Washington Post from Woodward and Bernstein days, and other instances, is famous for quoting things anonymously. What do you think about that?
GO: I really do feel strongly that the use of quotations from people who are not held accountable for what they are saying is one of the main reasons that reporting is as destructive as we all feel it is today. And I think it's an under-recognized reason. I think, for two reasons, it's just a very dangerous thing to do, to let people talk off the record. And to use their information.
One--we rob the reader of an ability to judge the speaker. You don't know if the guy has an axe to grind. You don't know if he was just fired. You don't know if it's the best friend of the person he's talking about.
And, two: we allow the person to say anything with impunity. And we let them do that. And I have to say, I've written on this here, and I know this is unpopular with my colleagues. And I regret that. I don't take great pleasure in making people mad at me.
But we've got a policy here at The Post that sounds great. And it talks about how every time we use an anonymous quote, it stunts something in our credibility. And yet we proceed to do it all the time...quite frequently.
I just think there were reasons for those good old rules in journalism. And one of them was, you get people on the record. Yes, this newspaper has made its reputation ....out of a story in which anonymity was kind of a famous element. And I surely understand that there are very good reasons to use anonymous sources, ...but when you stray too far from the rule of getting sources on the record, you tread on dangerous territory.
And the citizens really do understand that. I mean, they say things like, "Well, how do I know that he didn't just make up these quotes?" And frankly, I know reporters here aren't making up quotes. But I also know that sometimes, they'll say, "as one official said," and they'll say that four different times, and it could be the same official. And how do we know he isn't somebody who's just got up that morning on the wrong side of the bed? It's not good.
ST: It's interesting, Johnny Apple told us that at The New York Times, what they're doing now is they will say, "In a document leaked to someone at the State Department who opposes the policy on Bosnia," so that you'll have some sense of why someone was leaking.
GO: Absolutely. And The Post tries to do that too. It's terribly critical that we tell the reader as much as we can. There's a story this morning in the paper about Dick Morris and the reasons some of the people wouldn't speak on the record. And it's absolutely plausible. And the reader can make his or her own judgments. However,
I've heard reporters grant anonymity way up front. And I just don't think we should be doing it.
ST: Well, why do you think there's beginning to be a debate about anonymous sources?
GO: Well, I think maybe it's just dawning on us how this can compromise journalism... but it's still very nascent dawning. I would argue that the great Joe Klein controversy has had something to do with this, where you have Joe Klein, the Newsweek columnist, writing this anonymous book about Bill Clinton, which is really a pretty pernicious book.
I mean, it's kind of entertaining and I've read it and I appreciate that it's quite a turn of wit, but this book makes all sorts of insinuations about the First Lady and the President, that if we were to believe them, are really pernicious in their effect.
And yet, what we reporters are all worried about is whether he told the truth to a CBS correspondent or not. I don't think that's the fundamental problem. I think the fundamental problem is that a political columnist would write a book like this and want to get away with doing it anonymously... And then still want to go on writing his column.
And this book is going to be made into a movie. And we say, "Well, you know, people know the difference between fiction and fact." But he's presenting it as "almost everything in it is true... there's this Stephanopoulos character, and this is the Hillary Clinton character."
Are we supposed to believe that it's so cleverly inside that it's really reflective of reality? Or are we just supposed to believe it's a fiction? Of course, it's the former. And I think that this kind of wanting to be able to get away with anonymity is just spreading. And we're just barely beginning to recognize the ill effects of it.
And I have good friends with whom I have this argument, who are in the Administration, or in executive offices, who say, "Oh, believe me, it would be terrible if we couldn't use leaking and kind of artful anonymous sourcing when we needed to." So, I understand it's a system which is well built up and will be very hard to tear down.
And certainly whenever I raise it, people sort of look at me like, "You haven't been in Washington long, have you?" And, "You'll get over this." But I hope I won't. And I think there is a building doubt about the worth of using anonymous sources and growing understanding of the danger.
ST: Let me ask you about another specific case. When The Post covered Bob Woodward's latest book, I happened to be here that day. In fact, I have it here with me. There's an excerpt of Woodward's book The Choice, front page, top of the fold on Sunday, and the other half of the top of the fold is a news article about the book. And I thought to myself, when I saw this on the newsstand, "Did anything else happen today?"
ST: Apparently other readers agreed. You wrote about this?
GO: I did. It was a slow news day. The answer to what else happened that day is, not a whole lot. But the question of whether excerpting the book and then deriving from it a news story whose news lead is that Dole seeks a "10" as a vice-president did raise a lot of questions with our readers. I mean, "big news" would have been if he was seeking a "2" right? So, I did hear from a lot of readers.
And this has certainly been one of the more difficult columns internally. I certainly had several editors and others here tell me they just think I'm wrong. I wrote a column in which I quoted mostly readers. And I got many, many, many phone calls and letters from people saying, "Why is this all there was that day?" And, "What is the news story here?" And, "I think that's awfully incestuous."
And I quoted them, and there were some quite eloquent readers. And at the end I said, "I think we asked for this." Because I do. And I don't think that this was a journalistically valid thing to do. But there are certainly people here at The Post who strongly disagree with me. Someone recently, whom I respect a lot said, "You know that was just a wrongheaded column." If so, there were a lot of wrongheaded readers, because I sure heard it from them.
And I've heard since from people who believe that The Post is in its enormous respect for Woodward, which obviously is well-earned, has a kind of a blind spot about this. And who knows. You know, these things are very subjective. But I don't think it was journalistically wise.
ST: Does it take some guts to write columns like that?
GO: I really do feel like the great gift of this job is its absolute independence and that I wouldn't be servingThe Post well if I pulled punches, because I knew this was a difficult one.
In fact, I think most of the things I care most about, anonymous sources, whether or not we're a good local newspaper for this city, which desperately needs our good attention... I think most of the things I care most about are pretty difficult issues. And we don't need to hire somebody to explain to the readers that everything we do is just right.
I think that they pay me to try to reflect what readers are saying, and also this job has always contained an unusually strong component of being an internal critic. The Post has always hired people who have some standing to do that. So I don't take pleasure in doing things I know are going to be difficult for the institution. But it seems to me that I'm fundamentally being loyal to the institution to bring that kind of criticism to it.
ST: Isn't it natural for a publication to push a star? I mean, if you have a Bob Woodward, why not splash him all over the front page if he's just written a new book?
GO: Well, I certainly think that's what a lot of editors think. And I don't have any problem with putting the excerpts of his book in the paper... You know, Woodward's books are all big and this one's about the campaign and the paper is about politics and government. I mean, I think that made a lot of sense.
To me, the excess was to take up the whole top of the page with excerpts and a lead story whose lead was: "Dole Really Hopes He'll Get a Good Person as Vice-President." I mean, I think that was inviting a critique that it was excessive.
But also, I have to say that I may be on the other end of the spectrum in terms of how much you push a star. I mean, I don't have a great taste for celebrityhood in journalism, and I really believe it ought to be news that pushes a story to the top of the front of the page of the Sunday newspaper, and not celebrityhood.
Critics of celebrity journalism are in the minority. In Washington, we're really in the minority. But everybody then goes on and talks about the dangers of celebrityhood. So, everybody wants to have it both ways, it seems to me.
ST: Another big criticism is that the press is too liberal. What do you think?
GO: I have to say, everybody complains about how newspaper people are liberal, too liberal, but I actually think the main problem is that newspapers get stuck in the conventional thinking and can't see beyond it.
We can't see new ideas because we think they don't really have a chance.... I would argue, we just get real stuck in the conventional thinking, and whatever sort of prevails is what we write about.
We don't give voice to interesting new ideas very well. We don't know how to do that. I'm more worried about that than I am whether we're liberal or conservative.
ST: It becomes a kind of status quo...
GO: Yes. Absolutely. We are great preservers of the status quo. And when the status quo is pretty unsatisfactory, as many of us find it to be right now, then we're just contributing to making the country feel stuck.
ST: What do you make of Jim Fallows? He wrote this book that touched off a lot of debate...
GO: I have always thought that Jim Fallows was an exceptionally interesting person. I don't know him myself. And I thought the book was interesting, but I have deep concerns about what he arrives at as the solution in the final chapter.
I don't have trouble with the notion of public journalism, or civic journalism in many ways. I certainly believe that we should realize that we want to be community-minded. I went to the Investigative Reporters and Editors Convention and I told them, "We really are, when we act as journalists, performing an act of love for our community. I mean we shouldn't be in journalism, unless we believe in civic action....unless we believe in our communities."
That doesn't mean we just tell good news stories. It means we tell difficult stories, that we think people need to know. But we shouldn't be cynical about it. I mean, why be a journalist and report on all of these community things unless you believe in the community.
So, I love the idea of remembering that journalism is a community-minded activity. I'd rather believe that we go back to our best roots when we do what weekly newspapers are doing all over the country and recognize that is what we do.
What I think really constitutes going off the reservation is challenging the notion that the only good journalism is that which topples the mighty... you know, sniffing out deceit and everything, which we need to continue doing... The watchdog role is critical, but it's not our only honorable role. We got so big for our britches that we forgot to do just good, daily, humble journalism. And I think we need to return to that.
But he danger was calling it something new. Public journalism. Civic journalism. Sort of having it discovered in some academic place and then put into newsrooms. The danger is that, first of all newsrooms become allergic to it, and it's like an organ transplant that isn't successful.
And second, there are difficulties in the specific quality of the way some newspapers are performing public journalism, I think. I do feel it's very dangerous for us to get involved in community service, and even to, you know help community, neighborhoods establish goals for their neighborhood... That's not our role.
We surely should be finding out things. And we surely should tell more success stories... good, meaty, success stories. And we should have people remember their solutions, et cetera, et cetera. But, I think Fallows, you know, wanted to give his book a happy ending and went too simplistic on us... That's my view.
ST: What do you think of his move to US News and World Report?
GO: Well, you know, it'll be real interesting to see what he does with US News. I like his desire not to have celebrity focus journalism -- journalism that concentrates on personality as opposed to issues. You know, he may do some good things. I don't know. It seemed pretty harsh the treatment of Steve Roberts. But I don't know a lot about it.
I know and like Cokie Roberts quite a lot. But I am very troubled by this speech circuit stuff that... again contributes to journalists as celebrities. So I can understand Fallows' concern about that. But the way he handled it seems, from what we know, to be unsettling.
ST: When we talked to David Broder, he said part of the problem that he feels now is that the public sees political reporters like him as part of the establishment and therefore part of the problem. What do you think?
GO: Well, I think in that way that David is right that people are worried and for a very good reason, that we just all are so inside the thing that we can't understand the greater relevance of it. We can't think to ourselves, "Now how would this really affect so-and-so in northwest D.C. or Peoria, Illinois?" We're just kind of letting them know just how much we need to know.
I think David Broder tries not to do that, and really does get out and talk to people. But it's interesting that he'd be so lauded for actually getting out there and talking to people. I mean, that's really what reporters ought to be doing. And it shows how few do anymore.
ST: What do you think about the New York Times criticism of Woodward's book The Choice that it's too much inside baseball, writtten for Washington insiders?
GO: Well, actually I think two things that are slightly different from any of those criticisms. One is it's a fascinating book. Those of us who are kind of political junkies are intrigued. I'm not sure it's fascinating newspapering, because it's focusing on rather minute, specific kinds of personality-based things sometimes.
But the larger question of whether it's about anything that makes a difference--well, it's about a Presidential election in the long run. And that's certainly something that makes a difference. My main problem with the book is it takes me back to one of my hobby horses, which is anonymity.
I mean, he set out to write the book, offering everyone anonymity. You get a certain spirit of things when what you get is anonymous quotes. And I can't help thinking as I read the book, and as I read almost anything that is anonymous, you know... So who is talking here? Is this somebody who wants to advance her own career and therefore wants to play up her role to Woodward?
And I know he's very careful about corroborating sources. I don't doubt that it's all accurate. It's whose accurate view am I getting here? Is this the view of, somebody who is mostly out to protect one person, or what.
It's not Woodward's fault, it's Clinton's fault, but a book [about both candidates] that has a whole lot of direct quotes clearly derived from Dole himself, but not from Clinton himself, is problematic too. But, you know, hey, it's an interesting book and all of Woodward's books are interesting.
I think as journalism it's exceedingly problematic, because the question....is the thing being said important enough to "the republic" that you then let someone talk off the record? Well, most of the stuff in the book is certainly not important enough that you should let someone talk off the record about it. In my opinion.
At what cost do you get this insider view? I believe the cost of anonymity is so huge. And I think it's an insidious effect. Some of our most respected reporters do it. Well, they shouldn't. They shouldn't be so ready to, in my view.