Interview with Glenn Frankel — Foreign Reporting and Technology

20 Jan

Part 5 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


Let’s talk a little more about the challenges of foreign reporting. I feel that some journalists like Ryzard Kapuscinski have done wonderful reporting from Africa while most others have failed to bring out the complexities while reporting on other countries. Can you talk a little more about what journalists can do in this regard?

That’s part of what you had asked me before. I think its really important that over a course of three or four year tour of duty in Africa or Middle East to give a well rounded body of work that captures both the complexities of the region and gives readers some sense that something else is going on besides conflict. I love Kapuscinski’s work and some of my colleagues have done great work but sometimes I am critical of them and myself because we make it sound like its one big war. In the Middle East as well, the Israeli society and the Palestinian society are complex, interesting creatures. There are a lot of things going on and I always found that some of the most interesting stories are about events and forces at work within each society rather than the constant struggle between them. We can’t understand that struggle unless you understand the forces at work within each society, especially in the Israeli society. Both sides get shortchanged by this kind of parachute phenomenon- we write about the war and we leave and we write about the conflict but we never write about the actors – the two societies at work. In Africa as well.

One way to do that is to constantly be thinking about the counter story, if you will. The conventional wisdom, if you will, or the story that confirms everyone’s deepest prejudice – conflict Africa, Africa at war, Africa can’t feed itself –it is really quite lovely to find once in a while where people are being fed quite well and to write about why that is, what works. So I remember writing about – this is long ago, far away – Zimbabwe in 1984 when it was the bread basket of Southern Africa – it had an enormously successful agricultural system and just writing a long piece which ran on the front page of the Washington Post about how that worked and how they were exporting 2 million tones of grain to other parts of Southern Africa. Partly it was the function of the weather but mostly it was the function of a successful process. Not only did they paid farmers a decent amount for their product, a decent rail system and a warehouse system so you could actually take maize and corn and transport it, get it off the farm and on to a market. And how American dumping of our maize was potentially damaging to that system, our cheap corn given in the name of our policy for providing food to hungry people. Those are more complex, rich stories that contradict the conventional wisdom.

I think it is really really valuable as a foreign correspondent to think about ways of subverting the conventional wisdom so you tell your readers about something surprising – I mean what is journalism telling among other things – telling them things that they don’t know, surprising them, making them think twice about the world we live in and about their own role and you do that by being critical of the conventional wisdom. ‘Wait a minute – is this really true and if it’s not what’s my role here’

One of the great things about being a journalist is that you should be able to be constantly self critical and the critical analysis that you provide to the world around you, you also apply to your own work and to the work of your many dear colleagues, and trying to figure out what are we missing here. Journalism, I think still fundamentally rewards that kind of enterprise, that kind of critical analysis. I think there is still room – whether its Seymour Hersh writing about the Iraq war or others– I think it still really rewards people who can climb their way out of the conventional wisdom and surprise you and shock you or stun you in some way. That’s the great correcting mechanism in journalism if there is one.

What challenges and opportunities do you think the rise of the blogs and social media present?

I have no problem with that. My fear is that because of the technology, because dead tree edition is in trouble — and I don’t mind if dead trees themselves are in trouble — that’s ok if we move away from the newspaper form. My fear is that our big newsrooms and our big news gathering operations are also shrinking. It should be a vast marketplace with many forms of journalism. The blogosphere can be out there counting angels on a pin. That’s fine as long as we can keep the whole thing thriving, including the kind of thing that I am talking about.

Interview with Glenn Frankel — Reporting on Emotive Issues

20 Jan

Part 4 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


Since we have just broached Middle East, what are the special challenges for reporting from there. What are the challenges in reporting around highly emotive issues more generally?

Where do you begin? If we are talking about Israel and Palestine, we are talking about two national movements, with their own histories, their own set of grievances and their own interpretation of their history and the relationship to each other and how they have treated each other over now 100 years. Plus, the national histories go back way before that. So what you have is an armed struggle between two national movements. And inevitably those two movements are going to – because it is an ongoing war – mobilize every fact and every tool and every potential weapon as part of that struggle. And the press, the media simply becomes another stage, if you will, another battleground in that struggle.

And I think we have to be constantly aware of the fact that we are – we walk in their trying to be neutral observers, trying to capture truth as best as we can – we are constantly being told to not be neutral observers, constantly being pulled in one direction or another, intimidated, coerced, seduced, and if we don’t fulfill the demands of each side then we are under attack – sometimes physical attack, oftentimes emotional, verbal -all of that. So, you have to go in there with an understanding, or you learn over time, just who you are and who they are and what they want from you and they are not going to be satisfied with your neutral best, even handed approach. That’s not gonna work for them. They are going to be part of your audience but you are not really working for them and you are not writing for them. You are writing for the world, if you will, especially now. So, your obligations are first and foremost are to the readers, to your customers – whatever you want to call them and to the truth as best as you can discover.

And so I have very little patience with journalists who fall victims to one side or the other if you will or who eventually take on the coloration of one side or the other. It is easy to do, there is plenty of justification you could have for doing it but its not what I see my role as. There is certainly room for journalists who become advocates, who become highly critical. Take someone like Robert Fisk, a correspondent for The Independent. I have great admiration for Robert Fisk’s for this courage, for his enterprise, and for his writing ability. I consider Bob to be a strong advocate of a certain point of view. And there is a role for him and a role for people for people like him and a role for people who are very supportive of the state of Israel; I don’t see my role and the role of Washington Post to be similar to that. I think we play a very different role. I think in a way – its in some ways harder, and in some ways easier. What Bob does per se, the personal courage of Bob, the risks he takes, the beliefs he has – I don’t question them at all. I don’t agree with the journalism because its not the kind of journalism I am seeking to practice. I think that he belongs on one side of the spectrum; he is valuable and useful for people to read. What we do, try to do is something very different.

Its really hard to do, because the struggle, the constant demands on you from people who have real grievances – I mean you know it is hard to find a family on either side of the divide from those national movements who haven’t had a direct personal loss at this point, who haven’t lost a family member, whose lives haven’t been affected in some horrible way by this struggle. Its very much a war of populations. Its not just governments fighting each other and enlisting people in the army and going off to a battlefield and fighting, it is a war which takes place within the civilian populations of both communities, both national movements. So, it becomes even more person and intimate. It is an inter-communal war where everyone is a soldier whether they want to be or not. Trotsky once said that you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you. This kind of war allows no one to be a neutral observer. You can be a shop keeper in Ramallah and simply want to do business every day – you are not allowed to do that in this war because the Israeli army will come and shut you down because you are in middle on an unrest zone or Palestinian kids will come back at you and make you open up, your child trying to go to school on a given day could be shot, school can be closed, so many things could go wrong and then its your kid out there throwing rocks at a tank and your kid rebelling against you as well as the Israeli occupier. So many things happen. So many lives have been lost.

My job as a journalist is to try to understand all of that, to get within that process, and to meet these people and to write about them in a world they live in with empathy and understanding and at the same time to stand outside of it and to be critical of both sides and their inability to get beyond this and to find a way out of this.

It’s a beautiful job in a sense because I could be one day in a family’s home in Nablus talking about their dead son, who was killed by Israeli soldiers, and who he was and what happened and how they feel about him, and I could be at Tel Aviv next day at the ministry of defense talking to Yitzhak Rabin about how he sees the situation in Nablus and what he thinks he is trying to do. No one else is allowed to move between those two poles. No one else but a journalist can see all the things, or can see both sides in that way and there are times when of course both sides try to prevent our access to both sides. In Iraq it is impossible to do what I have just described because the physical threat is so huge. In Israel and Palestine, at times it has been very very difficult because the army may seal off Nablus or the Palestinian authority police won’t let you in within an area. Lots of things can happen to prevent that access. But our job is to go to both those places and to talk to all those people and to process and understand what we are hearing, and to understand both the delusions, if you will, and the assumptions and the limited knowledge both sides are working under about each other and to present the best we can to our readers.

Some people have pointed to the distinction between being balanced and being accurate. They see a journalist’s responsibility towards being accurate and not particularly towards being balanced. Tell me a little more about your thoughts on the issue.

I don’t agree with a notion that there is a contradiction or an inherent conflict between being fair and even handed and being accurate. When I talk about being fair and even handed, its not a ‘on the one hand and on the other hand’ kind of journalism. I think inherent in our assumptions and the way we write stories, a good journalist conveys the truth as best he or she can.

The even handedness involves being fair, understanding the assumptions that both sides are making, their motives, their imperatives, their personal constituencies – why is prime minister of Israel making a certain decision at some point, what are the political reasons behind that, what are his own constituents demanding of him? Understanding the internal dynamic of why he may make a decision is not the same thing as apologizing for him.

I think that the heart of accuracy is to be even handed and to be fair and at the same time telling the truth as best as we could find it. The fact that you give everyone a chance to explain themselves in a story doesn’t mean that the story isn’t clear about whats going on. If a massacre occurs, if Israeli army guns down six or eight Palestinian women standing outside a mosque where they are protecting or putting their bodies in front of Hamas fighters, which happened a couple of weeks ago in Gaza. Reporting on that – telling the truth about who opened fire, and how it was done and the fact these people are dead and what people is Gaza feel about that. Going back to the army and figuring out what were the rules of engagement, who did that. Reporting as best as we can – reporting the Israeli apology but at the same time reporting the rules of engagement and whether this was about the individual initiative of the soldiers – I think all of that is important and all of that speaks to the truth of the situation.

It’s our obligation to report the whole thing; to see the whole complex picture of what went on. That doesn’t take away from the horror of what happened. I think in some the explaining of how it happened and to allow both sides to explain that does not say – we don’t know what the truth is, on the one hand, one the other hand.. That’s not what that kind of reporting does. That kind of reporting brings you insight into how that kind of thing can happen. I think its the most valuable reporting we do and I don’t think – I think you can be very critical and provide your readers with a real understanding so that they can make their own judgment about it. You story will guide them to a judgment.

I always thought it was most important in covering a conflict to make sure each side understood the price of what they were doing. If you are in Israel and you say that it is really important to the hold the West Bank, there is no way we can give that up. We are killing two Palestinian kids a day right now and we are doing damage to our own army. I always felt that the journalist’s role was to make sure that everyone, our readers, understood what the price was, understood what this number 2 a day consisted of – who those people were – that they had families that they had fathers and mothers, that they were out there doing whatever they were doing, what their motives were. I felt that our role to make sure everybody understands the price and consequences of their actions. If you can do that, you have done a lot. I really believe deeply that it’s both.

Interview with Glenn Frankel — Principles of Good Journalism

19 Jan

Part 3 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glenn Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


People can be fairly clever in coming up with justifications for why they did what they did. Can empathy come in the way of understanding the mistakes made by people in a critical way? How do provide both an empathetic and a critical account?

I think you have to do both. First of all, journalism to me is a fairly large spectrum of things which ranges from the sort of very aggressive — move in there and find out wrongdoing and attack it — sort of Seymour Hersh approach to people who are writing perhaps more nuanced account — lets get into the mindset of people making decisions, trying to figure out why did the things they things. The best journalists can do that and do it critically– both be critical at the same time and give a full rounded portrait. To people who inevitably end up crossing the line and writing very sympathetically about the people who made terrible decisions.

I think the very best journalists find a way to do both and to not lose their critical edge. I am thinking, it may not be an appropriate example, but we can take someone like [not clear] writing in the 1960s about somebody like Joe DiMaggio, the greatest sports star. [not clear] writes this wonderful piece for Esquire about DiMaggio which both I think summons up both the grace and charisma of DiMaggio but at the same time when you walk away from the piece, you have a very very critical understanding of his illusions, of the damage he has done, and of his total inability to say understand women in his life, and the way he seeks to dominate, manipulate and control everyone around him. To me that’s a work of art — it almost surpasses journalism, but it is an act of journalism. That kind of piece, you know, is a model of being able to both understand someone’s mindset and why they do the things they do but at the same time delivers to the readers a portrait that also is unmistakably critical and powerful. Now that’s clearly the ultimate. I can’t do that and I don’t expect most journalists to be able to do that, but I do expect people to be both tough and fair. That’s not too much to ask.

You can tell — to apply it to much recent example — when you look at say some of the people who wrote about the Iraq war, the run-up to the Iraq war — the obvious suspects like Judith Miller of the New York Times. I hate to mention Judy in such a way because she becomes a scapegoat but nonetheless that sort of rather uncritical recitation of the material that your sources provide you – you know I think we have to be able to do more than that. I think if you contrast some of the thinks Judy was writing at the time say with Bart Gelman of the Washington Post wrote, you can see the difference. And you can see kind of being a little more careful, a little more critical, a little more that step of asking yourself about the sources. That’s part of what good journalism is about. Always kind of asking yourself about the sources, double-checking — that’s part of what good journalism is about. Not falling captive to your sources or to a particular perspective, checking it again, being critical, I think that’s something that journalists can and have to practice on a daily basis.

Having singled out Judy, it’s also a process that involves editors because that’s what editors are for. Reporters often go in certain directions and believe they have come across something quite unique and sometimes they have but it’s the function of the editors to ask those questions to reporters that things have been covered. So, I think our failure, as collective failure to the run up of the war, was not just the failure of the reporting, but it was mostly a failure of the editing. This gets us into a whole different subject. I really believe strongly that good journalists could do both and that empathy is not the enemy of truth.

How do you make the informational landscape, the moral topography of the choices available to somebody, accessible to the readers? How can the journalist go about doing this?

Well, this is tough because you inevitably oversimplify things to an extent. Just the act of putting something in the story, you are leaving out. Part of the art of journalism is what you don’t put in. In fact, I think most of the choices you make — first you make them into deciding what you are going to pursue and what you don’t choose to pursue; of all the human activity we could be writing about. So the first really important question is what don’t we go after? And then of course in gathering material you always leave out a lot of things, any good journalist will tell you that they are leaving 90% or more of what they find out. You actually make a lot of choices and it is in those choices that I would argue that in those choices that subjective individual values really emerge. There are so many different kinds of stories and ways of storytelling. We find out today and we have to have it in the newspaper by tomorrow and that can be very valuable and very important.

The place I have always strived to get to is to go back to those stories and to tell longer narratives that involve storytelling and that involve characters, explaining to readers who people are. It is a very character-driven form of journalism and it has its flaws because when you look at history — there are forces at work and there are individuals at work and the balance between those and who is really in the driver’s seat is something that we have all studied for and debated and will continue to debate for a long long time. Character driven journalism that uses characters to summon dilemmas and choices that were made. I am thinking of a recent good model – Karen DeYoung’s new book on Colin Powell called Soldier. It comes way after the fact so it’s only one kind of journalism — the kind of re-exploration. Karen gets to have 5 or 6 interviews with Powell.

Her portrait of Colin is both empathetic and understanding his motive, who he was, where he came from and how important the military was for him, how important it was for him to be an autonomous individual yet also feeling his responsibility was to support his leader. And, she captures that very well and at the same time she captures what a huge mistake Powell made and how he feels about that. He feels betrayed on the one hand, which she captures as well; the fact that he wasn’t willing to take a more activist aggressive stance when he realized things were going badly — to blow the whistle on it if you will — ‘I can’t do this anymore. I am quitting, protesting, whatever.’ I think in the way a very very good journalist does, Karen both helps you understand what Powell is thinking, what he was trying to do, how he was trying to work within the administration to be a moral force if you will or force for moderation and how he failed.

This gets me to the thing that I think I have focused on most of all – beyond the breaking of news and in production of all the information that we deliver day after day in newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times, I really feel that if we get 50% of it correct on that first day, we are doing very well because we are reporting on limited information, limited sources, under deadline with people constantly either lying to us consciously or unconsciously with information that they don’t themselves really understand and we are struggling to produce the subject for the next day. We are writing history on the fly. I don’t think there is any getting around that. There is no way – maybe we can improve it to 55% at times or 60% but there is no way we are going to get much beyond that because of the nature of the enterprise.

Let me interject here. In a way, I feel that newspapers overstate their case all the time. They don’t let the readers in on the fact that they don’t know certain things or the constraints that they are working under.

I think you are absolutely right. You can almost put a box in every story — by the way, keep in the mind that we hope that half of this is true. We are coming at it again tomorrow and we will try to do better on this particular story as we move along. First, we are going to tell you that we have won the war and tomorrow we are going to tell you that it turns out that we didn’t win the war. There is getting around it when you come out every day. It is a human enterprise.

It puts enormous pressure, enormous responsibility on us to go back at things, to revisit any thing important. In my career – you always learn so much more when you go back the second time or the third time – so many things you assumed or thought you knew turned out to be wrong. A classic example in my time in Israel during the first Palestinian uprising when a young woman, a Jewish settler was killed in a small Palestinian village, called Beita. She was the first Jewish Israeli to be killed in the first uprising. So long ago and such a naive almost seems like a golden era compared to how many people have died since. Anyway, the circumstance of her death was so complex and I went back last year or earlier this year and reread my first-day story and it says she had been stoned to death by Palestinian villagers because that’s what the army had announced and that was totally wrong. It turned out she had been accidentally been killed by her own bodyguard. We got that story wrong the first day and we got it a little better the second day, the army itself was investigating- whether in good faith or not. It took a week later when I went back to -had to sneak in through the army’s cordon – they had cordoned off the area- we weren’t allowed in. Two of us eventually made our way through — snuck our way in — interviewed the villagers, interviewed some of the Jewish settlers who were with her that day, got some materials from the army investigators as that came out and gradually pieced together a much much more accurate account of what had happened, and the sort of sequence of events that had led to the tragedy or disaster. It was very close to the truth, to the full truth about a week later. I look at it and appalled at what we all wrote the first day and I am very very proud of what I wrote a week later.

I think that’s all you can do in a sense — own up to the flaws, to the flaws of the process. There are both personal flaws, lack of skepticism at times. We can load our stories with phrases that say — “according to preliminary report”, “we had no way to being able to verify this,” “according to unconfirmed information because we weren’t allowed to interview witnesses at the time” — all those things can go in there, have to go in there but they don’t really mitigate enough of what we are saying. We have to be willing and able to go back to thing and to admit that we are mortal, that we are flawed, that the information that we provide is only as good as what our sources are giving us at that time, and to go back at it again and again, and to be as transparent and honest about the process as we can be.

And you are right — newspapers tend to speak in this magisterial, almost divine voice that claims omniscience when it is, in fact, it is a very flawed and hesitant process that we go through. I think we have come a long way over the years and admitted that and been more open about that. Certainly, that has been one of the advantages of having a blogosphere and to have everyone be a media critic. One of the real advantages of that is that it has made us more careful and it has made us a little more honest about, and a little more open about the process we go through. And surprise, surprise it’s a human flawed complicated and often subjective process.

It seems like European news organizations like the BBC are a little more careful about attribution and more conscientious in providing context. Do you think this is the case? How do you compare it to NY Times and Washington Post?

Yeah, I don’t really agree with you. First of all let’s separate out the British press—The Guardian, The Times of London, and those from the BBC. Those I would argue strongly are less careful in attributing that the Washington Post or the NY Times.

The BBC, compared to any other broadcast outlet, is head and shoulders above. Certainly, compared to certainly any American broadcast outlet, BBC is an absolutely marvelous news institution and the online version, which is what I see these days – I just got back from living in the UK for almost four years – and I admire BBC enormously.

They are thorough, they stick with things, and they cover a much broader range of countries than the New York Times or the Washington Post. They have an extensive staff. If we had a license fee and the zillions of dollars floating in from the government — we would be more extensive also. We are private institutions.

Nonetheless, I don’t agree that their attribution or their general accuracy exceeds ours. I just don’t buy it. They are good, they are careful, they may at times be a little more cautious but when I see what they write about events in America or covering the Middle East, Israel, and Palestine. I think they have a rather, at times the BBC has a sort of a London media elite set of assumptions – certainly about Israel and Palestine – that shines through their copy in ways and in their reportage –which can be skewed. Please keep that in context. I love BBC and I think they do a wonderful job but no, I would defend us and the New York Times in terms of the quality and things that you talk about.

Interview with Glenn Frankel — Early Professional Experiences

19 Jan

Part 2 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


How was it working for a small newspaper? How did you learn the ropes of going about say finding and investigating a story?

There is nothing like a small newspaper in a small community because it really is the laboratory where you can begin to do things and where when you make mistakes, they are generally small ones – they don’t have a huge impact. At the same time you really learn very quickly that accuracy is crucial, that you were accountable for what you were writing not only to the small group of people around you at the paper but to people you were writing about because they were reading you intensely. Even in this little weekly in Chesterfield County – its called the Chesterfield news journal, I was covering the board of supervisors, which is the county government which met weekly. Everyone read this little journal intensely and if you screwed something up, they were on top of it and if you were critical they knew it, and they quickly took your measure as to how they felt about you. So, you were accountable to them in a way – not so much to write things that weren’t true, to skew what you writing to please them – more that you had to accurate and you had to be careful.

I had fairly long hair, not very good clothes. I was making a $1.65/hour on this job and I couldn’t afford a wardrobe or even a car that started very well. (Chuckles) I was driving a Volkswagen van that had to sit on a hill to push it to start it. There are not many hills in Chesterfield County. It was always an adventure to get that thing going. But it really was a good place to sort of learn the basics.

Because I had no training as a journalist, because I had never taken a course, never written a word for a newspaper, I really had to start from scratch and there wasn’t much help at the Chesterfield News Journal and I have to add that at least for the first year, there wasn’t much help at The Richmond Mercury, the place where I worked next, a weekly newspaper in Richmond, Virginia. Both of the newspapers no longer exist. I found that I had to teach myself by and large in this first stretch.

Fortunately Richmond, Virginia is on the outskirts of the Washington Post circulation area. So for 25 cents or 50 cents a day, I could get what turned out to be a very practical useful textbook guide to modern daily journalism, the daily Washington Post. I pored over it, read it thoroughly. Really for the first time, I read the newspaper thoroughly everyday. I had been a newspaper reader, war fairly knowledgeable about governmental affairs and things like that, I certainly wasn’t an ignorant person, I was well educated but I had a lot to learn. I would sort of simply look at the way Washington Post approached stories, both in terms of how they written and the different forms. Its not hard, its not brain surgery to figure out various forms of stories. What was in the second paragraph, how did the first paragraph work, I would just analyze it for that but also for attitude and the Post then was a very muscular cheeky newspaper. Some days it was not terribly well edited, some days it almost bizarre in parts but many days, it was really quite exciting to read and in this time of Watergate, especially exciting. I used that as my text. So, developing an approach to how you did the reporting very much came from that and from my own understanding of what a reporter’s role was – I felt I was there to uncover things, to find out things.

Lord Northcliffe, the old British press manager once said, ‘News is what they don’t what you to know, everything else is advertising’. The direct quote is “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress, all the rest is advertising”. That’s not all news is but its certainly a good starting point and certainly coming out of Columbia University in the 1960s with everything that had happened over Vietnam and everything else, certainly my attitude and my approach was aggressive, critical, looking for the problem. That type of newspaper approach fit well with what I wanted to do. So what I had to learn over time was to be -Yes, it was important to have had edge and that sort of critical attitude but at the same time to be open to new experiences, to not make too many presumptions about what a story was, to be able to be open to the experience of reporting and actually talking to people, getting out, realizing that the truth, as best as I could determine, was more complex, had more shades of grey than the sort of black and white that I had wanted to think. That only occurred over time and it was a very long and painful process.

Did journalism change you as a person? It seems that you came to appreciate the subtleties more. Please talk a little more about how what impact did journalism have on you and how you changed over time.

Yeah, Everyone matures over time and hopefully becomes a little more sophisticated or a little more understanding, a little more aware of your own mortality and therefore a little more forgiving, a little more aware of your own personality flaws and therefore more understanding of other people’s. That doesn’t just apply to journalists but applies for all of us and I think that process occurred with me.

I think you become a better journalist as you understand that the world is not a simple place. And there is a fine balance between in keeping a code and an edge in the sense of – ‘Lets get on that, lets get to the bottom of that, and lets be really relentless in pursuing a particular subject’, and at the same time understanding the sort of human frailties that go into a situation or developing empathy in other words. I don’t think we are automatically empathetic creatures. I think that’s an acquired quality over the course of time.

For me the best journalism has always been about the most complex subjects and about getting to the bottom of things that are not simple either in terms of the information involved or the morality involved. Developing a taste for that and realizing that the sort of gotcha stories, where you doing an expose’ – well that’s immensely satisfying in some ways, it is even more satisfying to write about complex mechanisms and people and the reasons why people do the things they do, and figuring out of the motives.

I have always been more interested in the perpetrators than the victims – whether that’s the people who ran government in Virginia and who had a rather successful oligarchy of power – ‘Who they were, what they were thinking and what they told themselves about the decisions they made’ – or whether it was in South Africa – people in the Afrikaans league who were running the government back in the days of apartheid, or whether the Israeli establishment leaders – ‘What information were they getting? What were they telling themselves or how did they justify doing things that to me seemed unjustifiable, in some ways kind of evil?’

Saying its evil doesn’t get you all that far. In the end it wasn’t as interesting to me as figuring out who these people were, what they told themselves, what they told their children about what they were doing and how they were justifying. That to me was fascinating and it still is.

Interview with Glenn Frankel — Early Influences

19 Jan

Part 1 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


Let me begin by asking you about where you were born and about your early influences that shaped your choice to become a journalist.

I was born in 1949 in the Bronx in New York but grew up in Rochester, New York, which is up 300 miles north and west of there. I think the principal thing for me was wanting to be a writer at a pretty early age and trying to figure out how to do that. I had no real training. I had an English teacher in High School who was very encouraging and I was editor of the high school literary magazine. When I moved out to go to the university, I went to Columbia University in New York in the undergraduate, not the graduate. Especially in that era, in 1960s and early 1970s it was very hard for me to find a way to write in any kind of institutional setting. I was trying to write a novel at one point. I didn’t major in English but ended up majoring in American History which I think was very useful.

Just after the university, I moved out to the Bay Area, where I drove a school bus for almost year and a half here in San Fransisco. The school bus schedule is such that you worked early in the morning and in the evening and there was a big hole of about five or six hours in the middle of the day and I remember spending that time trying to write a novel, trying to write short stories, write songs, playing the guitar, doing various things and gradually coming to the realization that unless I could find an institutional setting of some sort that would actually pay me a regular salary to be a writer, I wasn’t going to be a writer, that it would fade away. I hadn’t found a profession and driving a school bus didn’t seem like a satisfying long term way of using my Bachelor’s degree. It gradually occurred to me that newspaper business might be a way to go.

We are now talking about late 1972 or early 1973 and the Watergate affair is just beginning to bubble to the surface. The name of the Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein are just beginning to appear, congressional hearings were beginning to be held. In the late afternoons many days the last group of kids I would take home, it was a private school that I was working for, and I would take the large station wagon rather than the large yellow bus to drive them home and the large station wagon had an AM/FM radio and so I would turn on KQED and listen to the news at 6’o clock, and the news was often about Watergate, Watergate dominated it in its various aspects. And it began to occur to me that newspapers might be the way to actually get paid to write.
To make a long story short, my then girl friend got accepted in a teacher core program that gave you a degree while you taught, in Richmond, Virginia. That seemed like a better place for someone with a Bachelor’s degree and no experience to try to hook some kind of newspaper job rather than the Bay Area, where as far as I could see there were approximately 17 million recent college graduates with the same degree I had and no chance to get into a job in this kind of field.

So we drove cross country and moved to Richmond Virginia and gradually I got a job at a very very small weekly newspaper, approximately 20 miles south of Richmond, in Chesterfield County, Virginia. Then I got a better job at a much better weekly in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond is a state capitol with a legislature and a governor and all that. I found quite quickly that not only that this kind of job satisfied my need to write and my dream of being paid to write but also sort of fit my personality and my sense of values because as a journalist I found I could be both inside a community and outside it. You sort of straddled if you will because you had to be knowledgeable about the community, you had to take part in things, you had to meet people and make your way through it but at the same time you were supposed to be the person who was analyzing it critically for new information about it, acquiring sort of intimate details of how it worked. Being inside and outside fit very well with my sense of who I was and so almost from the first week of the job at the little weekly newspaper in Chesterfield County, I thought yes, this could work, this is something I could do, this looks good.

I think you have to remember for many people who were growing up in that era, at the end of the 1960s and the early 70s, we were sort of deeply alienated from institutions in America, deeply suspicious of them and they were deeply suspicious of us; both sides had plenty of justification, I would say. Figuring out way to live in this country or to decide not to live in this country was very much in the front of my mind and in many of my friend’s minds. People came to various conclusions. My conclusion early on, probably because I came from a sort of lower middle class background – my father was a television repair man and my mother was a secretary, neither had been to college, I was the first in my immediate family to go to university – I was a little more practical minded than some of my friends in thinking that I should try to come to terms with the society. But how was I going to do that? How could I maintain my own sense of values and what I thought was important and still find a way to live without feeling that I was totally compromising. People left the country. Some friends ended up in places like Israel or Sweden. In the end, I actually visited Israel one summer and looked at their ongoing conflict and decided that I simply will be replacing ours with theirs and that didn’t seem like what I wanted to do. I really loved America and loved aspects of American culture and felt very much that this was my home and I felt that I needed to find ways to come to terms with that.

It turned out journalism was a good fit again because it allowed me to be very critical, to analyze things and be really tough but it also allowed me to get to know things, to get inside them and that was my training and my mindset fit and it very well with that.