Name: Adam Aigner-Treworgy
Hometown: Belmont, MA
Undergrad: Washington University in St. Louis, Arts & Sciences
Majors: English Literature
Minors: Psychology, Writing
Activities: Frisbee, avoiding morning classes, KWUR 90.3 radio, WUTV, pre-orientation programming
1st Job: Staff Writer, West End Word
2nd Job: Desk Assistant, NBC News
3rd Job: Campaign Reporter, NBC & National Journal
4th Job: Researcher, The Colbert Report
5th Job: Producer/Writer John King USA, CNN
6th Job: White House Producer, CNN
7th Job: White House Producer, CBS This Morning
Current Job: Feature Producer, CBS News / CBS This Morning
Internships: Entercom Broadcasting, West End Word
Muck Rack: muckrack.com/adam-aigner-treworgy
While Adam Aigner-Treworgy grew up with a healthy respect for journalism and an affinity for writing, he could never have guessed his career path would include working for three major news networks and late night comedy show “The Colbert Report.” A Massachusetts native, Aigner-Treworgy covered Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012 where he won an Emmy award and was tapped to cover the White House for both CNN and CBS. Aigner-Treworgy currently is a producer for “CBS This Morning.” Here, Adam the journalist shares his journey from WashU to the West End Word, how he snagged a job at “The Colbert Report,” his experience as a campaign embed on the political trail, and what it was like working as a reporter at the White House.
Where were you born and raised?
I grew up outside of Boston, in Belmont, Mass., where I lived until I moved to St. Louis for college.
What was growing up like?
I was raised by a single mom. My parents were never married and they split up when I was young. My mom owned her own business. She was in PR/marketing, but she also had been in journalism before I was born and would sometimes talk about stories she covered. Being in public relations, she was always pitching journalists, and listening to her talk about her experiences gave me a respect for journalism when I was young. Even though she had a small business and we struggled at times, we stayed living in Belmont because they had good schools, and that was really important to my mom. I grew up with one sister, but I have half sisters and step sisters on my dad’s side as well. Overall, it was a pretty pleasant suburban upbringing.
What did your dad do?
My dad was a magazine publisher for most of my childhood. He worked for a magazine called The Robb Report, which is a high-end car and luxury lifestyle magazine. He later broke out on his own and started his own publishing company, which consulted with small niche magazines to help them figure out how they should go about starting a magazine.
What did you want to be when you grow up?
I was never good at sports like all of my friends were at that age. I was really into acting and did a lot of theater. I think my dream job, in a lot of ways, was to be an actor, more in that pie in the sky kind of way. I don’t remember this, but I did once find this paper from elementary school about what I wanted to be when I grew up and I had written down that I wanted to be a journalist. I think because I knew that that’s what my mom used to do.
What was your first paid job?
My first real job was at an ice cream shop in town. I loved working there. The owner was a character, in a lovely way. He was kooky and outgoing and ultimately ended up being a huge inspiration for me confidence-wise. I was just this pudgy kid who didn’t really quite know how to interact with people and I remember him really helping me figure out how to act in public. I still stay in touch with him, and in fact he served ice cream at my wedding.
How did you make your way to WashU?
In high school I had an AP psych teacher who had allegedly been a professor at WashU at one time. I’m not sure I understand how someone goes from being a psychology professor at WashU to being a public school psychology teacher. Regardless, when I was looking at colleges I got a college counselor to help me decide what schools to apply to. The college counselor told me I hadn’t done well enough in high school to get into WashU. With that in mind, I applied early to Boston College and was accepted, but when I went to visit I found myself uncomfortable with how religious it was. So I applied to a few other schools. I remember that I applied to one in Colorado and one in Minnesota, and then I applied to WashU because my psychology teacher told me to. I ended up getting in and it was the highest ranked school I was accepted to. My mom really encouraged me to go there, even though I was worried about the cost.
“It doesn’t necessarily matter what you major in for journalism. I majored in English, but you can major in anything as long as you have a passion for storytelling or for figuring out stories and getting to the bottom of something.”
What did you decide to study?
I went in knowing that I wasn’t a math and science guy and that I really liked to write. I was always better in classes that I had to write papers for, so I thought I would study something that had to do with writing. Initially I wanted to be a psych major, so I signed up for a lot of psych classes, along with anthropology and sociology.
After my sophomore year, I started to feel like every psych class was the same. I felt like I wasn’t doing anything different, whether it was abnormal psychology, gay, lesbian and bisexual psychology or adolescent psychology. I wanted to try something different, so I signed up for more English classes. I found that I enjoyed reading all these books about literature and I liked the professors I had. I ended up majoring in English and minoring in psychology instead because I had already taken most of the courses. I finished my psych minor early in my junior year. Then, I wanted to take some journalism classes in the night school, so I ended up with another minor in writing. When I graduated I thought I would go back and get a Ph.D. in English and work toward becoming an English professor, but I wanted to get a job first and see whether I liked it before making the decision to go back to school.
I should mention that it doesn’t necessarily matter what you major in for journalism. I majored in English, but you can major in anything as long as you have a passion for storytelling or for figuring out stories and getting to the bottom of something. There are great lawyers who are journalists. A guy who is one of the best reporters on “This American Life,” which is a show I love, has a Ph.D. in physics and was a physics professor or teacher somewhere for many years before he got into radio. Being a good journalist isn’t necessarily dependent on the course of study you take, but where your interests lie outside of that and how you apply those interests to the world.
What felt the same about every psychology class?
It felt like the beginning month or month and a half of every psychology class rehashed the same basic principles, which I felt like I had learned in my high school AP psych class. I was okay with it for the first couple classes, but by the time we got to the stuff that made that class unique we were halfway through the semester.
When you weren’t studying, what were you doing at WashU?
I played a lot of frisbee…
I remember I was very into structuring my schedule to best fit my life and study habits, so I didn’t take any early morning classes. I would take one night class per semester, because those met two times per week for an hour and a half, and they tended to be a bit more interesting. I took a class on comparative religions in Lord of the Rings. I enrolled in journalism classes at night, because that was the only time journalism classes were offered at WashU. I took sports journalism, entertainment journalism and a feature writing course. I wasn’t super active otherwise.
I wouldn’t say that I was active in club life. I did do some work for the radio station all four years at WashU. I hosted a radio show with different friends. I also did the pre-orientation program for the TV station, but I didn’t enjoy that as much, so I stuck to the radio station instead.
When did you start thinking about life after college?
I didn’t go into college super driven to pursue a certain career path. Because I got into WashU, like a lot of students there, I considered myself a pretty smart kid. I also think I’m a naturally curious person and someone who likes to learn. Except for maybe math and science classes that I needed to fulfill requirements, I don’t remember ever taking a class that I didn’t like. I always felt like I was one of those people who pursued doors as they opened to me, but I wasn’t fighting to reach a certain goal. I was waiting to see what sort of opportunities were out there, and then I pursued them as they appeared.
I didn’t really think about life after college until my junior year, when I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Late junior year or senior year, I came back to school and thought, “this is your final year, what do you want to do?” I decided to write an English thesis at the end of my junior year or early senior year. I took a class with a new professor, Dan Grausam, and he sort of spoke to me. He was kind of a hipster who was a young, modern American literature expert. He rode around campus on a bike and had these thick-rimmed plastic glasses. He had just moved from the Bay Area. He along with a grad student showed sort of showed me that my interest in reading and analyzing books, writing essays and thinking about the lessons in them was something that you could make a career out of. I don’t think I knew that before, mostly because I didn’t think about what English professors did except – very specifically – teach me. Those two gave me confidence. They both told me I was a good writer and was thinking about this stuff from an interesting perspective. I got pretty good grades on all my papers, so I decided to write a thesis on Don Delillo, who is this reclusive American author. That made me think that this may be what I wanted to do as a career. At that point, I still thought I would get into a Ph.D. program and become a professor.
“All of my professors told me not to go to grad school right away. Their advice was to go get a job and see if I wanted to go back to school, and that seemed logical to me.”
How did you decide grad school versus getting a job?
All of my professors told me not to go to grad school right away. Their advice was to go get a job and see if I wanted to go back to school, and that seemed logical to me. The first two summers after my freshman and sophomore years, I went back to Boston and worked at the ice cream shop. I had a couple other jobs like working for this radio station doing promotional events. The summer after my junior year, all my friends were staying in St. Louis, so I decided to stay in St. Louis. I got a job at a coffee shop in Dogtown and I got an internship at a newspaper. I thought I’d work at the coffee shop job to make some money, so I worked basically full time there, and and then two to three days per week I also worked at the West End Word, which is a super local paper in the Central West End.
The internship went well. I wrote a bunch of articles. The editor in chief was this British guy whose wife was a teacher at Forest Park Community College. Halfway through my senior year, before I even really started thinking about what I wanted to do, when I was still kind of wrapped up in senior year stuff and I was crashing to finish my thesis, he asked me to get coffee. It turned out that his wife was going to study abroad for a few months during the fall semester. The publisher of the paper said he could go with his wife if he could find someone to backfill his position. His plan was to promote one of the staff writers to be an editor and he asked if I’d be interested in a temporary staff writer position writing two or three articles per week while he was gone. I had a group of probably eight friends who were staying in St. Louis after graduation, so I took the job.
How did you prepare for your first job as a staff writer?
It definitely had more responsibilities than my internship. In addition to writing, I had to lay out the paper. A few months later I was asked to edit another really local monthly paper for a historic district south of the city. So I took that on too. I don’t think it took a ton of preparation. I knew mostly what the job was, but I was thrilled that I was going to be a writer for this newspaper right out of college and that I didn’t have to look for a job. Because some of my friends were sticking around, it was kind of like I got to extend college a little bit longer while also entering the workforce. It was a good transition period for me. I biked to work every day and then hung out with my friends at night. It helped me wade into adulthood.
How did you figure out what to do next?
At the end of the designated time, they actually offered me a full time position to stay on, but it didn’t end up being a great deal. I don’t think I negotiated very well because I was young and just excited to have the job. A lot of my friends from St. Louis were leaving around that time, too, so it felt like it was probably time to move on.
I had a group of friends in Boston who were lobbying me hard to move to back home, and I had another group of friends in DC who were lobbying me hard to move to DC. I weighed the options. Ultimately, I decided that I really liked covering politics while working at the paper. There was a Senate race between Claire McCaskill and Jim Talent, which McCaskill ultimately won. I covered a debate that I wasn’t even assigned to cover. I sort of pushed my editor to let me do it by arguing that I could write an article on the initiatives that were on the ballot that fall. I applied for a press pass and ended up sitting next to Melissa Block from NPR. I loved NPR and listened to it all the time. I really wanted to work there, and here I was, talking to one of the networks major anchors. It made me feel like it was possible. Because I liked covering politics I decided to move to DC.
“His advice to me was essentially that it’s better to go with a big publication or news outlet that everyone knows — even if you’re taking a really small, menial job — than it is to take a big job in which you’ll have a lot of responsibility at a place no one has heard of.”
How did you find your first news job in DC?
I started applying for jobs in DC — I applied for probably 100 jobs. I sent out articles, copies of the paper, writing samples, and I got maybe one interview. I was working at the paper and I did a story on this new condo that was opening up near Busch Stadium. I did an interview with the first resident in the condo, who was a guy working for the Cardinals doing data analytics. He had just helped write a book called “Fantasyland,” about fantasy sports, with this Wall Street Journal sports reporter named Sam Walker. We got to talking after the interview and I told him I was trying to move out of St. Louis and get into writing somewhere else and he suggested I talk to Sam. I called this guy up and we had an hour-long talk. His advice to me was essentially that it’s better to go with a big publication or news outlet that everyone knows — even if you’re taking a really small, menial job — than it is to take a big job in which you’ll have a lot of responsibility at a place no one has heard of.
I thought his advice was really interesting, because right after that I had an interview at this really small energy publication that was going to cover energy legislation on Capitol Hill. I had been thinking that I could be a staff writer there and it would be a really great way to get in to covering politics. I also had a friend who was a desk assistant at NBC News who was delivering papers, answering the phone and doing really menial stuff. That advice encouraged me to work harder to pursue the NBC news job. I moved to DC, without a job, and I called the guy from NBC News every week for the first month until he finally called me back and asked me to come in for an interview. The interview went well and he asked me to start the following Monday.
“When you’re working in a fast-paced environment, at big organizations with people who are on deadline, a lot of times you’re going to get barked at, and you can’t fall apart when that happens.”
What was was the NBC News interview like?
Because it was a job geared toward young people, it was sort of like a training program. Over a year-and-a-half, they cycle you through different parts of the news division. I remember being really nervous for the interview. It was probably my first in-person interview for a real job and it was with the deputy bureau chief of NBC News. He was a very nice older man, probably in his 70s, and I remember him asking me a lot of perspective questions rather than quizzing me on current events. He wanted to learn my outlook on life and get a sense of whether I’d be a hard worker for them and whether I was resilient. I think that a lot of the job at a place like that – and maybe lots of places, but I can only speak to my experience — is getting yelled at and bouncing back. When you’re working in a fast-paced environment, at big organizations with people who are on deadline, a lot of times you’re going to get barked at, and you can’t fall apart when that happens. I think what he was looking for most was someone who he thought had a strong sense of self, who would be a quick learner and someone who wasn’t going to buckle when things got heated.
“I work in a very interpersonal industry where I’m interviewing a lot of people. I have to collaborate a lot. All of my tasks are done with other people: the reporter, an editor, the senior producer. There’s very little I do completely by myself.”
How did you show your ability to handle pressure in an interview?
By projecting more confidence than I had, answering question loudly and firmly. I think a lot of the jobs that I have been offered have been because I project that I’m someone people want to work with, not necessarily because I project that I’m someone who has all the skills for the job. It’s a subtle difference, but I think in my industry, a lot of people would rather work with someone who is smart, likeable and easy to get along with. I work in a very interpersonal industry where I’m interviewing a lot of people. I have to collaborate a lot. All of my tasks are done with other people: the reporter, an editor, the senior producer. There’s very little I do completely by myself.
I always thought it was was beneficial to answer a question confidently, even if I didn’t know that I had the right answer. A lot of times I would quickly go check to see if my answer was correct. If I was wrong, I would come back, correct myself and say I’m sorry. You can’t actually do that in an interview, but I do think that it helps to project that you’re someone else — someone who believes in themselves or who believes that they have the right answers to questions, without coming across as too cocky. It’s definitely a balance, because nobody wants someone who thinks they know everything. People making job decisions want someone who is willing and eager to learn, but is confident enough in themselves to try once or twice and mess up.
How do you balance confidence vs. saying “I don’t know, but I’ll go find out?”
I think if you could find out quickly, a lot of times that’s good. I remember him asking whether I read the paper on the way into work or what was interesting in the paper that day. I think in some ways it’s trying to be informed of the top level enough to give an intelligent answer on the surface, and then follow up with “but I can give you more details.” Maybe that’s the balance — knowing enough that you can answer confidently with a little bit of detail right away and follow up after you’ve looked it up.
How did you make your way to The Colbert Report?
One of the reasons I never got a chance to go back to school was because I was only at NBC in this desk assistant role for maybe eight months. Then NBC started looking for reporters to cover the 2008 campaign. In the news business they call those reporters “embeds.” It was basically people who would live on the road for a year-and-a-half and follow a candidate around until they lost or until the campaign was over. It was a really competitive application process and I remember thinking that I had no chance, but that I should toss my name in the hat because I would kick myself if I didn’t. I didn’t know this at the time, but one of the things that made me appealing for those making the hiring decision was that NBC was partnering with this DC policy publication called National Journal, and they were going to do an integrated hiring process. The embeds would work for both outlets throughout the campaign, doing TV stuff and also writing articles to help feed this magazine.
Because I had just come from this stint at the newspaper, they knew that I could write. All the other young people who were applying from NBC were TV people. They’d come straight from college to work in TV and all of their training had been in TV. I think there was kind of a political hiring process, where the TV side wanted as many TV people as possible, and the print side wanted as many print people as possible. I was a happy medium between the two.
“Now, every time I get scared about something, I think of that. Whoever is in charge of this has decided that I am the guy who can do it, so now I just have to figure out how to do it.”
When I found out I got the job I was thrilled. I couldn’t believe it. But I was also kind of terrified. There were only eight people selected for this out of hundreds who applied. I went to the guy who hired me at NBC and I said to him and I said to him, “I don’t think I’m qualified for this position.” I was 23. It felt over my head. I remember him saying to me, “Luckily for you that’s not your decision. There are a lot of people in New York who are paid a lot of money to make this decision and they decided that you are qualified. Now all you have to do is go do it.” Now, every time I get scared about something, I think of that. Whoever is in charge of this has decided that I am the guy who can do it, so now I just have to figure out how to do it. I covered Fred Thompson’s primary campaign, Mike Huckabee’s primary campaign, and then I covered John McCain through the end of the election for the 2008 campaign. Then NBC laid everyone off because they didn’t need us anymore.
As I was looking for a job after the campaign, I was bouncing around, applying to different places and one of the senior producers at “The Colbert Report” cold called the CBS political news desk. This guy named John Bentley answered the phone. John and I had just covered the campaign together, him working for CBS and me working for NBC. Because you’re traveling the road by yourself basically for eight months, you become really good friends with the other network embeds out there. This woman said she was looking for someone who knows politics. She told him that “The Colbert Report” gets a lot of comedy and entertainment applicants, but needed someone who understands the news. She asked if he knew anyone looking for a job and John passed on my name.
“I was house-sitting for someone in DC, playing Guitar Hero, drinking a beer, when he called and said “Stop what you’re doing right now and email your resume to this woman at ‘The Colbert Report.’”
I was house-sitting for someone in DC, playing Guitar Hero, drinking a beer, when he called and said “Stop what you’re doing right now and email your resume to this woman at ‘The Colbert Report.’ You are perfect for this job.” I did that and had an interview on the road driving from DC to Chicago to see my sister. I pulled over on the side of the highway, had my interview over the phone and they hired me over the phone.
How was The Cobert Report interview?
It was really weird because it was the only interview that I’ve ever had where they asked a lot about my comedic taste, like what kind of comedy I liked. I don’t know exactly how you answer that question. You want to come off sounding sophisticated enough that you impress them, but also not adult enough that you bore them. There’s some sort of balance that you’re trying to strike there. I remember telling them I like “Monty Python” and my dad showed me a lot of the Muppets when I was growing up, but I also really enjoy “The Daily Show” and topical news. I was trying to find a way to impress them.
It turns out that it was also a pretty entry level job. I did a lot of the news research, but I think I brought a different perspective to the writers’ meetings. The writers were consumers of news, but didn’t fully understand it. I could go in and tell them “This how a filibuster works. This is the next step for the health care legislation after it comes out of committee. These are the senators that are going to decide whether it passes out of committee or not. These are they key votes.” That was stuff that I could explain to them and they could go on and make it funny.
“Then everyone referred to me as the nerd from DC. It paid off a lot.”
Could you have prepared for questions about your comedy taste?
Not necessarily for this interview, but I generally prepared for an interview by making sure that I was very familiar with the place that I was interviewing. It’s a basic question, but I think a lot of times when jobs come to you or when you stumble into an opportunity, you don’t always do the best job of researching and learning about the place where you’re interviewing. At that time, I was still young, 24 maybe. They asked me about some of their recurring segments, so I wanted to know enough about those. Luckily for me they were looking for someone who had my expertise, rather than someone who is an expert in what they did. When I got there, the woman who I would be replacing told me “Everyone in this building wants to be a comedy writer, so you’re not going to differentiate yourself by being the funny one. You are going to differentiate yourself by being the smart one.” She told me that I shouldn’t be pitching jokes, because everyone in the building is pitching jokes, and the bar would be really high. Also luckily for me, I didn’t really want to be a comedy writer.
I remember showing up in a shirt and tie and a blue blazer for my first day of work and everyone laughed at me and made fun of me about it for a month, because everyone there wore t-shirts and jeans. I had only interviewed over the phone, so I knew I was going to be overdressed, but I also felt like you have to show up on the first day of work looking good. Then everyone referred to me as the nerd from DC. It paid off a lot. They turned to me a lot for politics questions. Stephen Colbert said the group really liked that I understood politics, and I had to fact-check the show every night. The script would come across our desk and we would make sure they weren’t making any errors.
“There were a couple times I held up the show because I felt like something they were saying wasn’t 100 percent right. They wanted to make fun of things that were true.”
There were a couple times I held up the show because I felt like something they were saying wasn’t 100 percent right. In those cases, we had to find a happy medium to where they could make the joke they wanted to make, but also be accurate. That was important to me and it was important to them. They took themselves very seriously in making sure that they were accurate. They didn’t want to make jokes that were funny, but not really true. They wanted to make fun of things that were true.
How did you feel going to The Colbert Report after covering the Presidential campaign?
After working on a campaign, they say you have this hangover or that people experience depression. I remember that I had a lot of responsibility covering the campaign. I was working for a big, national news network that looked to me for a lot of things. Often, I was the final word. I was really young and it made me feel important. At Colbert, I was a small part in a big show. I did a lot of the news research for them. I pitched them story ideas, and after that it was out of my hands. It went to the writers’ room.
I was really feeling down after my first couple months there because I didn’t feel like I understood how to fit in — not just interpersonally, but I felt like I could only do the tasks that were assigned to me. I wanted to find a bigger role for myself. Around that time, Stephen held me back in his office after a meeting. I hadn’t really had a conversation with him except for when I first started, very briefly. He was encouraging. He said “We’re really happy to have you here. My door is always open. We think you’re doing great. We really need a voice like you here.” I left that day feeling encouraged to try and bring a louder voice to the table.
How did you establish your personal brand at The Colbert Report?
I felt like a fish out of water the whole time I was there. I didn’t come from the comedy world. I had never been to an improv show when I moved to New York and I had never worked in an improv group. All the people who worked in this office were obsessed with comedy. They wrote jokes, they were in comedy groups — that was their thing. I think it’s only become more common since then. It felt like this whole other world that I had no exposure to. I think in some ways, early on, I just tried to keep my head down and figure out the lay of the land. I wanted to understand the people I was working with and what their needs were before I tossed myself out there.
Being confident about what you’re good at and offering that up to the group is important. In some ways that applies to any industry. If you get hired, clearly whoever is hiring you thinks you have something to bring to the table. Once you’re there, maybe you can be quiet for a couple of weeks to figure out what it is, but then be confident about what you’re good at and bring the best that you can of what you’re good at to the table, because that’s what the hiring manager or boss thought they needed. Even if it doesn’t feel like it’s the thing they need the most of at the time, knowing what you’re good at and being the best you can will be valued.
“Looking back, sometimes I think leaving might’ve been a mistake. If I hadn’t left I’d be working at “The Late Show” right now!”
How did you go from The Colbert Report to Obama’s reelection campaign?
Looking back, sometimes I think leaving might’ve been a mistake. If I hadn’t left I’d be working at “The Late Show” right now! But at the time I really thought I wanted to cover another campaign and go back on the road in 2012. A friend I had made covering the 2008 campaign worked at CNN, and in 2010 he had interviewed to work on a new show CNN was working on that he described as “something different.” They were going to have some comedic segments and they wanted to find producers who could help with this convergence between news and entertainment. The role would give me a producer title, but it also would position me back at CNN where I might be able to cover the campaign again if I decided I want to do that the following year. I interviewed for the job and they offered to move me back to DC to be a producer on this new show, which was John King’s show at the time. It was tough because I was still pretty focused on covering the campaign again. I didn’t feel like I totally fit in in New York. For various reasons, I felt like I should go back and position myself to cover politics, because I thought that was the direction I wanted to go. So I took the job and they moved me back to DC. I ended up producing a bunch of comedic segments for them early on, but it didn’t really go over well. I don’t think anyone was to blame for it not being a success. It was just this big company that knows how to do one thing really well. When they tried to innovate, and it didn’t succeed right away, executives at the time decided to slowly turn back to the thing that they knew how to do. I think you see that in a lot of places.
After about a year and a half, I got offered a job covering the 2012 campaign. By that time, I was a little bit older and I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted anymore. At the time, CNN was also looking for a White House producer. Instead of covering the campaign where I was traveling full-time, I could cover the campaign from the presidential side. In that scenario I would live in DC, but travel to reelection events. I thought that sounded better because I didn’t have to be on the road quite as much, but I’d still get to do what I wanted to do. I covered President Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, then I covered the White House for two more years for CNN and an additional two years after that for CBS.
“I was in the room when Obama greeted Raul Castro, and it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
What about covering the White House is overhyped or underhyped?
I think the gravity of it… I think no matter how hyped the gravity of it is, it’s underhyped. There’s nothing like being in the room or entering the room when big things happen. It’s surreal being one of the only people there when Russia invades Crimea and the president is coming out and condemning the actions, or getting woken up early in the morning after the Aurora, Colo., shooting in the movie theater and having someone say to you “36 people just died, can you rush down to the White House, because the president is going to make a statement?”
Things like that feel really big, and I think that even if it feels big to someone who hasn’t done it, it feels even bigger when you’re there. There are things like flying on Air Force One, traveling to a different country — I went to Cuba with Obama, which was the first time a president visited Cuba in decades. I was in the room when Obama greeted Raul Castro, and it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Some of that stuff feels even bigger when you’re there. During those historic moments, you just feel incredibly lucky to be a part of them, but also, you hope that you rise to the challenge of interpreting that event and reporting on it properly for the country. You feel a little bit like you are the representative for a millions of other people who are watching your news organization, to make sure that they know what happens.
The flip side of that — the thing that is overhyped maybe is that the White House is a very small complex. It’s a lot smaller than you think. Everyone I have taken there has said to me that it feels confining, like you’re stuck in this place and you can’t leave.
How do you achieve the task of representing millions of people?
I don’t know if you do. I think you try and you do your best. There’s a thing called the pool. Every major news organization sends people to presidential events, but the White House doesn’t allow everyone in to cover everything. Instead, they allow what’s called a press pool, or representatives from every sort of medium. The wire services — AP, Bloomberg and Reuters, they all have someone there, and then there is one TV camera and one TV producer and they share footage with all of the networks. There is one radio reporter and he shares the audio recording with all the other radio networks. Being a pool reporter means you are literally representing every other TV network in that role, and it’s intimidating. Luckily in TV you have a visual recording to make sure you get it right, but if you want to yell out a question or something like that, you have to be the one to do it. You have to think on your feet. I remember the first reporter I worked with at NBC, Kelly O’Donnell, told me to always have a question ready.
“You have to ask yourself if you’re interested in one thing that you want to become the best educated person in the world about, or if you’re just a really curious person who feels like they could really get excited about learning new things everyday.”
How can a student determine if journalism or covering politics is a good fit for them?
I think part of it is how broad your interests are and how much you want to dive into that. One of the greatest things about my job is that I get to learn about a lot of different topics. Every day I get a new story in a different realm. Even when you’re covering politics for the White House, one day you’re talking about energy subsidies, another day you’re talking about war with Russia. Another day you might be covering North Korea sanctions and then reporting on rural internet. You don’t necessarily get to become a total expert on it, but you get to learn a lot and you get to cover a lot of different things.
“Stories about people are fascinating to me, and I think that is at the essence of journalism.”
You have to ask yourself if you’re interested in one thing that you want to become the best educated person in the world about, or if you’re just a really curious person who feels like they could really get excited about learning new things everyday. I am more of the later. As much as I thought I wanted to be an English professor, I also really like reading things about technology, and I like reading surface-level things about science, like what’s in “Scientific American.” I enjoy listening to radio shows about people — for instance, someone who lost their son in war and how they dealt with that, or someone who finds love on the internet and it changes their lives. Stories about people are fascinating to me, and I think that is at the essence of journalism.
I don’t know if that’s an answer to what students need to know, but I think that’s one litmus test because journalism is a field where broad interests can be satisfied.
Any other litmus tests that help answer the question, “is journalism for me?”
One of the reasons I got into it was because I really like writing. I think writing is important, even though now I work in TV. Now that I don’t cover the White House anymore, I do a lot of feature pieces, covering everything from country music stars to a recent series on Marines coming home from Afghanistan. I’m doing two more series on veterans’ issues. I still write scripts and I have to find a way to tell these stories using the fewest words possible and fit them into a five minute time slot. The length of stories I do now are between three and five minutes, which are long for TV stories.
“If you find writing really satisfying, that’s another good litmus test, because all types of journalism, even if you work in radio or TV, start with good writing.”
I took a couple fiction writing classes at WashU, including one with Sarah Kliff, who is now one of the top healthcare reporters in the country. I always wanted to write nonfiction. I read “In Cold Blood” when I was in college and I loved the idea of creative nonfiction, or really well told nonfiction with an element that really gripped me. In that same vein, reading New Yorker articles is amazing to me, just to see stories that are real, but are told in ways that make you want to keep turning the page. If you find writing really satisfying, that’s another good litmus test, because all types of journalism, even if you work in radio or TV, start with good writing.
Any other wisdom to share with students?
Don’t let people, the school, or society put you in a box. I think one of the things I learned the most in reporting is that everyone has a lot of different interests and people can satisfy those interests or find a way to express those interests in a wide variety of ways. It doesn’t always have to be simply by doing the thing that it feels like you should do because you studied it in college. People get through life in very different ways and I think people who are very ambitious, who are entrepreneurial, who set their sights on something and chase after it, those are the people who end up accomplishing great things.”
Be open to opportunities. If a doors opens for you, I think you should look through it, because sometimes that’s where the most interesting thing that you’ll experience ends up lying. Things end up showing themselves to you through doors you don’t expect to open. Even if you don’t feel qualified for something, explore it. As I said earlier, a lot of the jobs I’ve had are because someone said to me, “This is happening.” At various times I thought “I don’t know why they’d hire me at The Colbert Report,” or “I don’t know why they’d hire me to be a White House producer,” or “I don’t know why they’d hire me to cover the campaign.” I thought I wasn’t qualified, but in the end, I decided to try. People are not always looking for the cookie cutter example of the job they’re trying to fill.
“We need to make sure people understand that their actions and the actions of the people they elect to represent them in Washington have a greater impact than it may seem when you’re only looking at that one step, that one decision or that one vote.”
If you met some students jaded by the state of D.C., what would you tell them?
I also get discouraged by attacks on the veracity of the media. Most examples of people saying something is fake news, lies or bias are simply mistakes made by people who are trying their best. It’s usually one person who typed something wrong, who forgot to ask a question or who just got one little thing wrong that ends up making the story look biased. People are imperfect in every profession, and journalists are far from perfect. I understand why people would find that discouraging.
People right now are more isolated and are more siloed than ever, and I think that journalism, at its best, tells people stories they wouldn’t otherwise hear. That goes for political journalism, too. The best political journalism pieces are examples where you’re making a congressman sound or feel more human, explaining where a decision came from, or explaining how the impact of a certain piece of legislation could be felt in a small town somewhere — for better or for worse.
The best parts about journalism that continue to inspire me are people’s stories that get us to think about what life is like outside of our own experience, which is something I think people don’t do enough of these days. If you’re drawn to that, or that feels like something you think society needs, then I think you should try journalism. We need people to share stories with the country and the world. We need to make sure people understand that their actions and the actions of the people they elect to represent them in Washington have a greater impact than it may seem when you’re only looking at that one step, that one decision or that one vote.
Anything specific to your story I should have asked about but I didn’t?
Like a good journalist, that’s the best final question you should ask in any interview — so I think now you’re showing off a little bit… but I don’t think so.