An Interview with Thomas Edsall, Op-Ed Contributor for the New York Times

Thomas Edsall is a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism who spent twenty-five years covering politics at the Washington Post, and who contributes a weekly opinions column to the New York Times . Before joining the Post in 1981, Edsall reported on politics for the Baltimore Sun and the Providence Journal. He has also held positions in the Huffington Post, the New Republic, and the National Journal. He is the author of five books and received a B.A. from Boston University.

The Politic: What are the most common stumbling blocks young writers encounter that you have observed during your time as a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism?

One of the biggest is basic writing. They need much more work on basic writing skills, including at demanding schools like Columbia. It also depends on the student: the student’s willingness to ask tough questions is definitely a hurdle most students have to learn to get over–especially when they’re being reporters. They have to learn that there are multiple sources on every subject. They have to learn what their own point of view and prejudices are so they can recognize those prejudices and not let them influence their reporting excessively. It’s fine to have a point of view and to want to pursue subjects that motivate you, but in doing so you have to maintain a lot of objectivity, and that takes the capacity to sort of rise above yourself. Reporting is a lot of very hard work and a lot of people don’t realize that; they think it can be done fairly easily and that it’s sort of a glamorous profession. There’s plenty of glamor, but to get there it takes a lot of sustained commitment and– not only in reporting, but also in developing a stance–you’re going to need a lot of research.

The Politic: What qualities do think are most important for budding and aspiring journalists to cultivate in order for them to become better journalists?

A reporter has, primarily, himself or herself to work with; it’s important to have the motivation to want to know all the details about what you’re writing about. The people who are very interested in politics make good political reporters. The people who are very interested in health make good health reporters. The first thing to do is to basically make effective use of your own interests, and that means that you are often going to find things that are contrary to your own point of view. You have to be willing to absorb that information and to include it in your general understanding of the subject. So, it’s a complex process of linking external information with what you bring to the subject.

The Politic: What motivates you to write about political issues? Is your intent primarily to inform or to persuade, and why?

I have been very interested in politics since before college; politics has been my bread and butter. I have been interested in who has power, why they have power, and I have been very interested in what has happened to liberals and to conservatives. I am myself a liberal, but what I’ve reported on most of my life has been the rise of conservatives. Because of this political interest and my political views, I have been very interested in finding out why it is that conservatives have gained (although it might be waning now—during my lifetime as a reporter, most of the time it was gaining) strength and I’m curious to try to figure out why that is.

The Politic: How has journalism evolved in the last few decades and what further changes do you foresee?

I began in 1965–a long time ago. That was right at the height of the Civil Rights Revolution and also the start of white violence in cities: the Watts riot that summer and a number of others the next summer, in 1966. And that actually was the period when conservatism began its rise. Most journalists are liberals; if you look at opinion polls and their voting habits, they are Democrats and on social issues they especially tend to be quite liberal: abortion, civil rights issues, women’s rights—and for journalism a big difficulty has been trying to figure out why the country was moving in such a rightward direction starting in 1968. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan won, many reporters and many editors were struck by that because it just didn’t fit with their world view. And then in 1994, Republicans took over the house and Senate. All of these developments were things that journalism had to come to terms with.

Journalism had a highpoint in the early-mid 1970s because of Watergate, and for a while reporters felt they were on top of the world because journalism had brought down a president. That quickly turned out to be a very fragile status. That kind of power did not last and since, it’s been much more delicate.

The other big change happening now is the decline of newspapers and the rise of digital journalism. It’s changing reporting economically and, in terms of the way content is produced and distributed, that has forced a major change. There was a period when I thought going to a journalism school was a complete waste of money. When I first began, there were no journalism jobs. That’s begun to change and now, in fact, there are substantial numbers of jobs but they’re basically in digital media, and not in print journalism. There are a lot of great opportunities for political reporters in digital journalism.

The Politic: How does American journalism compare to that of other countries? What can one deduce about American journalism from that comparison?

Well, American journalism has a much stronger tradition of being “objective.” I don’t have that much familiarity with foreign journalism, but in foreign journalism, newspapers are much more closely associated with political points of view and in some cases even political parties.

In the United States, the goal has been to be neutral; the goal of the New York Times, of the Washington Post, CBS, or NBC is to provide a neutral output. It’s been a very difficult thing to do, increasingly. That’s another big thing I didn’t mention in your previous question; polarization has changed the kinds of pressures on journalists to an extreme degree. Many people on the right now view the networks of the New York Times and Washington Post as part of a liberal establishment and they have some grounds for doing so. We have seen the rise of a conservative ideological media and, just to a lesser extent, the rise of a liberal ideological media. So, in some ways, United States journalism is moving in the direction of European journalism since it is becoming more ideological. It’s kind of a netherworld and they’re still struggling to figure out where on Earth US journalists should be.

The Politic: What manifestations of “optimal inequality” should one living in an optimally unequal society expect to see? How do you think optimal inequality would be best achieved in America?

There’s no such thing except in the eyes of any given beholder. A liberal would see a much more compact range of incomes than there are now. For example, they would prefer to see especially CEO pay and hedge fund kinds of income pared down and to have a better distribution of corporate profits so that more goes to workers and less to managers. A conservative would disagree. Many conservatives argue that the current level of inequality is the natural product of a working market. No one has been able to determine what the ideal point for inequality is to have a productive society wherein the economy grows at the fastest rate. People are just beginning to work on that–it’s a very interesting subject.

The Politic: [From Edsall’s July 8 column, “How Much Do Our Genes Influence Our Political Beliefs?”] “Three psychologists found evidence that they believe demonstrates that authoritarianism, religiosity and conservatism are ‘different manifestations of a single latent and significantly heritable factor.’” In light of studies like this that claim a biological foundation for stances on controversial issues such as same-sex marriage, how much faith do you have in people’s ability to stray from or gravitate toward traditionalist values and change opinions?

I think that people’s broad leanings have a really substantial genetic origin; the children of liberals tend to be liberal and the children of conservatives tend to be conservative. But that does not lock them into specific positions and you’re going to find some conservatives who believe in same sex marriage because they believe that’s a matter of free choice, and they believe in sort of a market system for social deregulation.
People who are genetically inclined to be liberals or conservatives find themselves pushed very hard into a whole set of right and left orthodoxies. The ideological pressure in a more polarized society pushes people into more specific political positions.

The Politic: Chapter Twelve of your book on race and politics, Chain Reaction, mentions how increasing economic and racial inequality threatens the social order and what is at stake if American politics fails to deal more constructively with the issues of race, rights and taxes. How has American politics done this or failed to do this since your book’s publication in 1992?

Race was the first issue to help drive polarization, and it was joined by abortion, the women’s rights revolution, and gay rights on the liberal side, and the rise of the conservative Christian movement, the more active engagement of southern Baptists in politics, the religious right, and the impeachment of Bill Clinton. In many ways, the issues of race, rights, and taxes have become more frozen in the political system so that the left and right hold opposing views that have become almost irreconcilable. Back in 1992, things were not as irreconcilable.

Before that, in 1984, for example, Democrats and Republicans agreed to some reforms of social security that helped keep the program from going bankrupt. That kind of agreement has really gone out of reach for bipartisan reasons. So in many ways, I think issues of race are still there but not quite as intense as they were, in a general social perspective. Politically, these conflicts over not just race but also the whole right or left constellation of issues have become more a subject of conflict. It’s inconceivable that the Republicans could nominate a president or vice president who supported abortion rights, for example–that’s become an absolute litmus test. The same is true for the opposite side, the Democratic side; a pro-life candidate for president or vice president just cannot win in the Democratic primary. That’s just part of the broader division between the two parties that has made addressing these issues very difficult.

The Politic: “The right willfully ignores the benefits, and the left willfully ignores the costs, of what is, for better or worse, a world of radically diminished moral constraint. It may be asking too much of the political process to resolve conflicts like these.” This is from one of your opinion pieces, Sex, Drugs and Poverty in Red and Blue America. What is, in your opinion, the biggest benefit and biggest cost of “a world of radically diminished moral constraint”?

I think there have been two factors that have significantly reduced or lessened moral constraint. On the left, the rise of the sexual revolution and the rise of the view that personal fulfillment takes precedence over family obligations have lessened the sense of community and family and put the individual person ahead of the family and community in a way that has made people, in many cases, feel distressed and alienated.

Similarly, though, on the right, the rise of pure free market capitalism and globalization has eliminated the notion that the corporation has an obligation to its employees; the manager of a company, really, when he or she hires someone, is making a commitment that goes beyond just simply a day’s labor to providing a source of income for someone who, for his or her whole life, will need that income.

So you have two strange breaking social ties that used to be there and this has created a much more fractured social order than we had in the past, but at the same time it’s created new freedoms. There is much more competition now in the economy and the ability of a new competitor to enter has increased. In personal life, there is much more opportunity to explore sexuality, personal development, and all that. In fact, the clipping of values has occurred, again, with pressures from both left and right.

The Politic: What influence has the younger generation’s increasing political awareness had on issues prioritized by presidential candidates?

The current generation of younger people is a lot more liberal, especially on social issues, than past generations and pretty soon they’re going to become middle-aged adults. Young people don’t vote as much but they will when they’re middle aged and when they’re older–that’s the group that floats the boat. They’re going to hold many of these liberal positions and that is going to push the whole country further in a liberal direction, generally speaking.

It has the Republican Party, in particular, worried. They wrote a report after the 2012 election warning that young people now see the Republican party–and this isn’t quite verbatim, but almost–that young people see the Republican party as composed of kind of bitter, grouchy, old, white men who can’t stand the president. It has basically helped the Democratic Party that young people have become a real force in politics.

The Politic: What are your thoughts on the Clean Power Plan’s potential to overcome expected opposition from states that claim it is detrimental to their economies?

It’s going to be a tough haul and I think, with a Republican congress, that there are enough votes to overturn the proposed regulations that the Obama administration has come up with. That doesn’t mean that over time they will not be put into place but insofar as they are subject to Congressional review, most regulations can be overturned by legislation. I think that even though there may be a majority in the electorate in support of reducing carbon emission and reducing dependence on coal–I am not sure what the polling data is on that but I think there is a majority–there is a pretty consistent, across the board opposition in the Republican party, along with some power-producing state Democrats representing coal and coal-dependencies. I think that the most recent Obama proposals are going to run into problems in Congress. We’ll see, but I think they will.

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