While writing a biography of Madeleine Albright, Time magazine reporter Ann Blackman and the former secretary of state spent several days engaging in a series of 10 hour interview sessions, sometimes with very few breaks. While leaving after their last, especially lengthy meeting, Blackman said she joked with Albright, telling her she prefers her subjects to be “long dead” historical figures who do not require such time-intensive interviews.
Blackman, the author of three biographies, spoke to a group of about 30 students and professors Tuesday as the guest at Davenport College’s first master’s tea of the year. In her hour-long talk, Blackman spoke about her career as a reporter, her transition to writing biographies, and her take on issues ranging from the media’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina to the changes in journalism since her start in the business.
During her career Blackman said she witnessed changes in the political landscape, covering Watergate, Mikhail Gorbachev and the women’s liberation movement.
“I have interviewed every first family since the second Nixon administration,” she said.
Blackman began her career as a journalist in 1968 at The Boston Globe and was plunged immediately into the thick of things on her first day, when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. After leaving the Globe, Blackman worked for the Associated Press, for which she spent a brief stint in Vietnam during the war. When she returned home, she took a job as a deputy bureau chief for Time magazine.
Then she received a call from a publisher who had read an article on Albright that she had written for Time. Blackman, who agreed to write a biography of the secretary of state, said she had never been a fan of history.
“It surprised … me that I could write history,” she said. “History had always seemed so boring. It was all about memorizing dates. I loved writing the book; there was no politics of the newsroom. I could do whatever I wanted.”
Blackman said she enjoyed writing “Seasons of Her Life” on Albright so much that she signed on to write two more biographies. In “The Spy Next Door,” Blackman wrote about the double life of Russian spy Robert Hanssen, who she described as a “crazy, weird, sicko guy.”
“The most frightening and interesting thing about Hanssen is that he worked at the FBI with high security clearance for 21 years, and nobody ever found out that this was a real bad guy,” Blackman said.
She said that while writing the book she was scared that men from Russian intelligence or the FBI might come after her research notes — scared enough that she said she hid her notes on an island in Maine.
Blackman’s most recent book, titled “Wild Rose,” is an account of the life of Rose Greenhow, a Civil War-era Washington hostess and southern spy who was later sent by Confederate President Jefferson Davis as an ambassador to Britain and France.
Blackman spent much of the rest of the tea talking about the rise of blogging and the breakdown of the wall between news magazines and the advertisers they sell ads to — she said that advertisers have too much control over news content. She also spoke on the media’s most recent coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
“I think the coverage of the hurricane has been terrific,” Blackman said. “This may be the first time in recent memory that reporters have challenged public officials and held them accountable.”
Students at the tea greeted Blackman’s talk with interest.
“I was really impressed with her slant on the politics of now,” said Nate Becker ’09, who was attending his first master’s tea. “She was so open. I was also interested in the connections she drew between politics then and politics now.”
Sarah Laskow ’06 said she found Blackman’s experience as a news reporter engaging.
“I was really interested to hear the experience of someone who saw and reported on changes in society over a period of time,” said Laskow. “I was fascinated by that.”