Evan Thomas, the editor-at-large of Newsweek and its former Washington bureau chief, is the first Ferris Professor of Journalism in Residence, a post he will hold for five years. The author of six books and a recipient of a National Magazine Award, Thomas spoke to PAW’s Mark F. Bernstein ’83.
You are teaching a course this fall called “The Literature of Fact: Narrative Writing.” What do you want the students to learn?
Mostly, I want to teach them how to tell a story that people will pay attention to, on the theory that this is a skill you need, not just in journalism, but in almost anything you do. To that end, I have them not only writing stories but standing up in class and telling stories, without notes, to get a feel for that. In academic life, you don’t get enough practice doing what you do in real life all the time, which is to present stories to rooms full of people.
The course description says that, among other things, students will study “the art of interviewing.” What are some of the secrets of a successful interview?
Knowledge begets knowledge. If you go into an interview knowing nothing, you’ll get nothing. The people who are prepared and know something about their subjects are much more likely to get something in return. I also tell my students that there’s a natural tendency, particularly among bright young kids, to want to impress their subjects with their knowledge and personality. Princeton kids are so good at being likable and impressive that their natural instinct is to try to do this when they interview people. They forget that the interview is not about them but about their subject. Often, knowing when to keep silent is a better approach, to let your subject fill the void by blurting something out.
Over the last generation, journalism education seems to have become much more professionalized. Do we have better journalism for all that extra training?
The turning point was the 1970s. After Watergate, journalism became a more acceptable career alternative for well-educated students of colleges like Princeton, so there was an uptick in the education level of reporters and journalists. Unfortunately, along about this time journalists also started to become celebrities and brand names, and a lot of journalists spend too much time performing on cable TV and not enough time gathering information.
Is a degree in journalism necessary to become a good journalist?
A degree in journalism can help you get a job and teach you some skills, but I think Princeton is smart not to offer a degree in journalism. The best journalists, I think, have degrees in history, economics, philosophy, English, or the sciences. After all, someone has to explain highly technical matters to a general public, and you need training in those subjects to be able to do that. The Woodrow Wilson School gives a great grounding for future journalists. But so do the humanities, partly because so much of journalism is understanding human nature, and the best way to understand human nature is to read Shakespeare and great literature.
Has there been a shift in journalism from reporting to opinion?
News magazines have always been a funny hybrid, because while they are not editorials, they do offer analysis and they have long attempted to make sense of complex stories by telling readers what we think they should believe. That was true in Henry Luce’s day, and it’s true today. I would say there has been a slight tilt toward opinion, but hopefully not toward mere attitude.
Is some of that tilt due to the influence of blogs?
There’s no question that we are affected by blogs, but I would like to think that we are an antidote to blogs, that our opinions are more carefully considered and based on real reporting. Blogs and the new media are a mixed blessing. They are often wrong and create a chaotic ocean of fact and fiction all mixed together. On the other hand, I do believe that openness and freedom in the long run create more information and more knowledge and better serve a democracy. So I’m reasonably optimistic that we’ll figure out ways to make blogs more accountable, to give readers more information and ways to tell what’s true and what’s not.
Some people complain that reporting about the upcoming presidential election is too much about polls and fundraising — the so-called horse race — and not enough about the issues. Is that a fair criticism?
It’s a tiresome criticism, because what voters really benefit from are neither horse-race stories nor issues stories, per se. What they really learn from are stories that try to get at what the candidates are really like. Now, that’s not easy and it takes time, but there is over time a collective wisdom and judgment that comes from journalism that seeks to explain what and who the candidates really are — their character, personality, ideas, honesty, and integrity.