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So What Do You Do, Matt Bai, New York Times Magazine Political Reporter?

We hit the campaign trail with NYTM's chief political writer

By Greg Lindsay - January 16, 2008
Matt Bai enjoys an unusual distinction among The New York Times' political reporters. Perhaps alone among those on the campaign trail, he has the luxury of spending months on his next story, as his typical dispatches run north of 5,000 words. He covers national politics for The New York Times Magazine, not the paper, which affords him the precious time to see the shape of the campaign as it unfolds, rather than rush to an incorrect judgment (as his colleagues ultimately did on Primary Day in New Hampshire).

Bai is following the Democratic primaries this year with particular interest after having written The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, an inside account of the struggles within the Democrats to choose direction for the party. Since December, he has also been writing a blog on the Times' Web site, "The Primary Argument." As you'd expect from someone used to filing every month or two, he's still struggling to adapt. The first words out of his mouth during our interview (on the day of the Iowa caucuses) was, "Blogging is killing me..."


Name: Matt Bai
Position: political writer
Resume: Reporter, the Boston Globe (1995-96); national correspondent, Newsweek (1997-2002); contributing writer, The New York Times Magazine (2002-present); author, The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics (2007)
Birthday: September 9, 1968
Hometown: Trumbull, CT
Education: BA, Tufts (1990); MA, Columbia Journalism (1994)
Marital status: married, one child (and one on the way)
First section of Sunday Times: the crossword puzzle
Favorite TV Show: The Wire or 30 Rock
Last book you read: The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
Guilty pleasure: watching Yankee games in the afternoon when I should be working

As someone used to working in (very) long form, how are you adapting to the pace and rhythm of blogging?
I really approach it like an interactive column, which is the part I really love because I hear a lot from readers every day. But any columnist would probably tell you that's not a sustainable pace [laughs].

As a magazine we can't keep up with the events of the caucuses and primaries, so this is really a way to be relevant and hopefully interesting during a period when our lead-time doesn't allow us to do much else. An 8,000-word piece is an amalgamation of months of questions and observations; all I'm really doing here is putting those observations together and addressing them piecemeal. The hardest thing for me to get used to is being wrong. A few times I reached back into my mind for a historical geographic or fact, and my mind has betrayed me. Someone wrote on the blog saying, "Hey Matt, don't worry about it, this is what blogging is, and we don't care if you forgot where the Missouri River is." But it keeps me up at night. I'm just not built that way.

So who's idea was it to start one, then? If it wasn't your idea, who strong-armed you into doing it?
It was [NYTM editor] Gerry Marzorati, and saying he twisted my arm wouldn't be accurate. I just trust Gerry a lot, and when he has an idea it's always worth trying. People have come to me over the past few years, with at least two or three serious offers to blog, for pay, and I have always said no with strikingly little regret. But when Gerry came to me it was different. I just trust his judgment so much, and it was only a six- or eight-week trial run, so there was no reason not to.

What's your working relationship like with the paper's political reporters? Is the primary season an all-hands-on-deck situation?
We are totally separate. I have very little interaction with paper; I maybe go into the office twice a year to see folks. I work from home, and when I go to New York, I go directly to the magazine floor. But I think the emergence of the Web has helped a lot culturally because all of the departments of The New York Times are really working more cooperatively now. My existence is really quite separate, and can be really quite confusing because there are a lot of people at the paper I don't know, and editors I don't know. And there are times when people will expect me to represent The New York Times or have some influence, and they'll mention to me an editor or reporter they've had some interaction with, and I don't even know who they are talking about because my relationship with them is so tangential. It does get awkward at times, but in general, particularly in the last few years, the paper has been very supportive. Chief political correspondent Adam Nagourney and I get along great, and the people in the Washington bureau have been very helpful.

In The Argument, you approach sites like Daily Kos as the heirs of think tanks or the ideological standard-bearers of the Democratic party rather than journalists. I always considered them to be closer to highly (and openly) biased journalists, writing for a niche audience.
Everybody has a different take on this, and my own is that there isn't much of an intersection between journalism and blogging, and therefore not much of a competitive problem. I see what they're doing more as community building than informing; they're pretty separate. What we at The New York Times call a blog is very different than what Daily Kos calls a blog. There's always this discussion among journalists and bloggers about whether bloggers are journalists and whether journalists are dinosaurs. I've never found that to be a very enlightening discussion, because my experience tells me that those two things are very different. I get frustrated with journalists who completely dismiss bloggers as a bunch of know-nothing amateurs when they are doing something quite extraordinary in American politics, and some of them are frighteningly smart people. And I get equally frustrated with bloggers who think that they are doing what journalists do, when in fact, what they are doing bears no resemblance to the actual gathering and analyzing of information. I think that the roles are pretty separate and can coexist quite nicely.

[A short time later:] That's probably too broad of a generalization. I don't like it when [bloggers] make that kind of generalization about us. There are some blogs, like Talking Points Memo, that are gathering information, and certainly analyzing it well. All I really meant to say was that the vast majority of blogs are engaged in community building and debating within community rather than the actual gathering of information.

In your book The Argument, you assert that the Democratic Party is still searching for its soul, essentially. Have you seen any signs thus far in this campaign that they've found it, or are at least on the path to finding it?
I think they're evolving, but there isn't going to be a magic answer overnight. I wrote a post about the argument between the top-tier Democrats coming out of Iowa, which is actually quite substantive and important. It's about: "What does leadership look like in this era after Bush?" There are real distinctions between the top three candidates about how you achieve change. There isn't much discussion about what kind of change the country needs beyond the same things that Democrats have been talking about for a long time, some of which are more relevant to the moment than others.

I think these things evolve slowly. I think it's a lot to ask for people to have the answers to really profound change, and I think it's a lot to ask for leaders to come up with those answers on their own. It's the job of a leader to tell difficult truths, which they haven't really done, and I think it's the job of movements and people to demand better answers, and I'm not sure they've done that, either.

In your essay about Richard Ben Cramer's book What It Takes, you wrote, "Like a lot of young journalism school graduates then and now, I had come to see political journalism as a lesser form of the craft, populated mostly by the effete and the unindustrious, while the real reporters were out there braving crack corners and foreign wars." I was under the assumption that the campaign trail was the glamour beat, and was the only story that mattered to newspaper reporters in presidential election years. What made you become a political reporter?
I sort of grew up thinking that too, but by the time I got to graduate school, it was no longer true. I think especially in the era of cable TV and punditry, a lot of people think of it as a lesser form of the craft. I was very much influenced by Richard Ben Cramer's book, and I was interested in reading Joe Klein, back when he was at New York magazine and then at Newsweek, and reading Hunter Thompson's work and other great book writers, but there was no one thing for me.

"My own hell would be to write about the elections, and never about the results."

I think my way of taking on political journalism has been more influenced by novelists than political journalists. I grew up just outside Bridgeport, Connecticut, and spent most of my life in the Northeast, and I am very much shaped by the decline of the industrial economy and what that means for American cities and that disconnect of the newer, more affluent parts of America and the parts they've left behind. The people who told that story, and told it best, are not political writers. They are people like Richard Russo and Philip Roth, with American Pastoral. I think they understood that moment of profound anxiety and change better than political writers did. Most of the themes of my work are more informed by that, than by the tropes of political journalism.

Especially since the dominant meta-narrative of ambitious political reportage has focused on the "process" and the inherent artificiality of the campaigns.
I've always been interested in telling stories about people. I love politics as a game and as a craft, and I find it fascinating. If politics was a pursuit of winning elections, and the end in and of itself was just about who was victorious on Election Day, I wouldn't have much interest in covering politics. I do think that a lot of my colleagues do find that to be the most interesting part. I think for a lot of political reporters of my generation, the game is the story. It's not entirely our fault. Politics has become much more about the game than the actual business of governing, and that's happened for a lot of reasons that don't have to do with the media. It has to do with economic and social reasons, and the intractable problems of this country that are hard to solve. I don't judge anyone who feels that way. I have some tremendously talented colleagues that have mastered the art of polling and documenting what is happening in each congressional district, and I think that's a really cool skill. But for me personally, politics is about something much larger. It's very much connected to the governing and the vision of where you want to take the country. My own hell would be to write about the elections, and never about the results.

In the same essay, you also mourn the fact that no one has been able to advance the campaign narrative since Cramer, who covered the 1988 election. Why are there so few great campaign narratives since then?
Politics changes as a result of being written about. I think Ben Cramer's book changed campaigns in some way, and it also just reflected a time when campaigns were really changing, so I think that was a book you could only write once. I tried to write a political book that was very different than what had come before, because it was a narrative, and it wasn't about candidates or campaigns. It was about people you've never heard of, or knew of only vaguely, but who were quite influential in changing the Democratic Party.

I think in anything you do, you have to always be thinking about how it will change the genre in some way, because I don't want to do what has been done. None of us can totally avoid it, but I'm always trying to think of different ways to do things. We are here to engage readers. If I'm not engaging readers who might not normally read about politics, than I'm not doing something that I find satisfying. I never write for insiders -- I always write for people who are casual followers of politics. I think in the magazine, we've been successful in doing a kind of hybrid story that's part-narrative and part-essay, and often part-profile too. So I was certainly trying to write a book that was different than the ones I had read. Frankly, I don't feel like reading the vast majority of political books that are being written right now, and if I don't feel like reading them, then no ordinary voter will feel like reading them.

Your career path is a somewhat conventional one -- newspaper reporter, newsweekly reporter, and now long-form reporter -- but that path is less likely for a young reporter with each passing day. If you were starting over again right now, would you still pursue the same path, or would you become a political blogger? And did journalism school really help?
I get asked this question all the time in one form or another, because I meet a lot of students and I meet a lot of aspiring journalists. And I think it's really, really important for us to help people who want to see it as a legitimate career option -- so they don't go to law school or graduate school or, god forbid, become a consultant somewhere -- because it's very hard. I think this is something we really fail at in the business and something that I'm not really in a position to change because I'm not an editor, but I wish we had a systematic re-examination of this, because we make it very, very hard for people to break in to the industry.

It's not just the economic conditions. I mean, yes, it is economically difficult to hire a lot of people, I understand that, but we also have this bias against people that don't have experience. And we shut out people at a very young age where, if your didn't write for your high school paper, therefore you didn't write for your college paper, therefore you don't have any clips, therefore you couldn't get an internship at a small daily paperů well, you know you are done! Go ahead and do something else with your life, because it's too late! That's a terrible system! We need smart, good people, and we need people who, if they decide at 25 that they'd rather be journalists than keep doing what they're doing, have a way to get into this business. Not even journalism school guarantees that, so why should they pay the money or take the risk?

That's a big problem. I don't know what I would do now. I didn't know what to do then. I kind of bounced around, from speech writing and to graduate school, and I never knew quite where I belonged. [Today,] I would certainly be looking at Web sites. I think if I could still write for the Boston Globe, I'd probably do that again -- that was a great career break. But if I were casting around, looking for a job as I was when I was younger, I would have certainly been looking at Web sites because I think that's where the growth is and I think that's where people are doing some of the most interesting work, and playing more with the genre than other people are.

What worries me about it at the end of the day is, even for a political reporter, the most valuable kind of experience is the actual street reporting. There's not a day that goes by that my experience covering murders and fires doesn't translate to this job. So I fear that we've increasingly become people whose primary experience is in glibness and opinion and analysis, and who haven't actually seen how communities function and how families are affected by policy and actually learn to gather original information and challenge their own preconceptions. The thing about covering news for some tiny, daily paper somewhere, is that it humbles you very quickly. Anybody who covers daily news may think they know what happened in a story, but it often turns out they were wrong. You think you know who committed the murder, but it turns out it wasn't the spouse; it was some other guy. There's a humility that comes with that experience, and I find that lacking in people who started their careers in Web sites or journals.


Greg Lindsay is a frequent contributor to mediabistro.com. He's currently working on his first book.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]



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