Jodi Kantor is a New York Times political correspondent and author of the best-selling book The Obamas. She graduated from Columbia University in 1996 and attended Harvard Law School for one semester, only to realize her true passion for journalism. Kantor was an editor for Slate before she joined the Times. Prior to publishing The Obamas, Kantor wrote numerous articles about President Obama, the First Lady, and their two daughters. Recently, she has turned to writing more about women’s issues. On September 7th, 2013, she published the article “Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity,” detailing Harvard Business School’s attempts to fight its own gender disparity.
The Politic: Let’s start with a generic question. How did you get into journalism?
I got into journalism almost despite myself. I grew up in Staten Island, and I didn’t know any authors or any journalists. But my parents did have a New York Times subscription, and I absolutely gobbled the paper everyday. I read it from a really young age, like when I was 12 or 13 years old. I would sit with the newspaper after school. It had a huge impression on me. But I never realized that I could actually be one of the people writing or editing the stories. All these years later, I ask myself why I was never able to picture myself in that position, but I’m from an immigrant family.
There was pressure to pursue a professional degree and make money, and, like I said, I didn’t know anybody in the field. I think it was also harder being a woman, because you really have to have the confidence to say, “I am able to write stories that people want to read.” It’s very hard to have that confidence when you’re a young person, particularly a woman. So I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I did law internships [and] a couple of fellowships after college, and then I went to law school. When I was at law school, I had an epiphany that I wanted to be a journalist. And I knew if I wanted to be a journalist that I needed to get the heck out of law school. My parents were absolutely horrified, but I convinced Harvard Law School to give me a leave of absence. I was able to get a job as an editorial assistant at Slate.com, which was then a start-up.
I think, like a lot of Yale students now, I was a product of this system of meritocratic achievement that always tells you that you have to do the conventionally prestigious thing, and journalism was a real risk. It’s easy to tell this story now because I ended up as a writer for the New York Times, but at the time, I had a lot of uncertainty about what I was doing. But it was also the best decision I ever made.
The Politic: You talked a little bit about how being a woman was a struggle in becoming a journalist, and you write a lot about women’s issues. Have you encountered any specific gender-based discrimination in your career?
On the whole, I really benefitted from being a woman in journalism. At the Times, I found almost nothing but encouragement and opportunity. That said, it’s clear that being a female journalist can still be a challenge not in terms of overt sexism, but in terms of the more subtle things that happen. I just moderated a discussion with Sheryl Sandberg at the Times and I thought it was appropriate to talk about Lean In with the people from the Times, because a lot of the stuff that women journalists face now is relatively subtle. But there are still some questions, like do people see us as having the same authority as men? What role does gender play in how your sources perceive you? When you go on TV, how come you get a lot of females online talking about how you looked on TV that day? I became a political reporter around the same time I became a mother, so learning to do both of those things at once was pretty complicated.
I realized after I wrote my book about the Obamas that women almost never write ambitious, sweeping narratives about presidency campaigns. Women write great political books, but they tend to be more narrowly defined. The really sweeping books from the Woodward books to Game Change tend to be written by men and from a very male vantage point. A lot of times in reporting, TV producers will be pretty open about looking for gender diversity. They’ll say, “Can you get in the studio later today to tape an interview for our show, because we need balance, as we currently have an all-male panel.” And if they’re discussing something like a political sex scandal, an all-male panel can be pretty embarrassing for them. Or sometimes they’ll be even more explicit and they’ll say, “We really need a woman.” But really I’ve found being a female journalist to be a fantastic thing, and I’ve encountered nothing but support at the Times.
The Politic: You briefly mentioned Sheryl Sandberg, and you’ve also written articles about Anne-Marie Slaughter and Debora Spar. What is your take on the new debate within feminism?
We’re living through a really rich time for feminist discussion. I’m of the view that these debates are terrific and very productive. There are people who will tell you that they are not. People will tell you that if we acknowledge the differences between what Sandberg and Slaughter are saying, then we are pitting these women against each other, and we all lose. I totally disagree with that. I think debate is great. Now we’re able to debate important issues all the time. Debates happen on op-ed pages, on blogs. They are honest [and] robust, and they challenge us to think in new ways. I think that can happen with feminist debate as well. I believe in women supporting each other, of course, but I also believe that we can have really healthy debates about ideas. What I’m doing in my own work is slightly different right now, and I sort of intentionally planned it to be in contrast with some of the debates that are going on right now.
After I covered Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg, my personal takeaway was that there was a ton of feminist rhetoric going on. But what I did not see enough of was reporting on gender. I didn’t see enough immersion in workplaces with really interesting gender dynamics. I didn’t see a lot of thoughtful but impartial examination of really important gender issues. I didn’t see a lot of new data coming into the picture. So what I’m working on right now is a series of stories that attempt to supply some of that. We just published a big story about women at Harvard Business School (HBS) that was part of my effort to do that, and hopefully we will have more stories like that coming out in the next few months.
The Politic: So do believe that the HBS case study experiment will create any long-term solutions for female HBS students?
It certainly is a serious attempt at doing that. I never want to put myself in the prediction business, but I really think that what’s going on at HBS is one of the most significant gender-related efforts in the country. What they’re doing is unusual in so many ways. In part it’s just the intensity of their efforts. Women at HBS were not doing horribly when this new effort began. They represented a greater proportion of the class than ever before, and women graduating from HBS were founding very interesting businesses. You could easily make the argument that things were not that terrible, which makes what they did all the more interesting. They didn’t want to stand still. A couple of the things that HBS [is] doing really have a lot of applicability for the rest of us. I think that one of the most interesting ones is the fact that they gave professors the tools to instantly check their classroom patterns in relation to gender. As the story said, 50 percent of your grade at HBS is class participation, so [how] often you’re called on and how you are evaluated once you’re called on are really big issues there.
The natural question that comes out of that is, what if that happened at the rest of our schools and workplaces? The numbers can be really telling. Say you were an Econ. major at Yale. What if you were able to get the data for the Econ. Department, in terms of how many women take those classes and what grades they get. The data would be fascinating; maybe the numbers would look great and maybe the numbers would look terrible, but right now we don’t know. Even making the numbers available to people could be incredibly potent. There’s very little over gender bias in the classroom or the workplace these days.
As the Dean of HBS said to me, and I think this is right, our starting point now is that everybody has good intentions. If there were a non-threatening way of making people aware of the discrepancies that do still exist, it would be fascinating to see whether people of their own accord worked to limit or eliminate those discrepancies.
The Politic: You then wrote a follow-up article addressing class divisions at HBS. To ask you the question that you ask at the beginning of your article, do you think class is a more divisive issue than gender, and does it need to be addressed?
I’m glad you asked me that. It’s a great question for Yale students, because this is definitely one with some applicability on your own campus. I don’t think that we need to pit one issue against the other and say that we have to choose between either gender or class issues being more severe. But that was a fascinating turn in my reporting on the HBS story because the school was working on gender, so I set out to write this story on gender, and yet people kept bringing up class and money issues. Class and money are totally intertwined with gender, because most of the people earning a ton of money coming out of these institutions like HBS are men. There is still an enormous gap in earning power. The fact is that income disparity is a much bigger issue than gender disparity in this country, and probably even a bigger issue than racial disparity.
That’s what people like William Julius Wilson have been arguing for a long time. If you look at four Yale undergrads — a white woman, a black woman, a white man, and a black man — their earning potential in life is an ocean away from what somebody with no college degree would be able to achieve in this country, no matter what their race. What you also find happening on campuses like Harvard and Yale is some very interesting class tension that is related to the nature of these elite schools. What these elite schools do — and I’m a product of these schools, too — is that they mix students who are from incredibly privileged backgrounds with students who come from real working-class families. I think schools are doing a better job each year at recruiting students who never would have been able to go to a school like Yale in the past. That’s creating an interesting situation.
For example, at HBS, you had students who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the military sitting in the classroom with students whose families are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Almost nowhere else in America do you have that mix anymore, because we live in an economically stratified society. It’s really hard to find places where people of radically different classes truly mix except at these schools. At these schools, even if everybody is from a very different background, they should be equal around the seminar table. So that’s creating some really interesting class tensions on prestigious campuses. Correct me if I am wrong, because you were there, but what I heard is that when the President of Yale University welcomed students to campus this year, one of the things he said is that class differences are one of the last topics that Yale students discuss. Do I have that right?
The Politic: Yes, President Salovey spoke about that at a ceremony with Yale College freshmen and their parents. I remember being so impressed by the fact that he brought that up, and so were my parents. President Salovey walked through his story of how he came from an immigrant family and is now the President of Yale. But it is something that people try to avoid. For example, we have to furnish our own common rooms, and people will say to one another, “Can you buy the couch?” or, “Could you buy the TV?” It’s hard for people to say, “I can’t afford that.”
Exactly. That’s a great example, because even little things like a couch and a TV can become expressions of these differences. I would argue that it’s exacerbated in the age of Instagram. It used to be that summer vacations were not on display for everybody to look at. So if the richest person in the class took off in the family’s private jet to Palm Springs, he did it quietly, and nobody knew where he went. Now, it may be that there are photographs of the interior of the private jet available for everybody to see. So in a sense the rest of us are now discovering how the .001 percent really live, and that can create some class tension as well.
I should put in a little advertisement here, which is that I’m fascinated by these issues, and I do want to find a way to continue to cover them. If there are Yale students for me to interview who have thoughts or stories to share, absolutely contact me at email@example.com. I would love to hear what you have to say. By the way, it is very hard for schools to know what to do about this, because money is a hard topic to talk about and these things are very personal. We have a mechanism for discussing race in this country that’s often imperfect, but we do have a substantial tradition of trying to discuss it. I’m not sure that we have the equivalent for class and money.
The Politic: Even in your unbiased pieces, do you find unconscious bias slipping through in your writing?
That’s a great question. But your question is also by definition unanswerable, because if bias is truly unconscious, then I don’t realize it, right? I think the best way of answering that is to tell you about some challenges that I’m always looking at. When I wrote political stories, it [was] hard to quote as many women on front-page stories as men. Politics can still be quite a boys’ club. One of the pleasures of covering the Obama story [was] that the leading characters were an incredibly diverse group of people. I often found that, in terms of racial and ethnic diversity, there [was] a fantastic group of people to quote. I remember I did a story before election day about Obama’s experience of being the first black president. I quoted William Julius Wilson, Chris Rock, Ruby Bridges-Hall, and Al Sharpton. I remember thinking to myself, when am I ever going to get to quote this collection of people, who are not only all African-American, but are all so different from one another? I think sometimes it is harder with gender, because the political world is still dominated by men.
The Politic: In interview sources around the White House, or politicians in general, how do you dig for the actual truth? Do you often find them sugar-coating the reality?
To truly answer that question, you would have to ask me to teach a seminar at Yale. Obviously, a lot of what we do does involve pushing sources to be as truthful as possible. Another way we do that is just by, frankly, weeding out a lot of what they say. A lot of interviews for political stories consist of multiple talking points. Then finally somebody says something fresh and insightful, but then more talking points. I’m not suggesting that all talking points are bad; sometimes it’s good to include them to get a sense of what the administration or campaign is trying to say. But in that case, what you’re really talking about is a sort of inefficiency to political reporting, because you have to sit there and listen to a lot of stuff you know you’re not going to include in the story.
The other thing I would say is to not forget that the Obama campaign spent about one billion dollars in 2012 trying to make the President look absolutely perfect. So it’s absolutely true that, as political journalists, sometimes we feel as though we’re going up against a billion-dollar machine one story at a time. On the other hand, it’s awfully hard to ultimately hide the truth in politics. There was a really long time in the Obama administration when everybody in the White House would try to convince you that the President’s health care initiative was either more popular than we understood or was about to become more popular than we understood. That actually may be true now, but for a long time, it just wasn’t true. There was no hiding it. Obamacare was just unpopular on the face of it, and ultimately that was not something that the administration could hide.
Also, there are times when the spin-doctors can’t contradict reality. The Obama aides and advisors spent a long time in 2008 arguing with Hillary Clinton’s campaign about experience, but ultimately, when Obama got to office, we really could see that although he brought freshness to Washington, he did not have a lot of economic or national security experience. There was just no disguising that truth.
The Politic: Turning to your book about the Obama’s marriage, what particularly interested you about their marriage? Why did you think it was worth writing a book about?
There are a couple of reasons. One is that presidential marriages are just fantastically interesting, because the First Lady is the only person who really understands what the President is going through. On the surface, she’s supposed to be this sort of bland, inoffensive, nonpolitical figure. In reality, that’s almost never true. She is one of the President’s most influential and private advisors. A conversation that the President and the First Lady have at three in the morning in their bedroom can end up being far more influential in terms of presidential decision-making than whatever happened in the Situation Room at two o’clock the next day. The Obama’s marriage in particular fascinated me because it was a real back-and-forth and a real debate. If you look at the Obamas before they get to the White House, they basically spent their entire marriage arguing — and I mean arguing in a robust way not arguing in a nasty way — about many political questions. They wondered, is politics the best means through which to achieve social change? And is political life really livable? They knew that, in the White House, they were going to have to tackle those questions like never before.
Michelle Obama is a natural skeptic and certainly a skeptic about government. Barack Obama is pretty hard to understand. He is an intensely private person even in this public role, and my theory of the case was that if you could understand Michelle Obama’s reaction to a lot of what was going on within the administration, then you could have a much better idea of what the debates and challenges of this administration were behind closed doors. What the Obamas were going through personally in the White House was very connected to what they were going through politically.
Also, there was just this interest in the unusualness of the Obamas. They were true outsiders. Yes, he went to Harvard Law School, but in political terms, they really came out of nowhere. They had not spent a lot of time in DC. He had been a state senator for seven years, he did not lead a particularly political life, [and] he was not one of these politicians who spends all of his time in green rooms. Michelle Obama was the opposite of our standard idea of a political wife. So the question of what was happening with these two people in this essentially very foreign world to them was very fascinating for me.
The Politic: How do you respond to any criticism you [receive] about your articles or particularly your book?
It depends on what the criticism is. What I really appreciate is serious and thoughtful criticism. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the reader notes that say, “I disagree with what you wrote for such and such reason,” and that say it in a kind of civil way. The truth is that we get an incredible amount of nasty emails. But you definitely don’t want to stop listening to that stuff, because the reality is the political culture in this country is pretty antagonistic right now, and the mail we’re getting is a reflection of that. But sometimes I write back to those notes, and what I get is a kind of sheepish reply because people will say, “Oh I never knew you would actually read this or write back. If I had known that, I wouldn’t have written such a nasty note.”
The Politic: What is a typical day like for you working for the Times?
I usually drop my daughter off at school in the morning, and then I go into the office. There are days when I travel, but often I am sitting in the third floor newsroom making phone calls and working on drafts. But there’s really no routine day. Like yesterday, I was doing interviews in Westchester, New York in the morning. One thing I enjoy about going into the office is that it’s this incredibly vital place. I like seeing my colleagues every day and talking about what they’re working on. I like sort of getting out of my own work mentally. At the Times, you can always knock on a lot of doors for help. If I’m doing a story that involves labor, I can go to Steve Greenhouse, our long-time expert labor report, and say, “Here’s something I don’t understand,” or, “Here’s somebody I don’t know and need to call. Can you help me?” So I really enjoy and benefit a lot from time in the newsroom.
The Politic: What advice would you give to aspiring journalists?
First of all, don’t let the problems in the industry deter you from going into journalism for two reasons. One, even though our business problems are very daunting, I do think there’s a lot of optimism and hope out there. Two, I also think that even if you don’t do journalism for the rest of your life, it is a fantastic thing to do for a few years. The skills you learn in journalism ranging from dealing with people to organizing and composing your thoughts to learning how to tell a story in a compelling way will be useful in whatever you do.
The other thing that is really important is to keep in mind [is], for your first few journalism jobs, you shouldn’t worry so much about the prestige of the publication you write for. Look for a fantastic environment, for really creative people, and for interesting story ideas, but don’t get locked in that prestige-oriented mindset where you feel that unless you’re working for The New Yorker, what you’re doing is not important. I know this is easy for me to say coming from the Times, but it’s true. It can even be very beneficial to work for a publication that very few people have heard about because you have a lot of creative freedom and time to develop your writing skills. And if you’re work is great, it’s going to get noticed no matter what publication it’s in.