Eliana Johnson ’06 is a Minnesota native, a Yale grad, and currently one of Washington’s preeminent young political reporters. Since graduating from Yale College in 2006, Johnson has worked at a number of conservative publications including The New York Sun, Fox News and the National Review and has made frequent guest appearances on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. Since November 2016, she has served as the national political reporter for POLITICO, reporting on issues from the GOP Health Care bill to the daily ins and outs of the Trump Administration. On the heels of this recent career change, I spoke with Johnson about her professional journey, experiences as a female journalist, and the state of journalism and objective reporting in the United States today.
Q: How did your time at Yale influence your journalistic ambitions? How did you know journalism was the path you wanted to explore as a career?
A: I occasionally wrote two or three times [for the News] but I wasn’t really involved with journalism or the YDN, and it took me a while to figure it out even after I graduated. One of the things I always tell people is that I feel like at schools, especially Ivy League schools, there’s this sense that you’re supposed to know what you want to do when you graduate or [that there are] a few predetermined, acceptable paths like law, medicine, consulting and investment banking. I had no idea what I wanted to do; I just knew I was interested in politics and writing. My first job was at a newspaper for a couple months, then I was at a foreign policy think tank, then I was in cable TV, in PR for a year and then finally ended up at a magazine. It wasn’t until I was there and started doing print reporting that I realized that I really liked it. I certainly didn’t set out when I graduated to do print reporting. I just sort of tried a number of different things until I found what worked for me.
Q: After working at so many number of different jobs, were there any particular defining moments that set you on your current path?
A: I enjoyed being in cable news. It was exciting, and there were a lot of high-profile and famous people in it, but when I started doing print journalism I felt like it allowed me to see that in a lot of television news, there was a superficial aspect to the coverage because there’s an enormous time constraint on it. You reach a much larger audience than you do in print because so many people watch TV, but what I felt in print journalism was an opportunity to explore things in greater depth, to explore the complexity of things and to talk to the real players in these things, like the people who work for politicians or the people who do polls for them and organize their strategy, as opposed to the politicians themselves on television giving you a bunch of superficial talking points. One thing that I liked most about it was that, I don’t really know what I think about healthcare, foreign policy or a lot of issues, but I felt like this was a great way to continue to learn by talking to people who are smart and informed on these issues.
Q: Taking a little bit of a different track, I just wanted to talk a bit about the role of gender in the journalism and your personal experiences. How do you think working in a male-dominated field has impacted your career?
A: On the whole, I’ve either felt that it’s been neutral or advantageous, because I do think publications and organizations — with a few notable exceptions — want to hire and promote women.
Q: One timely case on the treatment of women in TV journalism specifically has been the dismissal of Bill O’Reilly from Fox News. Based on your experience at Fox and in cable news, do you think this marks a step forward for gender inequality in political news?
A: When there’s an organization that has a Roger Ailes at the head of it or an icon like Bill O’Reilly in a position of power, their behavior seeps into the culture and becomes a part of the organization. Removing them, I think, is symbolic and important, but addressing their impact on the organization is more challenging: deputies who were complicit in their behavior, a human resources department that muffled complaints, and so on. Changing the culture requires addressing these issues. Firing the people is a symbolic gesture, and symbols and gestures are important, but the firing is one step of many that should probably be taken.
Q: Do you think steps toward increasing the number of women in journalism and achieving greater equality in areas like amount of screen time will help the culture?
A: Sure, but I think the focus should be on skill and character. Fox is a great example of an organization that — one could argue — promoted women and paid them handsomely. So, it’s not about the number of women, it’s about the type of women that are hired and the broader corporate culture they’re shuffled into. So, no, I don’t think recruiting more women, per se, and Fox is probably the preeminent example of this because they certainly promoted women and gave them screen time, that the amount of screen time or the number of bylines isn’t necessarily the answer. It’s a problem of corporate culture — and hiring men and women who have enough strength to speak up when they think something is wrong, often at the risk of losing screen time or bylines, is important.
Q: Speaking about change more generally, I know that you recently left the National Review this past year to take a position at POLITICO as a national political reporter. Can you walk me through what inspired this change and how, if at all, this change has impacted your writing?
A: It hasn’t impacted my writing, but when I was at National Review, I was at a smaller conservative publication and one of the things that I tried to do there was recruit real reporters who were committed to reporting rather than to recruit conservatives. It’s true that reporters are overwhelmingly liberal in their politics so I think it takes commitment on the part of conservatives and conservative organizations to bring up reporters who are people that might be conservative, but are committed to reporting and are dogged reporters. And I don’t think until recently there’s been an attention to that. Conservatives have committed themselves to bringing up talk radio hosts, cable news, and opinion columnists [who] have predominated in the ratings against CNN or MSNBC and predominate in opinion columns. Where they don’t predominate is in actual news reporting. So, I’ve always felt that it’s important for people who are right of center to go into reporting.
Q: From your respective as a lead reporter for the National Review during the 2016 election cycle, when the legitimacy of the media came under fire from a lot of the candidates, how do you think this election cycle has affected the way average Americans view the news?
A: I think that this election cycle exposed the fact that not just reporters, but academics and think tankers and the Washington intelligentsia, essentially the people whose job it is to understand what’s happening in the country, don’t actually understand what’s happening. They were certain Donald Trump could not possibly be elected and when he was, I think that came as a shock and embarrassment to us, but I don’t think that was quite as much of a shock to Trump’s voters. I think that was something that journalists and academics are still grappling with.
Q: Building off of that, I know you recently wrote an article for POLITICO about how Trump’s election shook the conservative media landscape. What do you see as the future of conservative media and its relationship with the president?
A: In part, I think it depends on the durability of Trump and the Trump coalition. But certainly, the immediate effects over four or eight years is that he’s completely scrambled the pecking order in conservative media, elevating what once were thought to be these fringe voices like Breitbart News to a level of importance where they have a direct line to the White House and people are reading them the way they used to read the Wall Street Journal or National Review. Trump campaigned on exiling the elites from Washington and that hasn’t happened, of course, but it actually has happened in the media. He really has made these outsider media outlets much more important even if he hasn’t exactly done that for the factory worker in West Virginia.
Q: What are your thoughts on the shift toward receiving news from sources like Facebook where you can cater the news you are receiving to one ideological viewpoint? Do you think that’s a good move forward for political news?
A: I think what makes Facebook the perfect vehicle for the creation of these ideological bubbles is that people are reading articles that are shared by their friends and family members who can impact your view more than the average American. Is this a good thing? Probably not.
Q: As a reporter, how do you grapple with the idea of “alternative facts?” What is the role of the truth-conscious journalist in this new landscape?
A: I think the fracturing of the news media and the country has made it such that there are certain classes of people on the far-left or far-right who you are never going to convince of anything even with fact. And the rise of this alternative fact or fake news or whatever you want to call it doesn’t really have anything to do with Trump in many ways. He’s an outgrowth of a pre-existing condition of increasing political polarization of a country. But as a reporter, my job is to get to truth as best I can. Period. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Contact Ryan Howzell at