May 9, 2003
Q: This is Karen Frenkel, and with me is Geneva Overholser. We are doing our second audio session for the Washington Press Foundation Oral History Project on Women Journalists. Today is May 9th, 2003.
Where we left off was when Geneva and David Westphal decided to leave the Des Moines Register and come to Washington [D.C.]. So Geneva’s going to tell us how they made the transition to an urban newspaper, urban newspapering.
Overholser: Thank you. Yes, it was quite a momentous time, I must say. You know, everything in our lives had become so complex and really untenable, obviously, and I felt sort of paralyzed in those last months at the Register. I remember one time talking to my sister about my life and how paralyzed I felt, and she said, “You know what? I find when I’m in a complex situation like that, you just have to pull a string. Pull one string, you know, instead of thinking, ‘Oh, what can I do? I can’t solve it all at once.’ Just pull one string and set the process in motion.”
So the string I pulled -- I may have mentioned this last time -- was that I was sitting in a meeting once at the Register, and one more decision was made, you know, about something that seemed quite foolish to me and was bound to drive readers away, and I thought, “You know, I just don’t have to do this anymore.” And I went back to my desk, and I wrote a memo to the publisher, and that set things in motions. I now decided if I was leaving, I needed to leave right away, and so I resigned. And then, of course, I needed to look for work.
Meanwhile, David had told the publisher he wasn’t interested in the editor’s job. He was sort of an obvious likely successor. And so we both left our jobs, which was, as you can imagine, quite a dramatic time for the Register and a very difficult time for us. But we had amazing good fortune. I guess what I’d say is we both just put out feelers. We had each just worked in Washington previously, and I had worked in New York. And we had, you know, quite a few national contacts in the journalism world, and it’s a fairly small world, to tell you the truth.
So I ended up with several offers, and some of them, in fact, were in the academy. I was offered a Knight Chair at the University of Maryland College of Journalism, which was very appealing. They have a fine school. And then I also was offered the ombudsmanship at the Washington Post, and I decided that, you know, I had a strong feeling about what I felt I could give up and what I wasn’t ready to give up. I remember making a list. I felt like I could give up much of my salary, which is a good thing, because I certainly did. I felt like I could give up power, because I’d had it, but I also saw the costs of it within the newspaper world, especially with the profit pressures that exist today. But I didn’t want to give up independence, and I didn’t want to give up influence in the newspaper world.
So I decided that really the ombudsman’s job worked beautifully in that respect. I certainly was giving up. I cut my salary in half or less than half. I mean I was making less than half as much. Although I made a perfectly fine salary, editors are making a whole lot more money than most people would ever have expected they would make today, and they, typically, get stock options and all kinds of things that, of course, are part of what happens that make editors particularly interested in business success these days.
But anyway, the independence in that job was very real. The ombudsmanship at the Post is a very interesting institution. It’s one of the earliest ombudsman’s jobs in the country, right after the Louisville Courier-Journal, which I think organized its ombudsman’s job in 1948, so it’s long ago. I’m not sure about that Louisville date, but I know the Post has been around for thirty years and more. It’s very well constructed as a job. Its independence is guaranteed. You are not actually an employee of the Post; you’re an independent contractor. You sign a contract for two years, and it can be extended by one year by mutual agreement. And I did end up doing that, so I was ombudsman for three years. But even your health insurance is different from the employee health insurance. It just really is a very independent thing, and you are guaranteed a spot every Sunday in the Washington Post to write about whatever you feel needs writing about.
And it is, unlike some ombudsman and reader representative jobs, it’s sort of a two-headed job. One part is reader representative, listening to readers, bringing their voices into the newsroom, helping staffers at the Post understand what readers are feeling, making sure that people with a complaint reach the right people, that kind of thing. But the other part of it -- and the Post is really, I think, unique in this, certainly unusual -- is that they really hire people with a certain standing in the business and invite them into the newsroom, and almost all of them have been outsiders. The first ombudsman, Richard Harwood, was part of the Post staff. And the current ombudsman, Michael Getler, had been at the Post before he became editor of the International Herald Tribune. But they’re the exceptions. Most people have been outsiders, as I was, and they really say, “Come into the newsroom and critique us.” So you’re an internal critic as well as a representative of the reader.
Well, when I went to the Post, I had a notion that turned out to be exactly wrong in both counts, that I would very much look forward to working with that extraordinary staff and find that invigorating. And, you know, part of the deal was I just wasn’t ready to leave the newsroom, and so I was going to be in the newsroom and I would love that. I knew what it was like to work with a great staff, having been at The New York Times and at the Des Moines Register. And so I was looking forward to that, and I thought the other part would be a bit hard. Listening to unhappy readers all day would wear me down.
Well, I found exactly the opposite. I was completely wrong. The readership of the Washington Post is a wonderful readership, as you can imagine it would be in this very civically engaged town. And when you are answering the phone in ombudsman mode, as opposed to editor or reporter mode, you handle it totally differently. You’re not trying to persuade the caller that what you did was right, “Please understand this is why I did it,” you know, which comes off defensive even if you don’t mean it to be. You are trying to listen. You’re according the caller the respect he or she is due. You know, “You’ve got a complaint. I’m assuming it’s legitimate. Let me hear what it is.” You hear him out. You don’t rush to say, “Oh, no, let me help you understand why we do this.” And they were so glad to have a listening ear, because it’s a rare thing within a newspaper, fortunately -- I mean unfortunately. And so I enjoyed the conversations with readers.
On the contrary, internally, you know, Edward R. Murrow said, “Journalists don’t have thin skins; they have no skins.” And I certainly found that journalists at the Post lived up to Murrow’s advertisement. I mean, with some important exceptions, there is not much desire to hear the criticism, and that’s a human -- you know, it’s understandable. But we have an enormous amount of power over people’s lives as journalists, and we really need to hear them. So I found that part frustrating, a whole lot of very self-righteous self-justification, a whole lot of, you know -- readers would call me and say, “Do you know what your reporter just said to me when I called?”
And, you know, I’d sort of think, “Oh, dear,” and I’d say, “No, what did he say?”
And they’d say, “He said, after I’d made a complaint, you know, or after I’d raised an issue or whatever, he said, ‘You understand you’re talking to the Washington Post.’” What a thing to say. I mean, the arrogance was just phenomenal. So, again, there were exceptions to this, and interestingly enough, often the exceptions were the most prominent veteran reporters who did understand that they needed to listen. People like David Broder and Walter Pincus, Bill Raspberry, you know, Mary McGrory, I mean some of the great talents, veteran talents at the Post were not so arrogant. But typically, especially the young, you know, “Boy, am I a hotshot to be the Post” folks were quite arrogant.
Q: The young ones?
Overholser: Yes, the young “Boy, am I a hotshot to be here at the Post” types were arrogant.
So anyway, I found it a really interesting three years, and, you know, people often say, “Well, would you -- ” As a matter of fact, when I left, several readers wrote and said, “I think you have been absolutely fantastic. You have raised the right issues. You have really genuinely represented readers, but I have this question for you. Has it amounted to a hill of beans? Has it made any difference in the newsroom?” And that, of course, is the question. [Laughs]
I would answer, and did answer at the time, that it makes some difference, I think particularly on the question of local news. I talked about something that is true for New York Times readers, I think, as well, and that is these very large newspapers of national scope, I mean the Washington Post is not like The New York Times circulated for home delivery in communities across the country, but it is obviously a paper of national scope in terms of its coverage of national politics. And these papers like the Post and the Times tend not to be terribly good at being local newspapers. And for those of us who subscribe to them and who happen to be locals in New York or Washington, you know, you want them to care about the community.
The rap when I was at the Times was that the Times covered Beirut better than it covered the Bronx, and, you know, arguably, that’s true. Certainly, at the time I was there, Beirut was a big story. It was true. But that’s the rap at the Post.
And when I came, I was absolutely floored at the scant coverage of local news. Now, part of this is, the Post has a complex definition of local news, right? I mean, there are three jurisdictions here -- Northern Virginia, the District of Columbia, the Maryland suburbs. You know, so there are three different states. And also, the Post does have national news as a local story. I mean, it is a local story, the federal government, so that’s a huge local story. And I think for all these reasons, of course, that’s also the most -- that’s the sexy beat. Who wouldn’t rather cover Congress than Montgomery County Council?
For all these reasons, the Post really -- I was just astonished at how scanty the news coverage was. So I started writing about this in my -- you know, you write your Sunday column, but I also did internal memos for the staff, and I started writing about this in both venues, and I just got the typical staff dismissal. “Oh, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” you know. Editors would come in and say, “Oh, no, let me help you understand this. You know, we also have local news on the front page,” blah, blah, blah.
And I finally decided, look, I needed to get their attention. I wanted this to be a substantive critique. And so I wrote to ten friends, who happened to be editors of papers like the L.A. Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, sort of comparable newspapers, and The New York Times, and got their news hole, local news news hole as a percentage of overall news hole. And I was careful to do things like control for zoning issues. And so I wrote this column, and sure enough, the Post was near the bottom. As I recall, it was eighth out of ten, in terms of the percentage of its news hole given to local news. So I wrote this column, and that finally did attract -- I mean, I remember the managing editor coming in and really kind of taking it quite seriously. And I don’t mean to be a megalomaniac here. I mean the truth is, the next time they had one of their staff retreats, that was a very high priority, and they did, in fact, expand the news hole considerably, the proportion of the newspaper that was devoted to metro news. And I do think that my attention to the matter was at least a contributor to that, to raising the issue.
Q: Is it enough, do you think, in terms of long-term improvement in local coverage that the M.E. [managing editor] would have -- would direct it that way, or do we need another way to motivate a reporter who may not get a Pulitzer for covering Montgomery County but could for covering the House or the Senate?
Overholser: Yes, well, that’s a very good question, and the problem is never solved for eternity, but I think one thing that happens is that when you raise the level of the status of metro news, you do begin to address that question. And I think the status of metro news at the Post really did rise. It was, you know, not only a larger news hole, but the discussions about the topics sort of lent some gravitas to the issue. And since then, I’ve noticed that some of the gifted reporters on suburban beats have risen very quickly to national reporting. Of course, that probably did always happen, but I think probably that has helped addressed the problem for the long haul.
My other big campaign was about anonymous sources. I was very troubled to see the prevalence of anonymous sources. I am not an absolutist on this. I think we have got to understand that anonymous sources will sometimes be not only appropriate, but absolutely critical. You know, whistleblowers. I mean, we all know the cases where you’ve got to lend protection to someone, the protection of anonymity, in order for them to make a point that the public badly needs to hear. But the Post, which has a fine set of standards about how it shouldn’t be using anonymous sources because that affects the credibility of the paper and, therefore, you know, don’t use them when you’re not able to corroborate this with other people, and don’t use them to make opinions known, you know, but rather statements of fact and all this, and it doesn’t abide by them at all. I mean, anonymous sources are just rife in the newspaper.
I remember one issue of the paper. It was, you know, a stormy day, and somebody at National Airport was quoted anonymously as saying, “You know, this is the kind of the day when it’s hard for planes to land,” and he asked not to be identified. I mean, please, this is just not okay. And so I kept writing about this and writing about this. And boy, I was just widely disparaged, I remember. I wear this now as something of a badge of pride, but I remember that I think it was either City Paper or the Washingtonian, I think it was the Washingtonian, which was the city magazine, called me a “prairie marm,” you know. I had come from Iowa. I couldn’t possibly understand the importance in this sophisticated city of using anonymous sources. So it said, you know, “She’s widely dismissed in the newsroom as a prairie marm.”
So I proudly wore the title of prairie marm after that. It’s so ironic, because when I came back to Iowa from The New York Times, of course, the rap was I was, you know, a New Yorker, so how could I understand Iowa. Then I move from Iowa to Washington and I was a prairie marm. Go figure. [Laughter]
But I’d like to go on about the Post, but at some point I do want -- it would only be honest for me to address more the kind of struggle that David and I faced as we sought to change our lives. Something was occurring to me about that that I --
Q: I’ll make a note.
Overholser: Yes. So anyway, let’s see, what more about the Post? I have said, and I definitely think it’s true, it’s not a job that you want to take if you’re looking for friends. You don’t make friends. You make friends among the readers, but you don’t make friends internally. I decided that that was okay with me, because, of course, I was newly in love, and it was a wonderful time in my life, and I already had friends in Washington, happily enough.
So I decided to really go for broke, frankly. I mean, I think that I was a brave ombudsman. One of the great delights of my life is when I left, Mrs. Graham, Katharine Graham wrote me a note saying, “You are definitely the bravest of the ombudsmen we have had,” and I loved that. I’ll cherish that note until the day I die.
She was a wonderful woman, as we all know. She had attempted to buy the Des MoinesRegister. Remember I was talking about how the Register was bought by Gannett. She had attempted to buy it. She was a very good friend of David Kruidenier, who was the Cowles family member at the top of the ownership of the Register at the time. But their bid came in fifth among all the bids, the Washington Post bid, so, of course, she wasn’t successful in buying it.
But when I first came to the Post as ombudsman, she invited me up to her private dining room, and we spent, I think, a good two and a half hours talking about that and about being a woman in a field still dominated at the top, of course, by men, and a very sort of macho field in many ways. And it was an absolute delight.
And later I had the privilege as a member of the Pulitzer board, which has certainly been one of the phenomenal experiences of my life, of being on the board when Mrs. Graham’s autobiography was awarded the Pulitzer for nonfiction, or for biography. And so I was able to -- actually, I called Don Graham, because I knew he would want to let her know, and told him, and he told Kay Graham. And later I was part of, you know, a couple of celebrations. Meg Greenfield, the then-editorial page editor, had a party in her home, a wonderful home in Georgetown, this little backyard, you know, and just a lovely party.
And you know, Mrs. Graham was absolutely, genuinely overwhelmed with joy at having won that. I mean, this is a woman who had so many honors come her way, but, boy, is this ever an honor that she could not have gotten except as recognition of an individual act of her own talent. So I’m off the track a little here. But what a wonderful woman.
Q: But that’s great. It’s great that you brought up your two-hour dinner with her. If you could just talk about what that was like, you know, what was it like to just first meet her and be in this amazing dining room, and how did you interact?
Overholser: Well, I had had the pleasure of getting to know her before. It’s such a small world, the world of editors and publishers, and I had been an editor and she had been a publisher, and so I had been, for example, on a panel at the Newspaper Association of America, which is the publishers’ gathering. And I was a good friend of Arthur Sulzberger [Jr.], the young Arthur Sulzberger, who’s currently the publisher of the Times. And I had known Don Graham in various circles, so I had met her before, but I was astonished at her generosity in having me come to lunch in her private dining room.
You know, I walked into her office, kind of a hushed office, full of pictures, memorabilia of her life, and she led me back into this dining room, very sort of modern, tasteful furniture, beautiful paintings, and we sat. And her bookcase is filled with books of all kinds. And this wonderful man came in (to serve us lunch).
You know, later I went over to her home. Well, I mean, she used to have us over to parties. She had wonderful parties. She really was a doyenne of social life here in Washington. But she also had me over later, before the Pulitzer, when I told her how much I had admired her book and that I had all kinds of questions I wanted to ask her. She had me come over and meet with her and the woman who helped her edit the book, and we spent the afternoon. I had dog-eared the book all over, you know -- I should go get it and show you -- with all these questions I wanted to ask her about it just as, you know, woman journalist to woman journalist, feminist to feminist. And that was even more delightful, because we really were getting at issues that were very powerful in her life.
And I found out on both these occasions that her relationship to the people who worked for her was extraordinarily rich and warm. The main waiter, the main sort of, you know -- waiter isn’t exactly the right word. The man who attended her in her private dining room at the Post was this absolutely delightful guy, and she and he had this rich repartee, very, you know, genuine, very equitable -- I mean very egalitarian. And at her home, she had her driver, who -- people wrote about this later -- he was this absolutely wonderful elderly, completely -- there’s this certain genre of elderly African American man who grew up in Washington, who has the courtly grace of a southerner, but the extraordinary kind of self-respecting air of taking himself seriously that accords with being part of the nation’s capital and knowing the wealthy and the powerful. And he was just the most wonderful man.
I had ridden with her and him on various occasions, but she on this occasion had him take me back to the Post, I guess it was, yes. So we rode back, and he regaled me with tales of her and how delightful it had been to work for her. I later wrote a piece about her and said she was my hero. She was one of life’s extraordinary people.
But back to this lunch. She asked me a whole lot about the Register and what it felt like during that period when the sale was under way, because she was so eager to have bought the paper. And she talked quite candidly about the interchanges between herself and David Kruidenier, the Cowles family member who really was at the top of the ownership of the paper, and how had that episode had been for her, and how she came out in the dark of night and, you know, went to his home. I was amazed at how forthright and candid she was about all this, because it was a fairly controversial sale. I won’t go into all that, but it was really, you know, in the newspaper biz, it was quite the hot topic at the time. And Gannett ended up with it.
Q: Did she say very particularly why she wanted it so much?
Overholser: Yes, it’s just a jewel of a newspaper. I mean, it’s easy for me to be accused for overstating it, because, of course, I fell in love with the Register when I went there and later got to edit it. But I mean it really was a sort of an heirloom paper. It was an extraordinary paper, with this wonderful rich family ownership tradition. Not that all family ownerships were great, but the Cowles family ownership really was. And I think she felt that it was a great match for the newspaper she had built into a truly extraordinary newspaper, and that they don’t come along that often. But they don’t bid high enough. I mean, I’ve seen this on other occasions as well. The Post wants things sometimes, but it doesn’t want many. It wants only a few, and this was one of the few.
I also should talk more about the Pulitzer board experience some and maybe the American Society of Newspaper Editors board experience some.
Overholser: Yes. In fact, I think I’ll take just a break here and get another cup of coffee, if that’s all right. Is that all right?
Q: Okay, that’s fine.
[Tape recorder turned off.]
Q: Okay, we took a short pause. We’re back on. Now we’re going to go a little back in time to the decision to leave the Register with David Westphal.
Overholser: Yes, I wanted to talk some about this period of my life, which was so tumultuous. I talked about pulling the string. That’s how I began to look for work. And David, too. He ended up with a wonderful job at the McClatchy newspapers, Washington bureau, McClatchy being a nice exception to this constant profit squeeze that leaves so many newspapers less than they were. McClatchy really invests in its newspapers, and it’s just been a wonderful company. And he shortly thereafter became the Washington bureau chief for McClatchy, so that was a terrific, terrific job for David, and we’re grateful.
I think for me the turning points were so powerful, I mean that my marriage ended; a couple years later, my new marriage began, which was an enormous gift. My family life changed so dramatically. My older daughter was a senior in high school, and after we had been out here a year, she came out to go to Wesleyan University in Connecticut. So in many ways, that was wonderful because we were able to be very much in her life. I mean, she kind of made this a home base in some ways, because, of course, it was so much closer. And we drove her stuff up and back and got to know her friends, just had a wonderfully rich and interesting experience.
And she was very immediately open to David as David’s son Paul was to me. Those were great blessings. Paul was at the University of Northern Iowa. He was graduating from high school right when we left Des Moines, and he’s a musician and an extraordinary young man, and has just been -- you know, we had known each other’s children because we had been working together for years. But, of course, they had to see us in a totally new light, and no doubt it brought great difficulties, but we had extraordinarily gracious responses from the two older children.
Nell, our youngest, who was, what, twelve at the time, just was furious and hurt and, you know, literally hit me. And it was just an extraordinary time. She decided to stay the first year in Des Moines, because her sister was going to be there, and her dad, who had been very much engaged in her life and who was a teacher, you know, wanted her to. And she was in our family home, and there were lots of elements of stability that she would continue to have if she stayed.
So while my heart was broken about that, I actually thought it might indeed -- I mean, I understood the choice, and I supported it if it was her choice and if it was Mike’s choice and Laura’s choice, my older daughter. But after that, she called us and said that she did want to come here for eighth grade, and so then moved to Washington and finished her time here with us in junior high school and in high school.
So it was a tumultuous time for my family life, a tumultuous time for my personal life, but it also was a really tumultuous time professionally. I mean, I had had the privilege of rising very, very dramatically in journalism to jobs I would never have imagined I would have the chance to take. And while I was very lucky to be offered the jobs I was offered, they certainly were not what many people who sort of think you should move along in your career always step to step higher and higher, they would not have characterized my job that way. And indeed, I had turned down far more dramatic jobs, you know, as “Please, won’t you consider coming and being editor of this newspaper?” “Please won’t you come back to the Times and accept this rather extraordinary position?” “Please won’t you consider being dean of this journalism school? “Consider being curator of the Nieman Foundation.” I mean, I have been blessed with a number of rather extraordinary job offers in my life.
And obviously, being ombudsman of the Post did not stack up, nor even would have being Knight Chair, I think, at Maryland. And not that I want to say, you know, “I could have great jobs and look what I took.” What I want to say is that it was a time in my life when I realized I was making a decision that was based on my personal -- I really was voting for my personal life, because I was so much in love. And I am so grateful that I did that.
But, you know, it calls up a theme in my life, and I think for all people, but certainly for all women journalists, this kind of -- and I think I’ve talked to you about being both a feminist and a journalist and the kind of constant tensions between those two. But the same is true of being a mother, a wife, a person who has a personal life, a spiritual life, you know, and being a journalist. There is a constant tension between those, too. And I have to say that I felt strongly at the end of my almost seven years as editor of the Register that I had been letting the professional trump the personal and that I wasn’t really -- I didn’t want to continue doing that.
Now, I would say that I still did a pretty damn good job of making the personal and the professional both count and that I was still a pretty good mother to my children and that, you know, and I certainly was in their lives more than lots, you know, of big-shot-job fathers are or something. But I believe that I had had to, sort of, to be editor of the newspaper, let the professional trump the personal, and I didn’t want to.
So in a sense, that was a blessing then, to take a job that was much more containable. I wasn’t running anything, you know. Nothing really depended on me. I mean, in many ways, I could make a great difference in the life of the Post, but nobody worked for me. I mean, you know, it was a very different kind of job. It wasn’t nearly as visible. It was visible in other ways.
But okay. So that has been an interesting theme in my life, because I have sort of -- I mean, I rose, you know, quickly as a cub reporter. I had a great experience. Then I went overseas and had to kind of have some setbacks, even though they were very, very wonderful times in my life, right, the five years overseas. But there, again, the personal dominated. I went with my husband, I had a baby, you know.
Then I had a new rise coming back here as a congressional fellow, going to the Des Moines Register, quickly becoming deputy editorial page editor. I had to turn down becoming editorial page editor there because I was pregnant with my second child. Then taking the Nieman, again kind of a personal decision, wanted to be with her in her second year of life.
But then going to the Times, I rose. Going to the Times and then becoming editor of the Register was the period in my life where it was just a real -- it was clear that my job was dictating where our family lived. My job was dictating a good percentage of my time. Of course, that’s a silly thing to say. It always did. But I mean dictating an unusually larger and ever larger percentage of my time and of my emotional energy, you know, and everything.
So I think that -- but when your job isn’t, and you are accustomed to having it do so, you miss it. And I have found that this period since I came here has been a very interesting new progression, because now it’s been, again, another, what, almost eight years I’ve been here. And compared to that previous ten or so years when my job was so dominant and I was rising and being, you know -- I was on the Pulitzer board and chaired the Pulitzer board, and I was an officer of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. And, indeed, I left two years before I was supposed to become president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and I stepped off the ladder, as they call it. And people are just amazed. I mean, believe me, people stay in their jobs in order to continue on and be president of ASNE. It’s sort of the pinnacle of a, you know, newspaper editor’s success.
And so I made these choices that I knew were right for me, and I have never regretted them, but it would be silly of me not also to acknowledge that sometimes I’m thinking, “Well, you know, people forget that I was this or that, or you know, I could have had -- ” Sometimes you have the base and immature temptation to say to people, “But I could have had such-and-such a job. You need to know, you know, that I could have had such-and-such a job.” So you sort of go through this period, this struggle, which I think is very real. And I do want to talk about that, because I think for women journalists that is a very real issue.
Q: I just wanted to ask when you started to become involved in the Pulitzer board, since you went through the chronology, at what time, what point, I guess, when you were the editor of the Register and how that came about. and then the ASNE.
Overholser: Yes, I think I may have mentioned in one of conversations that I was -- when we were talking about feminism, did I talk about this? Somebody else was just interviewing me, a young woman who’s doing a master’s project, and I was talking to her about some of these issues, so I may be repeating myself.
But I worried at the beginning that I was having things come too quickly, when I first became editor of the Register, because I was a woman. And several of my friends said to me, “You shouldn’t worry about that. I had them come quickly to me and I’m a guy, so you’re making too many assumptions that they’re coming because you’re a woman.” But they did come quickly, and I do think in some ways they came because I was a woman.
I was named chair of the Freedom of Information Committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in like my second year as a member of ASNE. Now, that doesn’t -- of course, a lot of times it does happen because they’re desperate for people to work. But anyway, and I rose quickly in that organization, and I was elected to the board, I think, you know, within the next year and became an officer within the next year, you know, just really very quick.
And the Pulitzer board, it seems to me that I became a member of the Pulitzer board by -- well, 1990. I was on the board when we got our gold medal, which was in, what, ’91? So, yes, and I was still on the board when I came to Washington, but only for a couple of years. And it’s a nine-year appointment, so I assume I got on in ’90 and was on until -- through ’98. I think that’s right.
Q: How do you get on the board?
Overholser: It’s a self-perpetuating thing, is the truth, and self-replicating, oftentimes. The board has a nominating committee of its own, and I later chaired that nominating committee, by the way, and I think it was one of the important things I did, because you’re able to help shape the board. The board is a, what, twelve-member board? And it has -- it could be larger than that. We’d have to check.
Some people are ex-officio members -- the president of Columbia [University], the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and the administrator of the Pulitzer prizes also sits in on the discussions. And then otherwise, it’s divided between journalists who dominate and then people of distinction in other fields like Helen Vendler, who was a poetry professor at Harvard [University] and a wonderful esteemed poetry critic, and of course, she was really helpful to us in giving the poetry prize, because, of course, this Pulitzer board, which is dominated by journalists, is giving these prizes in drama and poetry and music and all of the different literary categories.
But that’s how you get on it, and I really think I got on -- I mean, you know, well, I knew a lot of the people on the board, and a lot of the people on the board are distinguished editors, and so that’s a genre to which they look. And the Register was a distinguished paper.
Q: Do they know each other through interactions with the ASNE, so there’s cross-pollination between the two boards, or the two organizations, rather?
Overholser: Largely, yes, exactly right.
Q: And also, I don’t --
Overholser: From panels and stuff. There are all kinds of -- you know, you go and are on panels together all over the place.
Q: Right, at conferences and stuff. But you know what? I don’t know that we talked much about what it felt like for you to get the Pulitzer gold medal, you know. Maybe we should bring that in now.
Overholser: Yes, oh, that was gold, it really was. It was an extraordinary moment in the paper’s life. There were so many extraordinary moments in the paper’s life during those years. I mean it’s just wonderful, joyous even to recall. But, yes, that was extraordinary, I think.
The paper had won, what was it, fourteen Pulitzers before, so it was not unaccustomed. But, frankly, it had gone through a dry period. And so when we won the gold medal, which is really the top Pulitzer for journalists -- well, the top prize for journalists, period -- it was a wonderful rich moment, and I think the whole staff rejoiced hugely.
It was a funny time at the paper. Was I saying that we got all this funny coverage when I was editor? Especially after the Pulitzer, people decided we were really a feminist newspaper. Did I talk about this? It was hilarious. There was a Newsweek article that called us the most feminist newspaper in America, which was just -- I mean, we were strong in politics, strong in business, strong in sports. I tried to strengthen the feature section, but not with great success. I mean, to call us a feminist newspaper, it was due to one thing, you know -- I was a woman editor.
And then, of course, we did this series, which it’s interesting to call it feminist. I think of it as feminist because it brought attention to a crime, which was too little attended, but it was widely disparaged among feminists because it was seen to be pressuring rape victims to speak out, which, of course, many feminists think is -- I mean, again, there’s tension between feminism and journalism. Journalistically, it is exactly right, in my view, that they speak out, because what do they have to hide, you know? They didn’t ask for it. Why should anyone push them into a dark corner, etc., etc.? On the other hand, feminists feel strongly that this crime is so cruelly stigmatizing.
But that was a really remarkable time. Did we talk about that? I mean all these people calling, every newspaper in America, every dinky radio show. Talk about your fifteen minutes of fame. The Pulitzer did it partly, but I mean right after the series happened, the Sunday New York Times put it on its front page, and --
Q: We didn’t really talk about it.
Overholser: Unbelievable amount of attention, unbelievable amount of attention, really, literally. You know, people wanted to write books. They wanted to do movies. They wanted everybody to be on the Today Show. They wanted us to be, you know, “Esquire Women We Love.” They wanted everything in the world.
So it was an extraordinary time for the paper, and it was a little bit difficult, because the reporter whose work really is the reason that the series was as extraordinary as it was, I mean, she just wrote the hell out of this thing. I think I did say that day she -- yes. But she was kind of uncomfortable with the -- she, yes, there was falling out between her and Nancy Ziegenmeyer, and then she decided that both Nancy Ziegenmeyer and I got too much of the attention, which is true, I think. You know, I was a lot more visible than she was. Nancy Ziegenmeyer was making herself visible. And Jane [Schorer] felt kind of anguished about it all. So it’s kind of hard.
But the truth is, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I am grateful. I think we made a real contribution, because people really didn’t pay enough attention to this crime, and now that has changed, in part because of our series. So that was a great pleasure, a great pleasure.
Look at that blue jay.
Q: There are two enormous blue jays in this fabulous tree. [Laughs]
Overholser: One of them just relieved himself. [Laughs]
So, yes, that was extraordinary, being on the board was extraordinary. It is one of the most wonderful things ever. I mean, here you -- you know, picture this. I mean it’s like being part of marvelous salon of some of the most interesting people you’ve ever met, and you all read the same thing and then come together to discuss it. And it causes you to read books you would not otherwise have read and you’re very glad you did, although it can be onerous. It causes you to go see plays you would not otherwise have seen, to listen to music you would not otherwise have listened to, and I was not always glad about that, although, it was when I was on the board that we finally awarded it to Wynton Marsalis, who is a wonderful jazz composer, as you know. It had never gone to jazz before, great American art form. It always went to these totally esoteric and inaccessible new classical compositions, you know. I’d put them on the car tape as we were driving around, and my children would go, “Oh, no! Terrible!” and cover their ears. [Laughs]
I think we’re going to get rained on. If we suddenly move in, dear tape, you’ll know why we’ve-- Yes, it’s getting cool.
Q: Want to move in?
Overholser: Either way. Yes.
[Tape recorder turned off.]
Q: Okay, we’re going to now talk about the next position after ombudsman for the Post, which is that Geneva had a column for several years. What was the assignment?
Overholser: Well, at the end of my time, you know, I had been writing this Sunday ombudsman column as a part of the ombudsman’s job. And at the end of my time there, the director of the Washington Post Writers’ Group, which is the Post’s syndicate, syndicates Ellen Goodman and David Broder and [Charles] Krauthammer and E. J. Dionne [Jr.] and [Robert J.] Samuelson and Richard Cohen. And he came to me and he said, “Have you ever thought of writing a column? Because I really like your ombudsman column. You have a natural voice.”
So I said I hadn’t really thought about it, but I did think of myself as having things to say. [Laughs]
So he said, “Well, why don’t you kind of make a proposal about the kind of column you’d write.”
So I did, and I’m not sure I had as much clarity as I needed about what kind of column I wanted to write, and I should have realized that, maybe. But I mean, if I were to try to recreate for you now what I said, it would sound kind of mushy about, you know, “I’ve crossed all kinds of lines,” but I did think that I could write a column that wouldn’t be pompous and that wouldn’t be sneering. I wanted to write a column that was a good column for people who wanted to learn things and who didn’t want to be talked down to and who didn’t want the column to piss all over everybody else. And so I thought that I might be able to bring something different, you know, to op-ed pages.
So I wrote this proposal, and he ran it past Meg Greenfield, who was then the editorial page editor of the Post, and she said yes, she’d buy it and run it. And so he said, “It’s a go. Let’s do it,” and we signed a contract. And I fairly quickly got up to about fifty, fifty-five papers, which isn’t bad. It isn’t great, but it isn’t bad. And there were some terrific papers, you know, some big papers, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Jose Mercury News, etc., etc., Chicago Tribune, Atlanta papers. So, you know, it was an interesting thing to do.
It was very stressful. Two columns a week. You had a deadline. I mean, columnists say this, you know, Ellen Goodman has said it’s like being married to a nymphomaniac, you know. Just when you think you’re through, you have to start over again. And I think that it is like that. You just never feel like you’re through. You’ve got a deadline facing you, and when you’ve just written, you have to start thinking about what the next thing will be.
Plus, I mean -- actually, I sort of enjoyed it, I must say, because, again, it has a little bit of the element of the Pulitzer board. When you’re writing a column, you really are interested in all kinds of different things, and you cause yourself to read those about them more deeply than you would otherwise, and it sets your mind in the mode of observing things critically and trying to think about things and find what’s interesting about them and think about the world in terms of what the public needs to know in order to function in a democracy and live fuller, richer lives. And so, you know, while it’s a wearisome thing, it is also a kind of inspiriting thing, because you’re living your life with more vibrancy in some ways.
But I grew very discouraged about the fact that after Meg Greenfield died -- actually, she had been running me once a week, and it really matters. First of all, it matters because you’re in the Post, which is a powerful voice, you know. And second, it matters because you’re in your hometown newspaper. And after she died, Stephen Rosenfeld, who took over the page, continued to run my column, which was a blessing. And then Steve was succeeded by a new editor. Steve was just kind of an interim editor. And when, after him, Don Graham appointed, as the new editorial page editor, a fellow named Fred Hiatt, and Fred just never -- I think he just never liked my column. You know, he was using me so infrequently. I mean, it was like first he used it once every three or four weeks, and then he used it once every six or eight weeks, and then he used it once every four or five months.
And so I called him and I said, “You know, could we go to lunch? Could you tell me what’s going on and why don’t you like my column?”
And he said an interesting thing to me. He said, “When I was a foreign correspondent, I used to feel that my job was really to translate the country where I lived for American readers. And I think that’s the kind of column you write. You’re translating Washington and public-policy issues for American readers.”
And I said, “I think that’s an apt description of what I’m trying to do, and appreciate that. I think that’s a good characterization.”
He said, “Well, that may be fine. I understand why your column would -- ”
[END TAPE ONE, SIDE ONE; BEGIN TAPE ONE, SIDE TWO]
Q: So why didn’t it work for the Washington Post?
Overholser: Right. He said because -- I don’t know if he used these words, but what he meant was, you know, the Post is in Washington, and Washington Post readers are insiders. They don’t need to have the world of public policy translated for them. Well, to this day, I think he is all wet, and not only do I think he’s all wet, but the Post op-ed page is widely disparaged for being extremely tedious and boring, and it’s because he sees the readership wrong, in my view. I mean, he is understandably -- he understands that he has a responsibility to bring Washington insiders on to the page, that’s true, and it has to be written well enough so that Washington insiders won’t think, “Oh, those idiots, they don’t know what’s going on.”
But the average reader of the Washington Post is like you or like me, living his or her life, working at other jobs. They don’t all work on the Hill. They don’t all work in federal agencies. You know, they’re lawyers and doctors and mechanics and teachers and postal workers, and they live all over the place and their children are in schools, and, you know, they’re living normal American lives. There’s very little to differentiate them from the rest of America in terms of what would concern them, I mean in the same way New York is differentiated because they’re in a big city or something. There are all sorts of things that are particular to Washington, but it’s not because they all work in Congress, for crying out loud. It’s a shame. He’s misreading the public.
Q: You know, I went to the Post [web] site before the first interview, and I can show you a printout of some of the topics of the columns, and maybe we can read them in for the record.
Overholser: Okay. That’s a nice idea.
Q: Okay. I’ll pause this for a moment.
[Tape recorder turned off.]
Q: So Geneva’s just going to read a few of the titles of her column for the Post.
Overholser: Yes, actually, the column, which decreasingly ran in the Post but was continuing to run in papers across the country, I tended to concentrate on certain things which became real powerful issues for me. One of them was SUVs [sport utility vehicles]. This was the period during which people were all of a sudden doing what seems to me to be the inexplicable thing. I mean, remember, when I was a young reporter in Colorado Springs, I was writing about energy issues. I was then writing about how much we were hopeful of not being reliant on foreign oil.
Q: Right. That was the energy crisis in the early seventies.
Overholser: Exactly, and I was in Colorado, so it was a huge piece of my reporting background. And what happens now, you know, at that point something like 30 percent of our oil was foreign. Now, when SUVs were starting up, it was 60 percent, and here we are not worrying about it and buying these absurdly huge cars. And, of course, as a city resident, I mean, you know, I live on these little narrow streets, and here I’m driving my Honda or my Passat or whatever, and I turn left, I can’t even see out the end of the alley. And you hear these complaints more and more, and here are these cars. They’re taking up two parking spaces. You know, it’s just obscene.
So I started totally ranting. In my first SUV column, I said, “Okay, this is a rant, you know.” That was the lead. And what should happen, but I’m going to Dallas for a speech. I was doing quite a bit of speaking. Actually, I do do quite a bit of traveling and speaking. And I get out -- did I tell you this last time? I mean, because it was so mortifying. I get there, and the woman who picks me up has this enormous, you know, Ford Explorer or something, mastodon of a car. And sure enough, my column has appeared in the Dallas Morning News that morning, just a total rant about, “What are these people thinking? What hostility is in their breasts?” You know. [Laughter]
She picks me up and she says, “This is my car.” Unbelievable. And she was quite lovely.
But, yes, I had a total rant about SUVs, and, boy, am I right. I mean, and now, if you ask me, now the damn things, you know, they’re rolling over, and highway fatalities have gone up, and we won’t even treat them as autos, personal vehicles, the way they’re being used, and contend with their polluting habits. I mean, it’s just a crime. So, yes, you can tell. I wrote about that.
I wrote about sprawl. I once wrote about the big box stores. I really liked that column. That was kind of funny. I wrote about gun control. I wrote about children and early childhood education. I wrote quite a bit about environmental issues. I wrote about women’s issues. I see on this list that we’re looking at, I wrote about coverage of Elizabeth Dole. I wrote about women with a strong point of view. I’m not sure what that was about. And I tried to write some about France and Africa, both countries I had lived in and cared about and knew something about. So I would say those were fairly typical of the topics I wrote about.
Oh, and I also wrote about media. And of course, that’s been one of the defining themes of my life for the past twenty years, the profit pressures on media. And at the same time, I was beginning a column in the Columbia Journalism Review [CJR], so that column in the Columbia Journalism Review, which ran, it’s just every two months that it comes out, so, of course, it was less frequent, was consistently on profit pressures on newspapers.
But all of this, as I mentioned to you, I really enjoyed the column, I get a lot of feedback from readers, I enjoyed writing it in the age of e-mail, because you really could hear directly from readers. But I was increasingly discouraged about the Post’s lack of using the column.
Well, now, we’re coming close to September 11th, 2001, which was, you know, a day that all of us will recall all of our lives, and I think maybe particularly those of us who live in New York especially, but also in Washington, because our cities were, you know -- it was a horrifying day to be in either of these cities, as you know. And my husband was in China. He was reporting in China. And my daughter, our youngest, was a senior in high school. She was over here. She went to the local public high school, which has been a very interesting experience, and has made life much more interesting for us as Washingtonians, having her in local public schools, as you can imagine. Anyway, she was in school.
And I was here working, and, in fact, I wasn’t listening to the radio and I didn’t have the television on, and all of a sudden I get this call from my older daughter in Utah, and I didn’t answer the phone, because I was writing a column and I was on deadline. And I heard her voice on the voicemail downstairs, and she’s going, “Mom, are you guys all right?”
And I thought, “Why is Laura calling and asking if we’re all right?” So I picked up the phone, and one of the towers had already fallen.
And she said, “You need to turn on the television, my Lord.” The Pentagon had been struck. You know, I mean, it was -- so I just, of course, it was beyond belief, and I immediately went out to do some reporting and went down to walk through this city, which I mean, I can only imagine what it was like for New Yorkers, because even this city, which was so much more lightly hit, although, of course, the speculation was that the other plane was aimed at the Capitol or at the White House, and so people were evacuating, you know, at high speed, of course, from downtown, and the whole city was in logjam.
So I just walked around the city for hours and talked to people and looked at the strange sights of all these people in the street who wouldn’t otherwise be there. For example, all these hotel workers, I realized, standing on the street in the middle of the day, trying to -- you know, people who usually would be staffing restaurants and cleaning rooms in all these huge hotels were all standing on the street, trying to figure out how to get home. The Metro was overwhelmed, and, you know, the roads were overwhelmed. It was just amazing. And so I went -- I ended up at the memorial for Japanese, those who were interned during the war, during World War II. On the Hill [Capitol Hill] is where the memorial is. I don’t mean they were interned on the Hill. That was a funny sentence. Anyway, I sat there and read the language of people, and it echoed in my mind in painful ways. Anyway, that was an extraordinary day.
Then, of course, I, like most Americans, kept listening to the news and watching the news and reading the news, and I was so struck by this absence of women’s voices. I mean, this tragedy had happened to us as a nation, had happened to us as a people. Were women excluded from the pain of it? Were we excluded from the appropriate response? I mean, had we nothing to contribute? I was absolutely stunned, just stunned.
And so I wrote a column, but the first thing I did was write a commentary for National Public Radio, because I just really felt so powerfully that women’s voices needed to be heard, and the response to the column was so powerful. I think this column in CJR cites some of the -- yes, I was citing the fact that I looked at the op-ed pages of three of our most influential newspapers, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and I found that in the first week after September 11th, these three papers carried eighty-eight signed opinion pieces on their op-ed pages. Five of them were by women. Eighty-eight pieces, five by women. I mean, that’s just phenomenal.
How can this be all right? It’s not all right. We still, and more than ever in times of need, more than ever in times of “These are important subjects. We can’t afford to lend our airwaves or our news hole to frivolous voices.” Right? More than ever in times of need, we simply think that the only people who deserve to be heard are men, and mostly white men, may I say, and mostly white men of a certain age, you know, and a certain -- I mean, it’s a very narrow spectrum. It’s at a time like this that you realize despite all the changes we have gone through, how much has not changed. And I am just -- I was appalled that that would be true, because our nation is poorer for not hearing what women would say.
And, again, I’m not saying -- I was careful in the commentary to note that I don’t think all men think alike, and I don’t think all women think alike, but we would surely all agree that on the spectrum of human experience, when you discount the voices of 50 percent of the people, you’re going to miss some human experience. And we were missing it.
Q: Do you think maybe there was a kind of relapse because suddenly the nation felt that it was at war and women don’t generally have a lot to say or they don’t generally act as the leaders in a state of war?
Overholser: Right. That is part of what I mean. Whenever we’re in a -- when anything really severe or a difficult crisis hits us, then we think we’ve got to go to the real voices of authority. But that’s wrong. I mean, we were attacked. We did feel that we were at a state of war. And I would argue that during the Iraqi War here recently also commentary has tended to go to men, because, precisely as you say, we think war is not women’s business. But what is not women’s business if not security in our homeland, you know? What is not women’s business if not tending wounds and worrying about winning the hearts and minds? I mean, why do we have to turn only to the idea of militarism as a response? First of all, women can talk about militarism, but why are only those subjects we associate with men’s expertise seen as appropriate responses to being attacked?
We could say, “Okay, men respond on militarism, and so therefore we ought not to be hearing women.” Well, even if you accept that stereotype, then you could say, “Okay, women deal with fears and deal with people’s wounds and sense of tragedy, and so then let’s hear from them,” you know. But we didn’t. I was just absolutely floored, absolutely floored.
And anyway, I began to realize that I wasn’t -- that, you know, so many people in the wake of 9/11 -- have you found this? I think so many people in the wake of 9/11 re-examined their lives. And I re-examined mine, and I thought, “I am not doing what I could have the most effect in doing.” I mean, my column, you know, this sort of writing this piece, of course, also, was a part and parcel of realizing my voice wasn’t being heard at the Post and realizing that, you know, maybe I really wasn’t a terrific columnist, or even if I was a good columnist, it wasn’t working, or that I should be using my talents.
You know, a funny thing happened to me early on in my work life when I lived in Zaire. I don’t know if you’re a fight fan at all, but George Foreman and Mohammad Ali were fighting in Kinshasa while I was there, “the rumble in the jungle.” And George Foreman cut his eye in training, and so the fight had to be postponed for, I recall it to have been at least two weeks. It could have been ten days, it could have been three weeks. Anyway, it was quite a while. And most of the people who were there, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, not to mention Ali and others, just stuck around. And there wasn’t much to do, and so you got to talk to these people. I mean, I had drinks with Ali. Of course, he was drinking an Orange Fanta. I was drinking a drink, a beer, a Zairois from Belgium. It was good beer.
Anyway, I had drinks several evenings in a row with Norman Mailer. [Frenkel laughs.] And imagine -- I know. And you know, I didn’t even know -- the only thing I remember I had read, Miami and the Siege of Chicago. But I was not a Mailer groupie by any means. I didn’t even know he had stabbed his wife, which had just happened shortly before this. And he was affronted that I didn’t know, you know. So it’s not that we hit it off immediately. But the fact is, I mean, of course, he’s a compelling presence, and he was one of the great -- he is one of the great literary giants of our age. And so I was awed, and I gave him things that I had written for him to read and, bless his heart, he’d go home and read them. He’d go back to his hotel room at the Intercontinental, and I’d go back to my home at the American School of Kinshasa, and Mailer would read these things, and we would get together the next night.
And he said, “You know what, you’re entirely too protean.” Well, I didn’t even know what the word meant, P-R-O-T-E-A-N, after Proteus, meaning scattered, not focused and concentrated. Well, in fact, Mailer unwittingly, or maybe it goes to his powerful wit, had typed me exactly correctly. I mean, I have been protean in my work life all my life. Some people would say that I’ve been multidexterous, I suppose, but the fact is, I had been scattered.
And after 9/11, I thought again of that remark, and I thought, “I need to think about what I can do best.”
And I have neglected to say something very important, and that is that during the last year of my column I had also taken on a new job, and that was I had been hired into the extraordinarily blessed position of being an endowed chair at the Missouri School of Journalism, but here in the Washington bureau. Endowed chairs in the journalism world these days are extraordinary gifts, because what has happened is that journalism schools, in an effort to bring professionals onto the staff whom they would not otherwise be able to afford to bring onto the staff, they are having these endowed chairs. And mine is the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting.
I had taken this job even as I continued the column, because Dean Mills, the dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, had said, “No, you know, that’s part of what we want is for you to be an avid practitioner. People have requirements that they do research. Well, this is the sort of complement of that.”
So I had been doing both jobs for a year, and I felt overwhelmed, frankly. And I was increasingly engaged with the students who come out here from Missouri and spend a semester in our Washington bureau, graduate students, very gifted, interesting people, and seniors in undergraduate journalism. And so I decided that I really cared about what was happening to media. That had been a theme of my professional life for a dozen years and more. I felt like profit pressures were so, so diminishing our best media in many ways, or all but our very best media, and I knew that I knew a lot about that, and I didn’t necessarily know everything there was to know about all these other issues I was writing about, and, besides, I wasn’t really having the impact I had hoped to have. And so I quit my column. I think only, I can’t remember, but just weeks after 9/11. So the Post didn’t run it, I see.
Q: They didn't run your final column?
Overholser: No, I don’t think they did. Anyway, so I quit my column, and you know, I have never regretted it, except in one way, and that is, I miss the way it made me read more widely about public-policy issues, because your work, of course, shapes your reading.
And now, I mean, I’m a political junkie, so I read politics. I live in Washington, anyway, of course, and then I care about certain issues so I sort of keep up with certain issues. But otherwise, my reading is much more directed to the things that I am doing now professionally, and my work now professionally is very much focused on media. And so I like that, and I want to talk about this wonderful, interesting, rich chapter in my life. Indeed, I would say that for the first time since I left the editorship at the Register, I feel not only fully employed, but over-employed, and wonderfully engaged, and I feel happier in my work than I have at any time since I was editor of the Register.
So it all turned out beautifully, and I’m grateful, frankly, for that opportunity to examine, for that goad to examine my work life, because I think I’m better suited to what I’m doing now. I’m having more influence, more impact. I’m more visible, which actually is great for Missouri, because part of why they hired me is they wanted to raise their profile on the East Coast. So it all turned out for the best, but it was kind of a difficult chapter.
Q: So, can you tell us how much of your time is devoted to teaching your students and how often you lecture around the country and, you know, yes, just sort of what’s your day like, what’s your week like, and or even month like in terms of mobility?
Overholser: Yes, I’d like to, because my job is this funny pastiche of things, many of which you put your finger on. When I first left the column and was trying to figure out to really build the job as Hurley Chair in ways that worked for Missouri particularly, because, after all, they were the ones who were generously hiring me and supporting me, and in ways that were suited to my gifts.
I knew certain things I wanted to do. I wanted to have some prominent events here in Washington that featured Missouri, and so every year I’ve had a Hurley Symposium, which have been wonderful events, mostly on public-policy issues, you know. The one this year is coming in June, and it’s on balancing privacy and security interests. I’ve had one on political reporting. Is it what the public needs? Are we reporting on politics the way the public needs us to report on politics? Do we do more harm than good? So, you know, topics that are kind of current. And we have terrific speakers, and I invite all the people who endow my chair and all the bigwigs from Missouri and the students. And it’s just really a terrific event.
I also have wanted to bring my colleagues’ work from Missouri out here, and so last fall we had a wonderful seminar, a two-day symposium, really, on the effects of terror, terrorism, on journalism. Essentially, journalism since 9/11, how has it changed? And five colleagues at “Mizzou” wrote papers on various topics, the relationship between the military and journalism; how have practices in the newsroom changed; what’s happened to freedom of information, etc. I assembled panels of respondents to each of these papers, you know, a moderator and two panelists, either from the military world or from the political world or from the world of Washington journalism, but some quite distinguished people.
And so my colleagues from Mizzou presented their papers and then these respondents responded and the audience was made up of, you know, interesting Washington people. The Freedom Forum across the river gave us their wonderful site, and you know, a cocktail party and lunch, and so it was just a grand event. And colleagues at Mizzou, who do wonderful work, which is too little recognized in the capitals of the country, your city and mine, got a chance to be recognized, you know, and so that was terrific.
I’ve done things like involve our students. The answer to how -- I mean, my work with our students is atypical because the students who come out here are not taking classes, per se. They are actually spending a semester working in a newspaper or a magazine or National Public Radio or wherever. And my colleague, Wes Pippert, who runs the program -- our bureau is down in the National Press Building -- has continued to run it, and I’ve helped him out some with seminars. But mostly what I’ve done, I hope, is to kind of enrich the program with additional experiences.
I’ve put together a day where people in public affairs reporting from our program and from Medill, the Northwestern program here in Washington, and from the University of Maryland program here all were part of a panel moderated by Gwen Iffil. You know, we were able to get terrific people whom we couldn’t have attracted with one program alone.
[Telephone rings. Tape recorder turned off.]
Overholser: So, let’s see. We just had this interruption, which was PBS [Public Broadcasting Service], the News Hour, calling, because, as you mentioned, this is relevant, I’m going to be on a segment tonight on a reporter, Jayson Blair, at The New York Times, who was fired after lifting chunks of copy from other newspapers.
But that kind of thing is another of the elements I was talking about what I do with students here. Another thing I do is media commentary, some on Public Radio. There are a couple of shows I appear on every now and then, The Connection and On The Point, a little bit of work with National Public Radio here, do some broadcast stuff. During the war, I was on CNN [Cable News Network] with Aaron Brown talking about the embedding, how well that has worked, putting reporters in with our troops in Iraq, and the News Hour occasionally. And I do think it’s good for Missouri, because, of course, it helps people know that Missouri journalism people are in positions of influence and visibility. So I do some of that.
I do quite a bit of public speaking on this passion of mine, which is profit pressures on newspapers. My most typical recent speech titles tend to be things like “Journalism in Peril.” This year, for example, I gave the McGill Lecture at the University of Georgia Grady School of Journalism, and the Neil Shine Lecture at Michigan State University, and the Edward S. Estlow Lecture at Denver University, and so that kind of thing, speaking with journalism students, but also with the larger community.
I like speaking. I think it’s rewarding. I mean it’s energizing. I love the Q & A [question and answer] after speaking. And, you know, you were mentioning more fodder for people to hate the press. I love countering that. I love being able to present a human face and say, “Here’s why you really need to love the press,” you know. I mean, “Here’s why the press is so important to you.” So I really like doing that.
But then I’m also doing quite a bit of research and quite of bit writing. I continued doing my CJR column after I ended the other column. In fact, I continued the CJR column until this past January. Here we are in May. I decided to end that, because I had been doing that for three years, and I think I was getting repetitive. And also, more important, because I decided that I wanted to go online and become a blogger. So I write a web log on the Poynter Institute site [www.poynter.org/geneva], is where you can find it if people in the future can’t figure out how to find it. Anyway, I’m writing a -- it’s called “Journalism Junction,” and it really seeks to bring together people in the journalism academy and people in the practice of journalism, tries to bring interesting research in the journalism academy to the attention of practitioners. It also tries to bridge another gap, and that is between the business and the practice of journalism. So I have continued my effort about profit pressures online.
And right now, for example, I just finished a paper for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of which I am a fellow, and the paper, which I’m going to present in New York in a couple of weeks, is part of a look at the various ways in which corporate malfeasance -- what are the institutions that attempt to restrain, to be brakes, on corporate malfeasance? So you know, there is one paper on regulatory restraints, one on lawyers, one on Congress, and mine is on the press. And so I wrote about how well, or not well, the press has restrained evildoing among corporations, corporate excesses. And then there will be this symposium, and there is a panel that will respond to my paper, and then I’ll revise the paper, and then it will be published as part of that AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] journal.
I’m writing a book chapter with colleagues from Missouri. Our book, we hope, will counter all these books called Slander [by Ann Coulter] and Bias [by Bernard Goldberg] and things like that, by focusing on journalism that works. My book chapter is on National Public Radio, so I’ve had a lot of fun interviewing NPR folk.
And then I am co-editing a book with Kathleen Hall Jamieson of Penn [University of Pennsylvania] on the press as an institution of democracy. There are five different institutions they’re looking at -- the three branches of government, plus public education and the press. And each of these will have a scholarly book, a reference book, more scholarly at least, and a trade book. And they hope to do a PBS show -- we’ll see if that flies -- and educational materials. And so I’m co-editing the reference book.
And we’re having a commission in Philadelphia in July as our first meeting that will gather to talk about the press as an institution of democracy, how well is it serving American democracy today, how did it get to be the kind of press it is, what were the alternatives, what are its strengths and weaknesses, how could it be changed for the better? And we’ll select fifteen essays, select authors from the commission to write fifteen essays, and put them together into the book.
Q: That’s amazing. That’s wonderful, wonderful.
Overholser: Yes, interesting stuff.
Q: Yes, very interesting stuff.
If I could just go back to some of the topics that you mentioned in your continuing thread about profit pressures, could you tell us, thinking about people fifty years from now who might be looking at this archive, or anytime in between, what you think some of the solutions might be, how can we get corporations which are really bottom-line oriented and quarter-to-quarter oriented, how can we hope to convince them that their properties, their media properties, need to be treated differently?
Overholser: Excellent question, one I have struggled with, as you can imagine. I want to preface my answer by saying that I would argue that the media companies in particular are in fact worse off than many other companies, even though we all think the media have particular interest in being publicly responsive. There are plenty of other companies that, in fact, at least talk a better game about really caring about public responsiveness, and media are, in fact, more profitable than the average retail industry in America. I mean, newspapers return 20, 22, 25 percent net income before taxes. No retailer would dream of that. It’s two and a half times as profitable.
And broadcast may be even more profitable. There are television stations returning fifty cents on the dollar. It’s criminal, because the result is that we pay lower beginning salaries, we train less, we have a smaller news hole, you know, portion of the newspaper that the editor uses, as opposed to the advertiser. We don’t press for circulation starts in parts of the community that the advertiser is not interested in. I mean, all these things which really have a deleterious effect on the public.
Beginning salaries for journalists, newspaper reporters, I saw a Michigan State University list the other day. It had, I think, forty beginning salaries in different fields. Newspapers were thirty-eighth. I mean, we’re talking right down there with preschool workers, and we know how much we value them financially. Training is the number one complaint among newsroom people, as cited at the American Society of Newspaper Editors last April. Not this past April, but a year ago.
News holes are shrinking, except where advertisers want. You know, you’ve got great real estate sections and great auto sections, but you don’t have great international news or commentary. So we are ill serving the public. Okay, that’s my long preface.
Oh, look at the beautiful cardinal now, from blue jay to cardinal. Over in that bush, the same one where the blue jay was. Isn’t that pretty? [Laughs]
Q: Oh, yes. Much fatter down here than on Long Island.
Overholser: Oh, that’s funny. [Laughter] Well, we’re fatter down here in Washington than New Yorkers are, too. [Laughs]
Anyway, I actually read something interesting about that. Both Washington and New York -- you know, it’s a very interesting study about obesity, and it was talking about what are the factors that lead to it, and one of the things they said is that ethnically diverse places tend to be more obese because more African Americans are obese and more Hispanics are obese than Asian or white, but that New York and Washington were the exception to that, even though they are both very ethnically diverse, because people walk. [Laughs] You got it. We’ve got subways and buses. Okay. Anyway, that’s beside the point.
Your question is such a good one and is the important one. What can we do about it? Now, for years, I think, all we did was lament and bellyache and rue and, you know, beat on our chests and say, “What can we do?” because these awful things are happening to newspapers. That’s too much what I did, although I tried early on to talk to Gannett about the impact. I called John Morton, the newspaper analyst, before I left the Register and said, “Aren’t there ways we could appeal to the public? I mean they’re the ones who invest.”
He said, “Are you kidding? It’s really pension funds. It’s not Jane and Joe Doe. You can't write to them and say, ‘Dear Jane and Joe Doe, don’t you care about your newspaper? Don’t you want us to have a good newspaper, as well as returning profitably to you?’”
You know, I told you about my three-minute speech at Gannett when I said, “I wish we could be innovative in these other ways as well and we could care as much about our readers and the people in our community and our employees as we do about shareholders.” And you’d have thought I’d cursed and all this. I talked about that last time, I think. I think so, yes.
Q: Yes, you did.
Overholser: Okay. So I tried, but the fact is, you know, very few people were really willing to talk about it. But more recently, I have become more optimistic, and I think there begin to emerge some answers to your question. One is, we need to talk about this to the public. We need to acquaint the public with what’s going on in the journalism world. That’s hard, because who’s going to tell the public what’s going on if not we the journalists, and, of course, most of our owners are not very interested in having us say. I mean, what a great business story. Your business reporter comes to you and says, “You know, I’d really like to do a piece on how advertising rates have been increasing even as our circulation has been declining.” And your editor is not likely to say, “Oh, great, sounds like a good front-page piece.”
We’re really not going to tell people much about it, because our publishers don’t want us to, just as we’re not reporting much on the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] cross-ownership changes right now, because most of our owners don’t want us to. And here’s the public not knowing that all these ownership issues are confronting the media world, but they know very little about it. So they don’t understand how marketing pressures are driving us, or if they do understand, nobody’s giving them the tools to counter that. So I wish we could discuss it more in the public. I want us to discuss it more in the public. I want to write about it more, and I’m trying to do some of those things.
Second, I think we can take advantage of the fact that there is now public concern about corporate malfeasance in general, thanks to these awful scandals like Enron. And look at corporate governance. We need to look at corporate governance. I’ve been at meetings where this is discussed. Last year I was at the Aspen Institute and at the Carnegie Corporation and at the Poynter Institute, all on these very topics. And various CEOs were there, and one thing that happened is that Gerald Levin, who was then still president -- I mean chairman and CEO of AOL [America Online, Inc.] Time Warner, was saying, “I think the corporate world in general is going to be looking at these governance issues.” And it occurred to me then for the first time that it may well be that not only will the press not be ahead of the rest of the corporate world, but it may be behind them, but at least we might be brought along kicking and screaming toward better corporate governance, that thinks about impact on community, that thinks about employees, and believes most of all in investing in the business for the long term.
I do understand that we’re -- my niece, who’s an investment banker, and rich as Croesus, always looks at me and says, “Well, you know, we are a capitalist society, and these businesses are for-profit industries. If you don’t want them to behave this way, they have to be non-profit.” I don’t think it’s that simple. I think we’re talking about business decisions that make sense for the long haul, and what we’re doing in newspapers now is just squeezing the hell out of them for the short term. We’re eating our seed corn. And if we made business decisions that made more sense for the long term, then the business world would dictate to newspapers, “Do some research and development. Train your employees.” Plenty of corporations do training. They understand it’s an investment in their own business. But newspapers don’t. So I think we have some hope of that.
One project I spearheaded last year with thirteen other former newspaper editors, really interesting people like Gene Roberts, former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, former managing editor of The New York Times; Max King, former editor of the PhiladelphiaInquirer; various people and I wrote letters to the CEOs and directors of the fourteen largest publicly owned newspaper companies, making some suggestions. For example, “You guys have audit committees on your boards. Maybe there ought to be a journalism audit on your board, a committee that assessed the health of the journalism of your company each year the same way you assess the financial health of your companies.”
Another one was, “You reward both editors and publishers and CEOs, certainly, for the financial performance of the company. Why not reward them for the journalistic performance of the company, however you as a company, individually, want to judge the journalist performance? For some people, it might be prizes. For some people it might be the work of the journalism audit committee to say how well it’s doing. For some it might be some kind of readership, some indicator among readers. It could be circulation. You know, whatever it’s going to be, reward your executives.”
I mean, the point, my point is, I acknowledge that the business has to count. Lord knows I want newspapers to be profitable, thriving businesses. It has to count. What I want is equal acknowledgement that the journalism has to count. The journalism is the real product of newspaper companies. Right? And of media, other media.
Who was it? Somebody has said most newspaper companies these days don’t face the problem of staying in business; they face the problem of staying in journalism, and that’s what I’m worried about.
Q: But what do you do when, say, in electronic journalism -- and I think this is more true in that medium than in newspapers -- you have a corporation that has many, many different kinds of products, like GE [General Electric], and it regards its journalism product, if done in this certain fashion, a threat to the other products that it puts out?
Overholser: Absolutely. I’m going to look back on the day when Gannett owned all newspapers and think that was a romantic notion, and we should all be like that, because more and more media are being bought by companies that don’t even know anything about media. Some mogul buys a company and looks now and says, “Whoa, I got a medium here. What do I do with it? I don’t know anything about news.”
Okay, that’s one reason this board stuff has to count, because then you take a corporation like that, GE for one, or Disney or Viacom, I mean, and you say, okay, to the board of directors, “One of your divisions is an important news medium in America. What is your value for that news medium?” I mean, think about it. It isn’t, from all I can see, from what I’m told about board memberships and what I see in annual reports, it is never even discussed as a subject. Now, it should be. These people ought to care about the journalism.
So you ask these people, “What are your values for that news medium and how can you be sure they’re carried out?” I mean, make it a discussion at the board level, and make the health, the journalistic health, of that unit of the company matter. And if that board says, “It doesn’t matter to us. We don’t care about the journalism,” then that needs to become public. Then state that. That’s fine, if they don’t care about the journalism.
The fact is, most of those companies really like having -- I mean, it’s very sexy to have a broadcast news outlet and you get to have, you know, Tom Brokaw work for you and he accompanies you somewhere. I mean, they do care about it. But the board is really not brought into those decisions, and it needs to be. I think that is one way that we could help.
I also think we need to have better media criticism in this country, more substantial research about media. The journalism world has the stupidest, most -- stupid is too strong a word -- but the most arcane subjects of research, and there are all these things that really need good research. I mean, if we had good media researchers, thoughtful scholars in the media world who were really looking at what impact Disney is having on its broadcast outlet, then there’d be more trouble for people in the corporate world who aren’t paying attention, because the public could be given the tools to understand the issue and bring pressure to bear.
I’m going to have to take a break.
[Tape recorder turned off.]
Q: Okay. So we left off with the comment about, you know, having the board of Disney, say, examine the impact of its ownership on its news-gathering divisions or companies such as ABC [American Broadcasting Company].
Overholser: Right. And then you and I were just now talking about something I think is critically important, and that is really helping others, not just the board, but “others,” meaning the viewers, the readers, the directors, the communities, understand the importance of journalism.
One thing that we’re thinking about doing at a foundation whose board I serve on, the National Press Foundation, is having a gathering every year that would really recognize extraordinary journalism. Somebody did something in a given community, the results were x, you know, it was terrific in improving y. Bring this out and recognize how it was done so that the journalists who did it, but also the company that invested in it, are recognized and are lauded and the community understands that it has something there that is precious.
And maybe, conversely, people who aren’t journalists and ever recognized for this kind of thing become ashamed and feel like it isn’t worth -- it isn’t good for their business not to care more about the journalism. I mean, we’ve just got to put a higher priority on valuing journalism in this country, valuing investigative reporting, valuing good hard-digging journalism.
You know, people say, “Well, we’ve got all kind of media now,” and we do. It’s such a proliferation. But I’m talking about a kind of journalism that can only take place within the environment of good resources, so that you have people who are behaving according to professional ethics. Of course, there will be some failures of ethics, but there is a commitment to do so. People who are trained, people who are given training over time, people who are edited, editors with a sense of the public need. I mean, the culture of a newsroom, which for all that people like to disparage it, is in fact a very good culture that works. But it isn’t being supportive. And it’s so easy in this country now to just disparage journalism, but, you know, we are a country of the people, by the people, and for the people, and if the people don’t know what the heck is going on, what kind of a democracy are we going to be?
This is a really central question, and I am hopeful that this commission that Kathleen Hall Jamieson and I are putting together will have some of the effect that the Hutchins Commission, which took place in 1948, the year I was born, had in terms of bringing the problem surrounding the journalism, the media world, to the attention of the public.
Q: I would love it if you could say more about why you think this is a very pivotal time for us to be examining journalism, and what you think can happen and the danger of what will happen if we don’t at this juncture.
Overholser: You ask such hard questions, and they’re excellent questions.
Well, I mean, one reason is because this is our time, and you do what you can in your own time. Another is that there are very fast-paced changes. Now, of course, there always are, you know. Who was it who wrote the book about the way things never were? You know, we’re always pining for the good old days that weren’t.
But there have been changes. There are real ownership changes that we’ve been talking a little about, the corporatization. It is true that the typical ownership thirty years ago --
[END TAPE ONE, SIDE TWO; BEGIN TAPE TWO, SIDE ONE]
Overholser: -- local radio stations with good local news. Now you have Clear Channel, which has thousands of radio stations across the country and purports to be doing local news out of a computer room in Dallas. I mean, it’s simply not the same thing. And you have, you know, broadcast ownership that is, as we’ve discussed, part of a larger corporation whose emphasis really is not on media at all. And you have newspapers owned by people in distant cities who are really per force nowadays, answering to their shareholders more than they’re answering to the people on Main Street in the town where they operate the newspaper.
So that’s one big change, and it makes a difference. It really makes a difference in terms of what a lot of people are getting. It makes a difference. I think we would have been taken less by surprise on September 11th, 2001, if we had been given better international news, if we had been given a better understanding about how we are viewed in the rest of the world, if we understood Islam better, indeed if we understood fundamentalism better, but, you know, marketing pressures are turning newspapers into thinner things than they used to be, and newspapers are still the most substantive place to turn, generally, for media, for news, in my opinion, and they make a difference in other media. So, of course, I’m an inveterate print person.
Anyway, so ownership is one change. I also think that as a nation we’re at a critical juncture. I do sort of think of cycles of history. And we have been not questioning enough. The media have become very -- I just wrote in my blog -- I wrote last week a kind of a challenging thing called “Are Our Media Behaving Like State-Run Media?” Because a couple of different people have told me they felt like we were practically state-run media during the war. And I got all these people --
Q: Do you mean the Iraqi War now?
Overholser: I do. I mean during the Iraqi War now, which was just kind of last week just winding down, sort of, not that it’s over really. And so a lot of people responded, “Well, you know, nothing has really changed in a hundred years,” but I think it has changed. I think we are kind of at least a toe-the-line media. We are very conventional. People make the charge that we’re liberal, but, in fact, I don’t think it’s really a question of partisanship or ideology. I think it’s that we just get in ruts, and we’re very -- I said on the blog, I think we’re just kind of an echo chamber of conventionalism. Everybody covers the same thing at the same time, and everybody hops to this lily pad, you know, and then it sort of starts to sink, and then they all hop to this one.
In the meantime, big things are going on that we’re not paying adequate attention to. Even during the war, everyone will brag, every medium will brag, that they greatly expanded their coverage, and they did. But what about the whole rest of the world? We were paying almost no attention. What’s happening in North Korea is far scarier than whatever was happening to Iraq has ever been for us. I mean whatever was happening in Iraq was ever for us.
Q: Why does that happen? Why do we have this short attention span for one thing at a time?
Overholser: I do think that market pressures are a part of the explanation for why people cover the same thing. First of all, it’s cheaper not to dig up some information of your own, and it takes less imagination. Market-driven news outlets are much likelier to see on somebody else’s news. “Oh, I see, the story now is Elizabeth Smart. Oh, I see, the story is,” you know -- dating from O. J. [Orenthal James Simpson], we’ve kind of all done this go right to something. I don’t really know that we should blame the public, the audience. You know, somebody was saying, “Well, if the public want this kind of news coverage, who are you to tell them no?” Well, that’s the public -- this is what we give them. We can’t blame them for, you know, lapping up what we give them. Are we really so sure that if we gave them more substantial international news they don’t want it? I mean, we’re not really testing that.
Indeed, you could argue that, yes, The New York Times has made great national success out of concentrating on international news, national news, and arts coverage, while most newspapers have, you know, sports sections and local news. And maybe more people want these things. I don’t mean to be oversimplistic about it, because I know it’s complex, but I do think that we are driven by one another and that the really important work of finding out things that no one else is looking at is too little done.
I had somebody in NPR tell me an interesting thing, one of the producers. I’m forgetting her first name, but her last name is Weiss [phonetic]. And she was so interesting. She’s been there a long time, and I was asking her, “What distinguishes being at NPR for you?” You know, “How can you behave differently than if you were at a different news outlet?” This was right after Elizabeth Smart, this young girl in Utah who had been kept kidnapped, and she was found. And she said, “You know, for the first two days we did do the Elizabeth Smart story. This story was, you know, capturing the nation,” the way our rape series captured the nation back for a few days. I mean, we sort of go “slurp, slurp, slurp,” you know. And she said, “Of course we did it, because it’s a powerful story, you know. This girl’s found who -- everybody thought she was dead.” Let’s be honest.
And so she said, “But after the two days, we have only one reporter in the interior west,” she said, “and I told him to go back to a very interesting story he was working on about a small town, I believe it was in Montana, that has, you know, just a few hundred residents and some substantial chunk of them, forty-five or something, were going to be sent to Iraq.” So she said, “I feel like it’s a more important story for us to be doing now.”
So she has that opportunity, but how many news media -- most editors are sitting there going, “Oh, no, Elizabeth Smart. Oh, man, we’ve got to put her all over the place.” I mean, part of this is 24/7, right? We’ve got all these cable media -- not all, but certainly with CNN and Fox and MSNBC [Microsoft/National Broadcasting Corporation], we are very much driven by this sort of 24/7 thing, and they have to act all the time as if they’ve got some breaking thing, but it’s typically just the same thing recycling again and again, and
they’re all sort of yelling about this same thing. We act like we’re giving people a great, rich substantial diet, but it’s sort of like what’s happening to America today in terms of obesity. Again the subject arises. People are eating too much, but nourished too little, and I think that’s what’s happening with the media in many ways.
Q: That’s interesting. I think that’s true. And what about journalists themselves? You know, I’m hearing about colleagues, and I’m actually feeling this way myself, that there are fewer and fewer places I want to write for, because we’re in a recession. I should just say for the record that, you know, advertising dollars have really shrunk. There is in the field of technology what’s known as the dot.com debacle and millions, if not billions, of dollars in capital have been lost in the markets, and so media outlets have shrunk. And a lot of journalists just don’t find that there are many places for them to report for.
Overholser: No, that’s definitely true, and that’s something the public ought to understand. I was talking to somebody who was at 60 Minutes, I guess, and he said, you know, when he first went there, people were remembering the day when they’d gotten to do the fifteen-minute segments, but when he first got there, he got to do thirteen-and-a-half-minute segments, and when he left, it was eleven-and-a-half-minute segments, and he says, “You wouldn’t believe what you lose in two minutes.”
But I do believe a similar thing is happening in print, as you know, with news holes shrinking. I was at a conference over the weekend and it brought journalists and social scientists together to talk about changing social patterns. And, of course, the social scientists were all complaining that the journalists always oversimplify, and the journalists were saying, “You try writing up a study in twelve inches, you know.”
So I think you are right. I guess one response I’d offer is that interestingly enough, you know, the way media are proliferating, we may be seeing all kinds of happy things emerging. We haven’t really yet figured out that they’re happy. But certainly what’s happening on the web is very interesting. And more and more people are finding that their news hole isn’t cut on the web, and they’re not reliant on some corporate mogul to get on the web, and -- now the problem is it’s this big hide boisterous, wonderful -- I mean the good news is it’s this big wide boisterous place, and the bad news is it’s this big wide boisterous place, because you can’t be sure about what you read on the web unless you really think carefully about, okay, now, is this coming from The New York Times, you know, or is it coming from somebody’s urban-myth factory?
But I think it’s very hopeful, and, you know, you may not be able to make a living, but you certainly can make your voice heard. And people do. Boy, some of these blogs are really being heard.
Q: Can you explain blogs?
Overholser: A weblog is essentially a column on the web, but, of course, it’s very interactive, you know. And when I put my blog together, I really try to concentrate on -- the one I wrote that goes out today, for example, I linked to Lee [C.] Bollinger’s remarks at Columbia [University] about what the journalism school there should be. I linked to a couple of sites that are doing interesting collections of comment on ownership issues. And so, you know, it sort of gathers things, and then people can see the things, and then people respond to me, and then I respond back to them. And so it’s really a wonderfully interactive and very immediate column.
Q: Do you have your own website, and that’s the jumping-off place for your blog?
Overholser: I don’t. Some people do do it that way, and in fact, that’s the typical thing to do for a blog. But mine is on something -- I wanted to be part of the Poynter Institute website, P-O-Y-N-T-E-R, because they already get tons of hits. I mean, people come there because of something called Romenesko. It’s kind of -- it used to be called mediagossip.com, and so everybody goes there. So I figured I’d start from a much stronger position, and so I’m on the Poynter Institute site.
Q: I think that the comments you made about technology is actually a good way to segue into some things that you said about technology and the Gulf War, the first Gulf War, in that Knight speech at Stanford that I sort of mentioned in passing before we put on the tape this morning: the impact of technology on that war and coverage of the war; two, also, the impact of technology on journalism and in how it affected the way this most recent war in Iraq was covered. Maybe we could talk about technology in journalism and technology in coverage.
Overholser: Definitely. That’s a thoughtful question I haven’t thought as much about. I remember when I was talking at Stanford in that Knight lecture about techno. You know, in that first Gulf War, particularly, we kept being dazzled with all this news of smart bombs. We were going to bomb, but nobody was going to be hurt except the bad guys. Later, of course, we learned that the technology hadn’t been nearly as successful as they were purporting, and that a lot more civilians had died than they had projected.
But when I was at Knight, I was kind of inveighing, I think, against the degree to which we’re kind of dazzled by this talk of technology, and I feel like the same thing happened in a different way in this current Iraqi War, because, you know, if you watched CNN or Fox, there was this all sort of technological razzle-dazzle, you know. There’s this “wow!” stuff. We were always being told that this bomb could do that and this vehicle could do that and the planes could do this. I understand that it’s remarkable, but is that really the essence of war? I mean, these are tools of war.
I was so struck that if you went to the BBC [British Broadcasting Company], for example, you would hear a whole lot more about the political context of the war. You would hear more about what was going on with Iraqi civilians. You would hear a lot more about what the rest of the world thought of the war. And if you saw our cable coverage, you would see a lot of technological razzle-dazzle, and you would see a whole lot of heartwarming human-interest stories about our troops. And there is nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong, however, is if we do those two things to the exclusion of presenting a broader and deeper picture of U.S. actions.
There was a very worrisome degree of kind of -- I know that media always do sort of home team coverage when you’re at war, and of course American journalists were not for Iraq. They were for America. But our job is to go and try to present as balanced a picture as possible. And I do think that the embedded reporters, the troops, this was actually an important advance. I liked that they did it. I commend the Pentagon for embedding some 600 reporters with troops. This was a remarkable innovation. It was both brave and smart of the Pentagon to do.
But I don’t think we should say that because we had this, we, therefore, got a great picture of the war. The fact is, it was hard to be un-embedded reporter in this war, and, therefore, most of the reporting did come from embedded reporters, each of whom got a remarkable slice of the war, remarkable. You know, I mean, I saw on CNN an Iraqi POW [prisoner of war] being operated on, abdominal surgery, by an American military doctor in a tent in the desert. And we were watching because of the videophone and because this CNN reporter was embedded. I mean, that’s phenomenal.
However, each of these slices do not a whole make. It’s like the story of the people trying to describe the elephant, you know. And one of them is looking at the toenail, and one -- how do you put this together? We did not see a picture of the war that was better than ever just because we saw small slices of the war that were more -- you know, that were clearer than ever. And does that mean I don’t want imbedding? No. I want imbedding. I thought it was great. I think it’s important. I think some good things will come of it. I think, in fact, that the relations between the military and the journalism world will improve, and they should improve. I don’t mean it should be so lovey-dovey we’re never critical. I mean we should be able to understand the military better and report on it more avidly and more knowledgeably, and I think we will now because we’ve sort of broken down some of the wall, some of the tension. But also the military, no doubt, have more respect for journalists who, after all, were the other people losing their lives, you know, besides the civilians.
Q: So are you saying that the reason why we do not have as good a sense of the whole, even though we have these very extraordinary slices due to the technology of videophones, is because we still lack contextual reporting by American reporters? And why do the Americans lack that, whereas the BBC and other international news organizations do not?
Overholser: Well, I think a lot of it is about this nation’s mood after 9/11, and for very understandable reasons, we’ve experienced an enormous surge of patriotism. And I actually welcome patriotic sentiments, but too often for me these have verged on nationalism, a kind of a mindless bravura, you know, that somehow makes us believe that we’re not only the most powerful nation on earth, which is unquestionably true, but the best and the noblest, and as if somehow other people don’t have claims to some of the human gifts that we have, and that somehow it doesn’t matter what others think.
And this administration has been masterly in, I would say, milking -- it’s a strong word, but I’d use it advisedly -- milking this sentiment and even stoking it. Stoking it is better. Because this administration, which, mind you, was always very good at keeping things close to its chest, I mean, it was always very secretive. There were narrowings of the Freedom of Information Act in the [George W.] Bush administration before 9/11, and they came into office vowing not to let leaks happen, and if there were leaks, those people would become persona non grata. And sure enough, the few people who have criticized the Bush administration, you can see them being taken to the woodshed. It’s a painful thing. It simply doesn’t happen. I mean people in the administration or who have been part of it and criticize.
And then along comes war. Any nation, even the Brits, I mean during the Falklands War, the BBC was probably more home team coverage-ish than we want to remember. I do think any nation’s people, when you’re at war, and it has been felt like being at war since 9/11 and certainly all the way through the Iraqi War, when you’re at war, you do line up behind your leaders. You want to be safe. You don’t want to be so vulnerable.
And this “leader,” I believe has been deceptive and has been in terms of trying to prepare us for this war. We got all kinds of messages. And I’m not trying to make a political case here, but I think it’s relevant, because this is where the press steps in. If a president says, “We have to go to war because 9/11 has shown us that we’re the victims of terrorism,” and cannot make a case that Saddam Hussein has any real connection to 9/11 or, indeed, to Al Qaeda, then the press needs to be better at explaining and forcing that issue than it has been.
Sixty-two percent of Americans think there is a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, and none has ever been shown. Now, is that not a press failing? It is certainly a mark of the administration’s excellence on the political front. But it’s no mark of journalistic excellence. And similarly, we’ve had these -- you know, my Lord, the patriot, the USA Patriot Act after 9/11. The very name should give us pause. It really is a worrisome thing when we begin to let all the barriers against wiretapping and against all kinds of civil liberties fall, imprisoning people without naming them and yet that we were -- you know, Congress was pliant, because, of course, the people were upset, but we didn’t have to be pliant, too. We simply were not doing the job as journalists that we should have been doing.
And I would argue that the Bush administration has gotten by with so much in this regard. I mean, their own people are finally beginning to say, “Well, now, where are the weapons of mass destruction? We went in there to get these weapons of mass destruction. We haven’t found a single weapon of mass destruction.” Maybe there’s time. Maybe we will.
So we went to war against this guy [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] who is undeniably a terrible tyrant, and if I were an Iraqi, I would thank the Lord that I was free of him, and I think it may be great that we went in there and these people no longer have to put up with a man who cut off their ears and, you know, threw people in jail and executed people. He was a terrible tyrant, but are we going to go against every terrible tyrant in the world? And could the Bush administration make the case that because this man was such a terrible tyrant to his own people, we ought to go? This is a guy who ran, saying, “We can’t be a policeman to the whole world, you know,” and now we are?
I mean, in other words, it’s one thing to make that case and go to war for that reason. It’s another thing to make a very different case -- 9/11, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction -- and go to war when those things may not have been part of the reason. You know, it’s deceptive.
Q: Do you think that the journalists weren’t doing good enough job in raising the questions of, you know, what really is the connection between 9/11 and terrorism and Iraq and, as you just mentioned, saying, “Well, where are those weapons of mass destruction?” Do you think that they’re not asking those questions and pursuing those stories enough because their editors might be getting directives to not go there? Is this -- if I’m more cynical than you, please say so, and this is, I know, a slanted question, but I worry that there is a trickle-down effect from the top, from -- the corporate governance is being, you know, sort of guided by this administration, and certain stories are not being pursued because the administration doesn’t want them to come out.
Overholser: Well, indeed. As a matter of fact, it’s not too cynical. It’s quite specifically true in some cases. The Post had a remarkable story the other day, in the Washington Post, about media advisors who have told their broadcast outlets that, A, they should frequently run patriotic music because that will be very popular with the public during the war, and, B, they should be aware that running news of anti-war protests might be hard on the bottom line because in a list of topics submitted to readers, viewers, listeners -- sorry, listeners, those were the least popular. So of course, I mean, that literally is, you know, running your newscast based on what marketers tell you.
Most media, of course, do not experience nearly that kind of direct link, but I would argue that what your question goes to is, nevertheless, quite valid broadly, because people are part of this broader world where I think the media -- and this is getting to something else I feel very strongly about, so I’m really glad you asked this question -- I think the marketing pressures on media and the corporate-driven nature of so many media today mean that journalists care way more than they used to about whether they’re liked. And a good journalist really can’t afford to care whether he’s liked. I don’t mean we should be arrogant. I don’t mean we should quit listening, but you can’t worry about whether you’re liked.
And in an era when patriotism is the great charge, you know, the great surge, and everyone is talking about “America First,” and if you don’t have a flag, you’re suspect, and when we’re boycotting French products because they didn’t go to war with us, and they vetoed us at the U.N.[United Nations], and to be charged with anti-Americanism or anti -- not being sufficiently patriotic, is really a difficult thing. And a lot of people avoid it. A lot of people believe that they’ll be more commercially successful.
I mean, Fox Television is doing beautifully, and it’s the most flag-waving thing around. They sit there -- and the other day I was sitting there looking at it with my mother-in-law, and it was when the presidents of France, Germany, and Russia were meeting together. And the news report -- mind you, news report -- on those presidents’ meeting was labeled in large words underneath, “Axis of Weasel.” “Axis of Weasel.” Now, as you know, this is a supposedly funny reference to the aforementioned “axis of evil.” These guys, the “Axis of Weasel,” because they wouldn’t go to war with us, go to war along with us, alongside us. This as our news label? I mean, and Fox has done beautifully.
So I would argue that MSNBC has tried to out-Fox Fox. They have these remarkable, sappy, to me, sounding, you know, patriotic music and flags fluttering in the breeze. These were their lead-ins and lead-outs of news programs, and they said things like, “Our hearts go with you,” and showed the troops, you know. I mean, this is the milieu in which journalists are operating.
And one last quick point. This is already the milieu in which journalists felt bad when constantly being charged with being “liberal media.” And I would argue they have bent over backwards not to be seen as liberal in ways that have ill served the public, too.
Q: You know, as you were talking about MSNBC trying to out-Fox Fox, I was thinking about a piece on Bill Moyers’ NOW [NOW With Bill Moyers], on which he interviewed two journalists, whose names unfortunately escape me at the moment, who’ve written a book about the media today. And you probably know who they are.
Overholser: Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel? I know they’ve written --
Q: No, I don’t know. I think -- no, I don’t think it’s Rosenstiel and his coauthor. Two journalism professors, and they were talking about how they didn’t believe that it was the vision of our forefathers for the Fifth Estate to be owned by, say, a [Rupert] Murdoch, who is Australian, you know, for example. And for the record, in case people don’t know this, and for our future --
Overholser: Was it Kathleen Hall Jamieson, by chance?
Q: It wasn’t a woman. No, it wasn’t a woman. I’ll find out for you.
Q: Because I took notes.
But anyway, Rupert Murdoch is an Australian tycoon who owns Fox and lots and lots of stations and I think, I guess, radio stations as well. Does he own a newspaper?
Overholser: He owns the Chicago Sun Times, doesn’t he?
Q: I don’t know. But anyway, they were saying, these authors, that, you know, that was not the vision that the forefathers had. And so I just wanted to ask you that if thought that that was a correct analysis about -- you know, because we’d been talking so much about ownership. And also, when you said “media advisers,” it wasn’t immediately apparent to me that those were marketing advisers. Maybe you can talk about who those advisers are, how do they get to their positions of power, and why are they so carefully listened to.
Overholser: Yes, well, what I meant by media advisers was indeed marketing advisers and particularly in broadcast, in radio and in television. The people who are kind of shaping their newscasts go to these people. There’s a name for them. They don’t exist as much in newspapering, but to get -- you know, so that they’ll do research in the market to show them how to best reach their market. And they really are way more powerful than I think they should be, because I don’t think the public really wants us to present the media that way.
I mean, I could go to you and say, “Well, what would you really like to see on the tube?” and you might -- oh, you’re a journalist, but, I mean, let’s say you’re just a member of the public who hasn’t really thought about journalism. You might name some things, but, really, fundamentally, you might think, well, why doesn’t the professional who, you know, knows how to think about journalism figure out what’s on the tube. I don’t think most people want it to be just made according to their image. I think most people realize that they’ll benefit from having something they wouldn’t have thought of.
But anyway, these marketing gurus are very popular in the journalism field. As to Rupert Murdoch, you know, I don’t -- I mean, I think that’s true, that isn’t what the Founding Fathers meant. What they meant, of course, rose out of pamphleteers, you know, it rose out of people who really had passion and issues burning in their breasts and, you know, grew out of local roots. But I don’t care if a paper’s owned by an Australian. I do care if the paper exists primarily to inform people or primarily to generate dollars. And too many of the papers, you know, today, are owned by people who really view them as primarily existing to generate dollars.
Of course, the other thing about Murdoch is he is a very ideologically driven guy, and he tries to say that he doesn’t really drive his media that way. But there was an interesting piece about him on the -- what was it -- the business front of the Times the other day, that was looking at that issue. Certainly, his employees are well aware of his ideological leanings, and I can’t believe that, in fact, at every medium, certainly in many, they’re evident. At Fox, you know, they’re evident. But I can’t believe that they aren’t felt everywhere he owns. So, yes, that is a worrisome question.
Now, the Founding Fathers thing is interesting in that regard, because, of course, a lot of the original newspapers were exceedingly ideological. Original journalism in this country was very critical and highly -- you know, every time people say it’s so ideological now and it’s so rude and sneering off, I mean, they ought to read early newspapers. They were definitely ideological, and they were definitely rude and sneering.
Overholser: Yes, maybe so, maybe so.
Boy, we’re getting some thunder, aren’t we?
So yes, these are all issues that are extremely critical for me, and I’m very grateful to have a chance to talk about them, because, you know, I think -- somebody asked me the other day, did it take courage to talk about how what you don’t know will hurt you and to kind of try to help people understand the reasons why the cause of death needs to be in obituaries, and some of the things I was talking about especially during my years as editor of the Register. And I said, “No, the truth is, it didn’t take courage to do that.” It was unusual, perhaps, to speak to large groups about it because it’s an unpopular thing, but it didn’t take courage, probably because I was very solidly situated. I was blessed to have this position of power and influence, and also partly because my goal then was to try to help people believe that it was in their behalf that newspapers -- that openness should work, you know. It’s really they’re the ones who will be missing important news about their community if we don’t list cause of death and if we don’t, you know -- if we worry more about -- well, that’s another whole story.
But openness is important for them, was what I was trying to prove. And that didn’t take courage, really. But this effort has taken courage, because when I started it, of course, I was trying to talk within a corporate environment that really didn’t want to hear it. This effort about trying to talk about profit pressures has taken courage. When I started it, I was in an effort that -- you know, I was part of an environment that didn’t want to hear it.
But then what surprised me is that even as I tried to talk about it among my colleagues, I realized they didn’t want to hear it. And part of why they didn’t want to hear it early on -- I’m talking now about the early nineties -- was that they had to deal with it. And they just felt that the thing you do is you go on doing the best work you can, and having someone talk about it was uncomfortable. And it became a very -- I’ll never forget going to one conference where I really tried to get editors to speak with one voice about this and raise the alarm about what was happening to newspapers, and people were just practically booing me out of the room.
Now it’s very different. Ten years later, it’s very much a topic on the part of most journalists, and it’s on all the convention programs and, you know, as I mentioned, I was at several different commission meetings last year where it was the topic. And now we’re in a better stage because we really are looking at ways to address it, but, unfortunately, it’s too late for some -- you know, for a lot of papers, which have really been run into the ground. I mean, the Register is just not nearly the paper it was. This is a newspaper which had an extraordinary Washington bureau, which kept winning national Pulitzers, which did powerful work, which probably did the best agricultural reporting in the nation, which you may think, well, you know, how many farmers are there? Well, but how many people eat? How many people care about food prices? How many people care about pesticides in their food? How many people care about environmental impact, the loss of topsoil, and pesticides in the water?
I mean, we were doing terribly important reporting on a national level that no one is doing now, precisely because a newspaper, which served an entire state -- and it happened to be a very agricultural state -- is now serving a small provincial city, and it’s really an insurance city. And the Washington bureau has, since I left, been incorporated into Gannett’s News Service and doesn’t really exist separately. And the kind of courage and independence -- I mean, I just heard recently that the Register is now having paid obituaries. After that speech I gave at Stanford, you know, and the efforts we went to to kind of keep that being a paper of an honest, open, forthright, courageous, brave paper of record, it’s heartrending.
Q: This is very fascinating, because really what you’re saying is that with this kind of ownership of a chain, when you change the area that a newspaper covers and you shrink it from a state to a city, beats disappear.
Q: National beats disappear. So you’re not just, you know -- it’s actually very interesting, because you go from state to city and you lose national coverage of agriculture.
Overholser: Right. And there are comparable things across the nation. The Louisville Courier-Journal, same deal. They covered Kentucky thoroughly and now really have withdrawn into Louisville. I assume tobacco reporting is different than it would have been, for example. And there are other ways it affects us. I mean the Register is sort of a paper of outsized importance partly because Iowa is a state of outsized importance in the presidential elections with the caucuses coming as early as they do, and the paper's having had a statewide reach made it -- it did better political reporting. I mean, when you really have all the roots and all the sources and all the readers throughout a state, you’re a different kind of political reporter.
Plus, the paper was just, you know, circulating for delivery, home delivery, in all ninety-nine counties as it did when I got there. Everybody who read the paper in all those counties was the kind of person who is engaged with life. And it enriches the paper, and the paper, in turn, enriches the state. And the state is undeniably a poorer thing. So you say, “Well, but it didn’t make sense economically.”
Well, early on, if we had made different decisions, I absolutely believe that it could have been different. We could have, if we had the money to research, to invest in something, if there were any R&D [research and development] in the newspaper biz, instead of everything that comes up has to have a return of 60 percent or something, any new thing you want to do, we would have thought carefully early on about getting online. Farmers were very early to go on computers. We would have thought, “Okay, if it’s too expensive to send the paper across the state,” which in fact it was still profitable to do, but it was less profitable to send the paper as far out, of course, than near in. It was still profitable, but you could raise your profits if you cut them off. So we cut them off, lopped 20,000 here, 30,000 there. It was heartbreaking, and, of course, I’m the one they talked to, not the -- I think I went through this. I can’t stop myself. It was so awful.
Anyway, we could have thought inventively about what to do. We could have substituted a good online. We were one of the last newspapers to go online. I mean we weren’t even really online when I left, and many newspapers already were. Instead, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, which is still locally owned, ate our lunch. They established themselves. They took away all our farm news, all our farm classifieds, and established themselves as the successful farm newspaper.
We could have done it differently if we weren’t -- I will be perfectly ready to admit making business decisions, yes, I’m fine doing that. But making business decisions that, A, fed the enterprise over the long haul, and, B, kept the journalism in mind -- I mean, the argument I really want to make and, you know, to my dying breath I’ll try to make it, is that we have got to keep the balance in mind, and sometimes there will be tough decisions and business will trump journalism.
But we’ve gotten ourselves into a place where business always trumps journalism, and journalism almost never trumps business except when we’re at war, and then everybody brags about how they did x and y, which is great. But as I said, what are you teaching the people about what will happen next time? You know, what’s happening in the next conflict location?
So I’m really deeply concerned about what’s happening to the media in America, and I don’t think the public realizes how much it’s affected by it. Woe is us.
Q: Woe is us. You know, I have one other question, and then maybe we should take a break.
Q: I was thinking about your comments about the secrecy of this administration, and I wonder how much around Washington did the press know that reporters, that their colleagues were going to be embedded? I had no idea until I saw them in action. Did you know?
Overholser: Well, one reason I knew is that it happened partly because a group of Washington bureau chiefs, of which my husband is a part, had been talking with the Pentagon. And Victoria Clark, the spokeswoman for Donald Rumsfeld, at the Pentagon, I think, had been more and more aware both of how much unhappiness there had been last time when -- in the last Gulf War when there was so little access, and also Rumsfeld apparently really did feel that this could be useful to the Pentagon, which I think it was. So I did know about it, but only because, you know, I live in Washington and David is a Washington bureau chief.
It is new. It is brand new. It really did emerge just before the war. It is quite an innovation. It’s going to make a difference. It’s just that I hope we keep in mind that the people who are embedded not only just saw a little slice, as we were saying before, but were operating under nineteen strictures about what they could or could not report. Most of them made absolute sense. For example, position of our troops, of course we don’t want to report that. But some of them were more worrisome. One of them discussed reporting on ongoing engagements. Well, what the hell? I mean, you know, that’s what we report on, is ongoing engagements. Plus, even more important than the restrictions, I think, is the fact that you do become a part of the company which really is protecting your life and, you know, to whom you owe your life, you owe your ability to report, period, you owe your access, you owe everything, transportation, food. So, of course you behave differently.
Now, again, that doesn’t mean that the reporting wasn’t valid. It doesn’t mean that embedding doesn’t work. It means that we have to understand the kind of reporting we’re getting in embedding and we need to supplement it with other reporting. I do think the most extraordinary reporting I saw, to tell you the truth, was from people who were not embedded in Baghdad, like Anne Garrels of National Public Radio, and the Times’ reporting out of Baghdad, John Burns, who just did a phenomenal job, and he wasn’t embedded. And they both faced real difficulties, because not only was it hard, of course, to be on your own in the war, but I have heard, and I believe it to be true -- it seems from reliable sources, as it were -- that the military was so enamored of its embedding process that it really didn’t like it when you were not embedded. And there was a kind of persona non grata quality if they did encounter a reporter who wasn’t embedded. Not only would they not extend any hand of help in a very difficult situation, but they really would just say, “Well, you know, you’re on your own, and it’s dangerous out there, and you know, it’s not wise.” And it was really a kind of a -- maybe I think there was a resentment at play.
Q: Less control.
Overholser: Yes, exactly, which should tell us something.
Q: Want to stop?
[Tape recorder turned off.]
Q: We’re back on, and this is going to be the concluding part of our second session. And during our break, we decided we wanted to touch on three things, particularly Geneva’s optimism, because even though she is critical of the press, she agrees with me that, you know, those of us who are fighters, in the end are inherently optimistic, because we believe the people will listen to our ideas and our arguments. So here she is once again.
Overholser: Thank you. I like that theory of yours -- fighters. I said I don’t sound like an optimist at all. And Karen said, “Fighters are optimists.” I like that. All fighters are optimists. I’m going to go for that.
I do feel optimistic, and I wanted to say this, because I recognize that one thing that happens is I go and give these speeches, and there’re all these young journalists in the audience, and they’re all looking at me, and I’m going on and on about the profit pressures, and we aren’t doing what we need to to feed the civic discourse, you know, and you sort of see these young hopeful, bright journalists faces fall. And so I always make a point to say, “I need you to understand that the truth is, I am very optimistic about journalism, and I think the best of media,” as we were discussing, “the best of media today are better than any media have been in my lifetime.”
The New York Times is better than it’s ever been. National Public Radio is better than it’s ever been. You can, as a citizen today, inform yourself phenomenally more richly than you could have in the past. You can go online and read Le Monde. You can go on the tube and listen to the BBC. You can just go to sites and get primary documents. You can read the entire speech that the president gave. I mean, there’s no question about it. You can inform yourself better than ever.
My concern has more to do with what the average American is consuming. But back to the optimism, friends. I do feel strongly that the media at their best are better than ever, and also that the young people who are coming into the media are just terrific. I mean, I get this constant infusion of optimism, because the young people coming into Missouri’s program are just terrific. They’re smart, they’re brave, they are passionate about all the right things, and they write beautifully. So I am very hopeful.
Let’s see. We were going to talk about the future. Oh, no, New York.
Q: Yes, one of the reasons why I was able to interview Geneva in New York City in our first session, because she’s buying a pied-à-terre with her husband David, and so that makes me wonder whether she’ll be coming to New York more often and what kinds of things she’s going to be doing in town.
Overholser: You bet, more often, more and more often. This is a great dream, as you can imagine, and we really didn’t spring it until January of this year when we were going out to visit our older daughter Laura, who lives in Utah, and we were talking about the stock market and bemoaning the fact that everyone’s retirement looks bleaker than it used to be and thinking, okay, the best investment we ever made was in this house in Washington, which has, as you can imagine -- is worth a lot more than it was eight years ago when we bought it -- seven years ago when we bought it, I guess.
And so, we thought, well, you know, it had been -- we love going to New York. We both absolutely adore it. We love the theater. We both do go up there quite often professionally. Of course, when I was on the Pulitzer board, I went twice a year for those meetings. But I still have various connections with the Columbia journalism school, also with The New York Times, and with various projects. I’m presenting a paper soon with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences up there. And then I have good friends there from my days living there and then also because people tend to move to New York so you have friends who didn’t use to be there but are there. And you know, I go up every now and then and have a lunch with my old cronies from New York Times.
So we have decided that we will buy this place, and we are closing this coming Monday on a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, and we are delighted about it. It has been an infusion of energy for --
[END TAPE TWO, SIDE ONE; BEGIN TAPE TWO, SIDE TWO]
Overholser: So I was just thinking about the New York apartment. It’s come at a wonderful time, because it’s kind of a tough time. You know, the war has been tough. David has been working exceedingly hard weekend after weekend. Our children have gone through some tough times. My mother-in-law has been ill. It’s just been really tough. And throughout these months, we’ve had this dream kind of on the horizon, and now it’s about to come true.
So I do think we’ll spend quite a bit of time up there. And you know, it makes us think about it differently. We’re sitting here reading about Bernadette Peters being so wonderful in Gypsy, we went up there and got tickets, and we know when we can go and where we can stay. So it will be a lot of fun, and we’re very much looking forward to it.
You know, we love Washington, and we really feel -- this kind of segues into our future, because we really feel that we will probably be here certainly until we retire, which David points out is not going to be before we’re sixty-seven at the earliest, but maybe even beyond that. We may retire here. But so this means that we have, you know, one foot in this city, which we love and which is a great city in its own right, and one foot in that city, which is unquestionably a great city and we love. And so it’s quite easy to go back and forth between the two by bus, by train, by car. And we found a place, and we drive up, because it’s cheapest, and leave our car at a place in New Brunswick, New Jersey, that’s free all weekend, and then take the commuter train in.
So anyway, we’ll have a lot of fun, and we’re looking forward to it, and it means that our future is enriched in ways that make us quite excited and hopeful. And for all I know, we may end up retiring there. A lot of people do. It’s kind of an interesting place to retire. But we may end up being here, too. We have many dear friends here, and, of course, while our youngest child is still, you know, through college, then we want to hold on to this house. But I think what we might do eventually is -- this is a fairly large house, we don’t really need it when our kids are grown, and we might sell this and get a small place here in Washington and then have small places in both cities.
Q: Yes, absolutely. Where is your second daughter enrolled in school?
Overholser: She’s at Dartmouth.
Q: And you said something in passing about the White House Project. Can you say something more about that, what that is?
Overholser: Yes, yes. The White House Project is something connected with the Ms. Foundation for Women, which is directed by an old friend of mine from Des Moines, actually, Marie Wilson, who, now, of course, is in New York.
Q: Oh, I know her. She’s in my film.
Overholser: You know Marie? Yes.
Q: She’s in my film on [unclear].
Overholser: She’s great. She used to be a Des Moines city councilwoman, so I’ve known her forever. And she’s wonderful. Well, the White House Project, I’m not completely sure of the connection between the White House Project and the Ms. Foundation, but they are connected. And the White House Project is a project of theirs that has done various things, some of which I’ve been associated with. I did some research about how -- after I did the National Public Radio commentary on women’s voices, they asked me to help them announce the research they did on the Sunday shows and how underrepresented women are on the Sunday public-policy shows.
But this upcoming event, I’m going to moderate a panel. It’s a wonderful panel with all kinds of people in it, Martha Burks, Lucinda Lake, eighteen women from all walks of life, talking about going from the tipping point to the turning point in terms of American women’s roles in American life. So I do actually hope to expand my -- you know, I have felt strongly that as a feminist, I mean, I certainly think of myself with delight as a feminist and have at least since kind of right after graduate school, I would say. During college, I tended to think of myself more as an anti-war activist and civil rights activist, and then gradually I began to realize I really needed to think about women’s rights. And so I care about that, and I would like to do a little more in that regard, in fact.
I haven’t for some years spent as much time on women’s issues as I would like to, so I feel excited and hopeful, and think the future will be rich and interesting. And this summer we’ll have Nell back from Dartmouth, and we’ll have my niece, Laura Westphal, staying here. She’s a budding journalist and is going to be working for a friend in an internship, so she is going to occupy our Laura’s room, and things are looking good.
Q: Okay. Geneva, thank you so much. It’s been wonderful.
Overholser: Thank you, Karen.
Q: Okay, we’ll stop now.
[Tape recorder turned off.]
Q: We stopped talking, of course, so I’m just going to ask Geneva to repeat something that she said as a result of a comment I made, which is that I, in listening to her in these sessions, have noticed that she’s able to be very outspoken and convincing and, I think, be an iconoclast many times in her career, without alienating people, or somehow manages to have them be receptive to her ideas, which many might, if they were stated by someone else or were in a different manner, find too insistent. So she said something very interesting about power in that regard.
Overholser: Well, I appreciate your asking this, because I have thought a lot about this in my life. You complimented my presentation by saying I presented them with infectious enthusiasm and logic. That’s very kind of you. The fact is, I think I really have worked on this, partly because I do feel like an iconoclast and I do want to make change, and I’m impatient with much around me and believe it needs to be changed. And yet the point is, I want to make change, not inveigh against things and turn people off.
And I spent much of my life doing those things, turning people off, I think, you know, as a lot of us in the sixties did. You sort of found that there was a lot to protest, and you protested. And it made a difference, but as an individual, it’s hard to make much difference if you really are just seen as protesting all the time. I think it is much easier to come across without sounding offensive or to come across as essentially hopeful.
Q: Without only finding fault.
Overholser: Without only finding fault, without only being negative, when you have been given power. And I was blessed with power, really, at a fairly young age, and I think it helped me know that you can have confidence that the world can change. I mean, it did change. It gave you power. [Laughs] And it enables you to presume that other people have good will.
I mean, what is the connection? It’s that you know that you will be more effective if you do -- you mature early enough to know, then, that you’ll be more effective. Maybe this just comes partly with maturity, but having power and maturity is a nice thing, because you realize that you will be more effective if you assume good will on the other people’s part. If you don’t just assume they’re a hopeless bigot, or assume they’re, you know, hopelessly ignorant, or assume that they’re intransigent and nothing will ever change, but rather if you assume a rather common humanity, a kind of a common understanding of certain basic things, I find that that’s disarming.
That’s disarming when it happens to me, if someone is saying some things to me and seems really to come across in all genuine, you know, “Let’s talk about this together.” So I have tried to do that. You know, I certainly don’t always do it, so I particularly appreciate your presenting it that way.
I certainly don’t always do it, and I do make people mad and, you know, some people are going to be mad whether you’re presenting it well or not. But sometimes I don’t present things well. I think during the period when I was at the Post I had some difficulty with that, because there were people who really just didn’t want to hear it. It didn’t matter how I presented it. [Laughs]
Q: You know, that’s true, that you did make reference to being booed at, was it the ASNE, or there was you had been booed about -- I’ve forgotten.
Overholser: I’ve forgotten.
Q: But you did just say on the record a little bit a while before that you’re not always as successful at it. But anyway, I just wanted to get that comment on the record. And I guess now we’ll stop, and I will say thanks again.
[END OF SESSION]
[END OF INTERVIEW]