This column was published as part of the Commencement Issue for the Class of 2015.
As I summon the courage to begin packing up my life at Yale, I linger on the artifacts that have decorated the shelves and walls of my dorm room over the past few years: my favorite New Yorker covers, a heavily-underlined version of Joan Didion’s Why I Write, a copy of the News from the day my feature made the front page. My decorations convey my identity — she likes to read other people’s good writing and she tries to emulate it in her own. Yet a few months ago, it was in this very same room that I, surrounded by proof of the person I’m striving to become, was frantically working on applications for jobs that have nothing to do with writing. Although there were multiple reasons behind my decision, I want to talk about one in particular that I suspect may have affected other seniors as well.
At Yale, we share a sense of camaraderie that allows us, a bunch of smart twentysomethings, to talk openly about our aspirations, our successes, and — though we choose to share these more rarely — our failures. But if you find yourself, as I have, within a circle of friends taking similar paths post-graduation, this camaraderie can lead to questions that someone who has always known the answer to “What to do want to be when you grow up?” should never have to ask: Am I making the right choices? Should I, like my friends, be applying to jobs that guarantee both an above-average salary and proximity to my classmates? Am I still making the most out of my Yale degree — can I still consider myself successful — if I choose a riskier option?
Being surrounded by people who will lead similar lifestyles in the same location made it difficult for me to separate my notion of success from theirs, particularly since theirs has recently prevailed on many university campuses. As pressure mounts to satisfy a few universally accepted standards of success, which often include the amount of money we’ll be making and the structured opportunities we’ll receive to get ahead, some of us may find ourselves forgoing our interests in favor of material comfort and job security. The sum of our striving — with the promise of an immediate future in which we continue to live with our best college friends in cozy New York City apartments — can override long-term personal ambition, which may require an entirely different, and perhaps more unpredictable, path.
We all have distinct — and equally valid — considerations when weighing our post-graduation options. Many of my classmates pursued certain types of jobs because of the domino effect: they are not sure what they want to do and turn to their peers for guidance. Some of my friends are international students like myself, a group that faces additional pressure because we can consider only companies that are able to sponsor our work visas (hint: it’s the rich ones) if we want to stay in the U.S. And some of my peers who share my interest in more uncertain career options have not shared my struggles, whether due to a family that can support them financially while they pursue the road less traveled, a U.S. citizenship, or simply an unshakable strength of conviction. Though I am often accused of idealism, I constantly mull over a few important realities: living expenses, my visa status, the wish to be able to buy my parents’ plane tickets when they want to visit me. I, too, have made compromises for the sake of my future prospects, choosing to major in Ethics, Politics and Economics and take English courses on the side because I felt the need to grapple with the concrete and practical as well as the abstract and philosophical.
Yet when I found myself interviewing for positions I did not want before returning to a dorm room that testified to what I had always wanted, I knew I was crossing an invisible line drawn by my sense of personal integrity. Although we are still young and allowed to make (a few) mistakes, I somehow can’t shake the nagging feeling that the decisions I make now will define the adult I am growing into. And my vision for this adult requires a daily dose of introspection — did I wake up today respecting my choices, respecting my profession? My favorite literary character, Selden from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, captures my idealism when he describes his idea of success as “personal freedom… From everything — from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit — that’s what I call success.” Another personal hero of mine, Kanye West, reinforced Selden’s message just last week when he tweeted that he wants to “steer clear of ‘opportunities’ and focus on dreams.”
For me, maintaining a republic of the spirit and focusing on my dreams translates into trying my best to become a journalist before I try anything else, even if that means I won’t live with my friends in New York or even stay in the U.S. In a strange way, Yale has made me doubt my dreams while still inspiring me to pursue them — and somewhere in the midst of this struggle, I grew up.
Aleksandra Gjorgievska is a senior in Pierson College. She was a culture editor on the Managing Board of 2015.
Anyone who’s been to the extracurricular bazaar has heard this refrain: “Do you sing?” “Do you act?” “Do you watercolor/beatbox/bhangra?” (Cue tone-deaf freshman-year me signing onto 37 unnecessary panlists.)
If this scene is any indication, we have a lot of artists at Yale. Enough to fill five improv troupes and seven major theater venues every weekend. Enough to fill 15 world-class a cappella groups. Fifteen! That’s a ton! Now, where do all these talented people end up after senior year?
Well, according to Yale’s Office of Career Strategy, 15 percent of the class of 2013 took jobs in financial services and 12 percent took jobs in consulting. Only four percent went into the fine or performing arts.
We watch our friends act in Dramat shows and sing for The SOBs and perform for Teeth and dance for Rhythmic Blue. And we watch suited-up graduates shuffle off to jobs at Goldman Sachs. I want to know where all that creative juice goes. Are all those poets and actors and comedians really hunched over in midtown cubicles? I don’t think they are. But we don’t really talk about our campus’ aspiring artists — and whether they receive proper preparation at Yale.
How To Be a Working Actor
When Alex Kramer ’13 graduated, he returned home for the summer and dusted off a copy of a book he’d received in high school: “How to Be a Working Actor.” “It was like reading a user’s manual on my life,” Kramer chuckled. “It was so helpful but it was also so straightforward — why couldn’t Yale give me this information? It’s maddening.”
Kramer had known since sixth grade that he wanted to be an actor. At Yale he’d made all the right moves: performed in shows with the Dramat, studied theater abroad in London, devised a senior project combining the 2012 presidential election with Shakespeare’s Richard III. But post-graduation, things were a bit more complicated.
“You hear things like ‘you’ve got to move to New York and start auditioning,’ but I had no idea what that actually meant,” he told me. At Yale, Kramer had access to training, mentorship, heaps of funding for theater pursuits and a thriving arts community. But he received little of the guidance he needed to actually make it in acting.
Had the University offered more resources and preparation for auditions, Kramer feels his path into the theater world might have felt a bit simpler. The lack of practical counsel dissuaded some of his classmates from pursuing careers in acting, he explained.
“Some of the theater training at Yale is obstinately and decidedly anti-vocational, especially given the wealth of talent among composers and playwrights,” said Bonnie Antosh ’13, now a working actress in New York. “I think it’s a shame that the department doesn’t host a senior showcase for casting directors and literary agents.”
Joseph Roach, former chair of Yale’s Theater Studies program, is quick to defend the University’s lack of pre-professional focus. He notes that a good number of Yale students have gone on to become successful actors — many likely came to Yale for a liberal arts education, not any sort of career training. “From my perspective, no major in Yale College has, or ought to have, a self-limiting vocational focus,” Roach wrote in an email to me.
Susan Yassky ’16, a Theater Studies major, also felt that Yale strikes a delicate balance between theory and practice, an academic education and pre-professional training. “The department focuses more on cultivating our passions and less on training us in practical skills,” Yassky said, “But that’s what I want from my classes here.”
And it’s not every school where you would find Theater Studies majors like Yassky taking science credits along with screenwriting classes. For some students, that’s a huge perk. Yale certainly doesn’t offer the vocational preparation that conservatories do but our liberal arts approach has its advantages — like diverse academic offerings and funding in the form of Creative & Performing Arts Awards.
Nathaniel Dolquist ’15, a Theater Studies major, feels that the University’s distributional requirements make for more well-rounded artists, “People who appreciate many academic disciplines and can bring what they’ve learned back to their art.”
To Tim Creavin ’15, also a Theater Studies major, Yalies know that they won’t be receiving the same training as conservatory students. He said that those who want to further develop their craft after Yale can enroll in MFA programs.
What Yale does offer, Creavin argues, is a ‘Do It Yourself’ mentality, and Matthew George ’11, a working playwright, agreed. “Yale provides opportunities to self-create and insofar as self-creation is how you make art, that prepared me,” George said. “But it didn’t offer me much in the way of practical experience. Everyone you talk to sort of ends up saying, ‘just find your own path!’”
And finding your own path can be difficult — especially when others have theirs clearly defined.
Katherine Paulsen ’14 began her senior year the way many Yale kids do — with interviews and case preparation for consulting jobs. She assumed she’d take the same route as many of her friends, getting work as an associate and moving to a large city nearby. The trouble was, the job descriptions on Symplicity simply didn’t excite her. Toward the middle of her senior year, Paulsen realized she wanted to pursue work in theater. The choice wasn’t easy to make when so many of her friends were entering more lucrative fields.
Looking at the stream of Yalies entering consulting and finance post-graduation, many students pin the blame on Yale’s Office of Career Strategy. Recruitment events for Morgan Stanley and Goldman abound on campus, but jobs in theater and writing can be harder to find.
“When I was a senior, all these people were going into consulting and banking,” says Yael Zinkow ’12, currently in Los Angeles pursuing work as a comedian. “It was scary because we didn’t have any recruiters coming onto campus to say, ‘hey here’s how you pursue comedy.’”
Recently, however, the University’s career services took a significant step in catering to the undergraduate arts community. In the summer of 2013, OCS appointed an advisor for students pursuing careers in the arts, Katie Volz.
Since stepping into her new role, Volz has launched a wide range of initiatives, from hosting screenwriting workshops to connecting students with alumni in theater. She finds that alumni in the arts are particularly eager to lend a hand, recognizing the unique stumbling blocks in their fields of work.
Volz strives to remain particularly sensitive to the financial difficulties that aspiring artists encounter. Last semester, she organized a financial planning workshop for musicians and performing artists, during which OCS outlined sample budgets and encouraged students to consider alternative revenue sources.
Volz takes an optimistic — though realistic — approach in helping students finance their artistic careers. “I don’t entirely ignore the ‘starving artist’ notion,” she explained. “While a life in the arts is possible, one has to plan for it in order to give yourself the best possible chance of succeeding — like anything else!”
The new OCS approach operates under a simple premise: Yale students don’t have to exchange artistic dreams for recruitment sessions at the Omni. It’s not easy to make the leap from the Calhoun Cabaret to Broadway, but it’s also not impossible.
Take Gabrielle Hoyt-Disick ‘15, a senior major in Theater Studies. Eventually, she told me, she is going to be a theater director. Hoyt-Disick has found OCS’s new arts-focused resources “quite helpful” and said she plans to attend an upcoming OCS workshop on careers in theater.
“I just met with Katie Volz a couple of days ago, and I can’t say enough good things about her,” Hoyt-Disick said. “She answered every question I had with thought and specificity.”
Creavin imagined that OCS resources are geared toward students not as familiar with arts opportunities. Those who have already learned about major casting sites might not find the resources as helpful, he explained. He adds that OCS might take a few simple steps to improve its services: The website might list opportunities according to region and provide contact information for Yale-affiliated arts companies.
Despite these shortcomings, OCS advisors find themselves in a unique position. In many ways, Yale students are removed from the challenges facing most recent graduates. We’re disconnected from that national narrative — the typical young person who fails to find work and moves back in with his parents. The unemployment rate among workers under age 25 is 14.5 percent. Yet by June 2014, over 95 percent of Yale’s graduating seniors had jobs lined up for the fall.
“There’s this almost self-indulgent feeling of invincibility because we’re part of this history and we have this name stamped on our diploma,” says Tao Tao Holmes ’14, a former columnist for the News, now teaching English in rural China. “We have this sort of head-in-the-sand mentality of ‘of course we’ll get jobs.’”
Students with that mentality might feel more comfortable gambling with their careers. Charlie Kelly ’14 said that as a Yale graduate, “It feels like you have a backup plan.”
“I know that if I sent my resume around enough I’d find something that would keep me alive,” Kelly explained. “It leaves you in a good place to set yourself up creatively.” In other words, being a Yalie affords the opportunity for risk. And for many, these are risks worth taking.
On a Friday evening, Larissa Pham ’14 gathers with other Yale alumni in Teo Soares’s ’13 New York apartment for a writing workshop. One of the graduates in attendance now works at Google, another at a Manhattan dance company, another at a local non-profit. They’re doing what it takes to get by, doing real things and adult things.
But in their spare time they write and share their work with one another.
“I love having this group to get together and bounce around ideas,” Pham said. She draws inspiration and support from this network of creative Yale graduates, all finding ways to balance their interest in writing with their day jobs.
Pham’s writing group is just one example of an alumni cohort staying connected in the working world. New York City — colloquially known as “Yale Part II” — is home to many communities of alumni who live and work and socialize together.
“Almost all of my friends from college live within 10 blocks from me,” says Willa Fitzgerald ’13, an actress living in Crown Heights. As she was making the decision to move to New York and audition for shows, it helped her to know she could rely on the friends she’d made in Yale’s theater community.
Paulsen told me that, right before our phone interview, she went out to dinner with three other Yale graduates who are also auditioning for shows in New York. They all traded tips and advice on New York theater — what to wear for auditions, how to prepare in advance.
Dolquist said he sees no drawbacks to New York’s theater world, where Yale graduates can find a broad range of opportunities and a welcoming alumni community.
Lucy Fleming ’16, an aspiring actress and writer, is a bit more skeptical of the post-Yale migration to New York. “I do think there’s value in taking time away from the Yale bubble,” she explains. “I know it’s a huge shock to leave undergrad and suddenly not be surrounded by all your friends, but that’s also an important aspect of transitioning into adult life.”
Living and working with friends from college, many graduates do indeed make a concerted effort to break into new social circles. Antosh decided to actively seek out new friends in New York. “Staying totally immersed in an exported Yale bubble was never attractive to me,” she explained.
It’s for that reason that some Yale graduates leave the Northeast. Holmes told me that one of her Global Affairs advisors urged her not to “continue Yale” by moving to New York City. “I see Yalies living together and I anticipated feeling a small pang of FOMO, but I haven’t had even the smallest bit,” she said. “Four years is enough. I was ready to leave.”
New York’s expansive Yale network didn’t really appeal to Holmes. And she isn’t the only Yale graduate navigating a complicated relationship with the institutional name on her degree. Graduates say that in the theater industry, stamping the Yale brand on your resume doesn’t always work in your favor.
“I find that the Yale pedigree is a double-edged sword,” said Antosh. “I’ve had directors who probably gave me a second look because they assumed I was a ‘smart actor,’ and I’ve had other directors almost not cast me because they’d worked with other Yalies who had a chip on their shoulder.”
Kelly, who’s looking for work as a writer in Los Angeles, said that he has noticed a similar adversity toward Yale graduates. He finds that employers respond well to narratives of desperation, tales of sacrifice for art’s sake. “If you come into meetings like ‘I’m this well-bred Yale graduate,’ they don’t respond well,” Kelly said. “They automatically assume you’re this trust fund-y preppy graduate who already has their ducks in a row.”
Summer Homes, Starving Artists
John Stillman ’14 and Brian Loeb ’14 were roommates their sophomore year at Yale. Post-graduation, they’re living in the same place again: New York. (Surprise!) But this time, they’re not sharing a bedroom — they’re not even in the same neighborhood.
Loeb is working at J.P. Morgan, living in a Tribeca apartment with two other graduates. He typically gets into work around 9:00 in the morning and can finish anywhere between 10:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m., sometimes even later. Though the hours are long, Loeb said he’s enjoying work and loves living in New York City with its myriad bars, restaurants and concerts. His apartment, he added, is “a lot bigger than I would’ve expected.”
You’ll find Stillman in Williamsburg, where he’s working as a freelance journalist. He has taken on side jobs to support himself; he has worked as a caretaker and he has done gallery installations. He has even modeled for a Facebook messenger ad. Right now, he said, he’s not ready to determine his lifelong career — he’s experimenting, trying to see what fits.
That’s somewhat difficult in a costly city like New York, where the disparities between professions become apparent pretty quickly.
“I’m making enough to live, but my friends are making enough to buy summer homes,” Stillman laughed. “I’m happy for them, but it’s crazy how the disparity is not something that takes time to set in.”
Charlotte Parker ’13, now working on a farm in New Jersey, has also found that class divisions take root after graduation. “When you’re at Yale, finances aren’t totally relevant,” she explained. Of course, she continues, there’s that small subset of students who eat at posh restaurants and throw lavish parties — but frequently students’ financial situations are unclear. “Once you graduate, you can tell a bit more about what people’s financial situations are by what they’re doing on the weekends, where they go out to eat.”
Sometimes, Parker sees the Instagram photos posted by her classmate working at Vogue. Despite living and studying together for four years, she said, their lifestyles won’t ever be the same.
Even if you’re doing what you love, you might not find it easy to pursue your passions when your classmates are making six figures. And some say it’s not all a matter of personal choice: Our undergraduate lifestyle informs our career plans. Yale and its frills — its parade of comestibles, its endless fellowships and grants — might encourage certain expectations of future wealth. To some students, the emphasis here is on the luxe (and not the lux).
“You become accustomed to a lifestyle at Yale that’s kind of unattainable if you really do the starving artist thing,” explained Kelly. “You get chained to a kind of fanciness.” Finance and consulting recruiters give us the chance to latch on to that fanciness, Kelly said, with their lavish information sessions at the Study.
Paulsen certainly felt the pressures that Kelly describes. She says it wasn’t easy to turn down a high-paying consulting job and its accompanying prestige. “But I realized that sort of work is always available,” she said. “If I don’t try to do acting now though, I never will. I’ll never again put a two-year pause on my life to be a starving actress.”
Not a single person asked me if I wanted to audition for a management consulting troupe freshman year. On the other hand, I was accosted by about five comedy clubs and nine publications and all 15 a cappella groups.
So what happens between an extracurricular bazaar and senior year? At Yale, are the arts just a hobby, or are they a possible career?
I guess there’s no easy answer.
But still, so many graduates are making art and making ends meet. Right now, they’re the four percent. And as OCS expands its arts resources, their numbers may grow.
Antosh told me she was willing to make sacrifices for a career in theater. Unlike some of her peers, she gave up money and security and outside affirmation. But to her, the art was worth the risk.
“Deciding to pursue a career in the arts was never a matter of courage,” she said. “It was a matter of hunger and love.”
Q: Why did you choose to make a film about Chinese food?
A: Just after grad school my best friend and I were on our way to Iowa to shoot “King Corn” [his first film]. We stopped at a Chinese restaurant in a small town — middle of nowhere America — in the middle of the night and ordered General Tso’s chicken. It made us wonder, who is General Tso, and why does he have chicken everywhere in America? That’s something we wanted to chase. The idea simmered on the back burner for a few years, and then we teamed up with Jennifer 8. Lee, a nonfiction writer, who has a chapter in her latest book about General Tso.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about making film?
A: Probably my favorite thing about documentary filmmaking is meeting remarkable, smart people in interesting places. Every film is an adventure in its own right. On a film like The Search for General Tso, we wandered into Chinese restaurants all across America and were welcomed into people’s back kitchens to hear their stories about how they came to America, or how they got into the restaurant industry. Even though putting a camera in front of someone’s face changes the interaction, the filmmaking process challenges people to value their own stories. You knock on someone’s door saying, “I want to share your story with the world,” and they take a certain pride in their own life and adventures.
Q: Right, people tend to act differently when they know they’re being filmed. How do you deal with that difficulty?
A: The question is, do you acknowledge that, or keep the camera around long enough that people forget that it’s there? Documentary filmmakers take lots of different approaches to the “truth” question. In some cases it has made sense for me to be in films, to be the narrator, but in others, fortunately, I was not present. I was in the Viola Question at Yale, which was a lot of fun, and prepared me for acting. One of the guys in the group, Jeff Miller, was the editor of “King Corn.”
Q: What’s the most challenging thing about making film?
A: Fundraising is always a challenge, but that’s a boring answer. With this film one of the challenges was balancing the whimsical premise of the film with the stories of immigration, assimilation and repression that were very much a part of the Chinese-American experiences. We heard stories relating to the 1882 Assimilation Act, countless episodes of discrimination that Chinese-Americans have faced in coming to America.
Q: What was your first experience with filmmaking?
A: I did a lot of photography at Yale. I got one of those art grants from the residential colleges that allowed me to buy rolls of film, and I would ride around New Haven at night on my bicycle and take pictures of the stars. It wasn’t until after I graduated forestry school that I starting making film.
Q: Do you have a mission as a filmmaker?
A: I’d be reluctant to say that I have one core agenda that permeates all of our projects. I do try to make films that are entertaining enough that people will want to watch them, educational enough that people gain something from them and beautiful enough that people enjoy sitting in the theater. But the goals change with every film, and the story you want to tell shifts with every film. Each film is a three-year adventure into entirely new territory, and that certainly presents a lot of challenges because there’s a steep learning curve. I always have to learn new material and call upon knowledge from college classes I never thought I would need. But also, each adventure is incredibly rewarding because you meet people who become your lifelong friends or collaborators. We wanted to make “King Corn” because we wanted to tell the story of America’s broken food system; that’s an agenda. But in making that film, our sense of how to tell that story changed dramatically. I didn’t know anything about Chinese-American history when I started making General Tso, then in the process of making and researching, it became clear that we had an opportunity and a responsibility to tell a larger story than one just about chicken.
Q: What topics are most interesting to you?
A: I’ve spent much of the last decade working on films and projects related to food and agriculture, and their effect on their environment. Food is inherently a very interdisciplinary subject — it can get you into politics, chemistry, history, etc. I’ve also had a lifelong interest in the planetary sciences. I’m halfway through a journalism fellowship at MIT, so I’m spending the year auditing classes there and at Harvard, and talking to scientists about their work. I think that’s really crucial for understanding contemporary global issues like climate change.
Q: Do you have any advice for people who want to make film?
A: I did not specifically train in college and graduate school to be a filmmaker, but I do find that in documentary film I call upon all sorts of things I learned throughout college. Documentary filmmaking is a big umbrella, and if you’re prepared to put some long hours into grant writing and fundraising and being broke for a while it’s a really rewarding way to explore your interests. In many ways, it means inventing a job for yourself. It’s a path we’ve had to clear.
Q: Do you consider yourself to be an artist? An activist? A journalist?
A: I would say documentary film is a combination of activism, art and journalism. I got into journalism because of my interest in the topics I wanted to explore, and I had a desire to make some form of art. The combination of art, activism, advocacy, storytelling and journalism makes documentary filmmaking a good job for me.
Q: Thoughts on Yale?
A: I think that Yale was supportive of my interdisciplinary interests. I majored in EP&E and was able to take a lot of classes at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. I didn’t feel like there was a prescribed program that was perfect for me, but Yale gave me the space to invent it for myself. That’s been a really helpful foundation moving forwards with my career. I continue to collaborate with many of the people I met in college — one of my old roommates does the sound tracks for all of our films. I know this is corny, but the people I got to meet were really what college was about.
Q: Was there another career you thought you’d pursue before filmmaking?
A: [Laughing] You’d imagine that I was thinking about having some sort of job, but for the life of me I can’t remember what I wanted! I just thought I would figure it out and that I would make it one way or another. I’m still paying off my college loans, but I do think I’ve figured out how to balance my outlandish interests by making films that get funded and get produced.
Q: So, do you feel like you’ve “made it” as a filmmaker?
A: Whenever a documentary filmmaker tells you that they’ve made it, you should be skeptical. I do feel like I’ve been really lucky in being able to make a number of the films that I’ve dreamed up. None of the films have brought huge financial reward, but they have brought opportunities for me as a person, and I consider that success. But that’s definitely a struggle and a process, and I’m still trying to make that work.
Ari Shavit is a pretty famous journalist, and WKND was way excited (read: intimidated) to interview a professional interviewer. We tried to play it cool. But actually: Shavit is an award winning author and nonfiction writer. Born in Rehovot, Israel, he attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem and went on to write for Haaretz, the oldest Israeli daily newspaper. (He has also written for The New Yorker.) His book, My Promised Land: The Tragedy and Triumph of Israel came out in 2013. WKND sat down with Shavit to talk about his profession, his convictions, and Middle Eastern politics.
Q: When did you start writing?
A: I always wrote: I’m a writing person. I started writing as a journalist when I was at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I gave up on having an academic career — I was going to be a philosophy major. The natural choice was to start writing for the student paper. I was lucky that I was accepted to a progressive, small but high quality weekly. I didn’t have any struggle. From the university paper, I just ended up in the national media in a surprisingly easy way. How long have you been doing it?
Q: About a year? (laughs) What made you want to be a journalist?
A: I was never quite like a reporter in the aggressive way, trying to get the scoop for tomorrow’s headline. I was kind of a thinker, looking at the larger picture, looking at the macro rather than the micro. I loved interviews — my passion was to get to know people, talk to them. I think there’s ambition and ideology behind being an interviewer. You respect people and you try to decipher them at the same time. I never had an aggressive interview. Even with people I totally disagree with, I was always trying to understand their worldview. I wanted to get their inner grammar out, the language they speak to themselves in.
Q: Do you have tips for students who want to be journalists?
A: First of all, I feel for students who want to be journalists because of the terrible state journalism is in right now. I hope we’re experiencing the worst and that it’ll get better. I feel that there is a fundamental, intellectual need for journalism. I really believe that there is no meaning to democracy if you don’t have good journalism: Without it, the fact that we can vote is meaningless. What’s the sense in voting if you don’t know what you’re voting for, or if you don’t even have the opportunity to consider different ideas? And this isn’t because I’m a journalist and I’m biased. This isn’t a business and this isn’t even a profession. I sometimes say that journalists are unsacred people doing sacred work.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: Democracy is so important — one thing I can’t stand is any sort of totalitarianism, even intellectual totalitarianism. The need for free discourse is oxygen for me. I feel suffocated when that’s not the case. There are many journalists who are cynical, or aggressive — they have to deal with the rough side of life as well. Behind that, we’re all competing with each other and being, well, loud. That’s unsacred. But the function of what we do is really sacred — it’s doing democracy’s work in the best sense of the word.
Q: People have been talking about your recent article, “Liberals Look at the New Middle East.” How do you respond to your critics?
A: I think it’s our responsibility as liberals to deal with things that are brutal. A moral stance that is totally detached from reality is not moral. This is especially relevant these days in America, especially regarding the U.S. relationship with the Middle East. When you look at the world around us, there are no strong liberal forces or options in Syria, or Iraq, or even Egypt. I understand the American fatigue regarding the Middle East, because America tried to fix the Middle East using a lot of resources. People are sick and tired of the Middle East — they realize their attempts to bring benign, American ideals don’t work. There’s a tendency to run away from the Middle East, to ignore it. But I think this is a bad idea. I think that it’s important to understand that it will probably be impossible to have peace and democracy there in the coming years. We should try to make the most of what’s there. I think there are things that will make it slightly more peaceful, but that can only be done through wise American leadership.
Q: What work are you most proud of?
A: Probably the book. I had it in me for twenty or thirty years. Writing it was very rewarding but very demanding. It’s really a personal journey, and I was alone. There was no one there to assist me. I think I took risks, both content-wise and genre-wise. There are moments when you’re full of hope and self-confidence, and others when you ask yourself, what am I doing? It was quite an adventure. I miss that now. I already feel the itch to go back to real writing.
Q: Do you have a work that you’re least proud of?
A: Most of my life, I’ve been able to avoid personal fights and campaigns. I try not to get into pettiness and “bad blood writing.” There were two or three occasions when I found myself conducting personal campaigns. I believe that I was right in all these instances, but being more mature and calm now, I would have used softer terminology. I don’t like to be the crusader.
Q: Why not write heatedly?
A: When you fight power, power fights back. I found myself in combative situations. I don’t like that. I prefer to be contemplating, observing and seeing both sides.
Q: Can you describe a challenging moment in writing the book?
A: I think the beginning was particularly hard. There were several things I wanted to do: have a timeline, a story, and cover different aspects of the Israeli condition. I didn’t know how to combine the three. The first year was really challenging — it took me a long time to find myself, to find my voice. Once I heard my voice, it was roaring. The second most difficult part was the ending. One review in the New York Times says that my book reads like a love story and a thriller. The love is because I love my country with all its faults, flaws and wonders, and I love the people that I write about. The thriller is because it’s a bit like a roller coaster between pessimism and optimism. I love Israel, but I see that we are a challenged nation, that we’re living in turmoil, especially in the 21st century. Writing is hard labor, but it’s a labor of love. Honestly, I wake up in the morning and I envy myself. I have friends who make much more money and are more famous, but I would never consider switching for a moment. There’s nothing better than waking up in the morning and doing what you really believe in.
Q: So how do you reconcile wanting to tell true stories with wanting to give things a happy ending?
A: Well, in this case, I didn’t have to deal with boring facts — Israel is a gold mine of stories. We are the land of the Bible, which is not only the best book ever, but contains the greatest and deepest stories. What’s so powerful about the country is that it’s charged with meaning. So there was no need to change facts to make them more dynamic or romantic.
Few authors are as iconic, as respected, and as universally lauded as Doris Kearns Goodwin. As a young White House intern in the Johnson administration, she nearly lost her job for publishing an article mapping out a strategy to impeach Johnson. Nonetheless, Goodwin eventually became close with Johnson, conducting dozens of conversations that laid the basis for her first book, “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream,” a bestseller. Almost twenty years later, she penned a book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt that won the Pulitzer Prize. Ten years after that, she wrote the tome for which she is best known, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” — a mammoth, masterfully written account of Abraham Lincoln and the men who composed his cabinet. Now, nearly ten years later, she has published another gargantuan study of presidential rivalry and leadership: “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.”
Goodwin originally sought to write a story of Roosevelt and the Progressive Era, but claims to have found the stories of Taft and of muckraking journalists from the era too crucial to ignore. Her book thus braids three distinct strands: Roosevelt, the bold, pioneering progressive; Taft, the thoughtful, careful moderate; and the fiery journalists who changed the way the public viewed government, big business and the role of America itself.
“The Bully Pulpit” begins with Roosevelt’s and Taft’s childhoods. Though they were born into families of similar means just a year apart, Roosevelt and Taft developed into strikingly different individuals. Roosevelt was pushed to shine; Taft was pushed to fit in line. Roosevelt’s father wanted him to become a leader, an athlete, and an adventurer; Taft’s father told him to work hard and try to attain a respected position — a judgeship, perhaps. Roosevelt went off to Harvard, Taft to Yale. Upon graduation, Roosevelt immediately launched himself into a run for state government, and would eventually become the youngest president in American history. Taft attained a judgeship at a relatively young age and would have been content to stay there had it not been for his vivacious and ambitious wife, Nellie. With her urging and his Ohio connections, he became the nation’s youngest ever solicitor general, and then a circuit court judge. Nonetheless, he remained plagued with self-doubt and far less power-hungry than the ambitious Roosevelt.
Taft and Roosevelt inevitably crossed paths: Both served in the McKinley administration, and President Roosevelt would appoint Taft as his Secretary of War. Goodwin recounts, in great detail, Taft’s and Roosevelt’s correspondence throughout this period, and how that correspondence shaped each of their careers. Ultimately, Roosevelt pressured his trusted lieutenant to succeed him as president. And Taft did, albeit resignedly.
As president, Taft displayed a markedly different temperament from the prickly, energetic Roosevelt. Especially after the light of his life, Nellie, suffered a tragic stroke, the fire went out of Taft’s life. Goodwin carefully navigates his public speeches and private writings to demonstrate that, though he was less gregarious, he still got things done — he busted trusts, funneled through two important constitutional amendments and, to a very limited though still important extent, eliminated racist statutes. Nevertheless, Roosevelt was disappointed in his successor and decided to challenge him as a third-party candidate in the 1912 presidential election. The two essentially divided the same voters, allowing Woodrow Wilson to sail to victory. The book ends with Taft’s and Roosevelt’s eventual reconciliation — poignant and very nearly too late.
Interwoven into the story are some of the most remarkable journalists in American history, such as Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, William Allen White and, most notably, Samuel S. McClure. For Goodwin, each merits his or her own lengthy chapter and remains in conversation throughout the course of the book. Together, these journalists exposed corruption in business, government and organized labor, and they came up with and then lobbied for most of the Progressive reforms that would become law during the Roosevelt and Taft administrations.
The press loved the unreserved Roosevelt; they disliked the distant Taft. These relationships shaped the way the public saw these men at the time, and how historians see them now. Goodwin’s narrative brilliantly weaves together Roosevelt’s ascendancy with that of the coterie of bright, young journalists and traces Taft’s decline into obese obsolescence alongside his chillier journalistic reception. In that respect, Goodwin’s book is a major intervention. She wants her readers to link a successful leader to his successful relationships with the press. “It is my greatest hope,” she wrote in the introduction, “that the story that follows will guide readers through their own process of discovery toward a better understanding of what it takes to summon the public to demand the actions necessary to bring our country closer to its ancient ideals.”
Yet, it might be hard for this intervention to penetrate the public consciousness for one simple reason: “The Bully Pulpit” is really, really long. Nine-hundred and ten pages, relatively small print. It’s bigger than Roosevelt’s ego or Taft’s waist. It’s too long. Goodwin charts her narrative with such detail that one wonders whether she just needs a better editor. The Roosevelt and Taft childhood biographies, while engaging, present nothing new; should they really consume more than a hundred pages? Does every major muckraking journalist really deserve their own biographical chapter?
Despite its length and redundancies, however, Goodwin’s work is well worth the read. Ultimately, if you can work your way through “The Bully Pulpit,” you will finish a more informed reader of American history.
The morning of the hoax, everything spelled Tango-Romeo-Oscar-Uniform-Bravo-Lima-Echo. There was trouble downtown, and it wasn’t at all clear what kind. Witnesses stepped forward, then melted away under questioning. Policemen and reporters alike dove down rabbit holes and chased wild geese. False alarms sounded into the early evening, when a man in the Bingham library claimed he had a hand grenade.
The day’s end, thank goodness, didn’t include tragedy. Only worn shoe-leather and these jumbled thoughts on information, communication and timing.
* * *
This was my first Thanksgiving without a regulation school break. Instead, the Monday before the holiday found me still standing at my desk (sitting kills), keeping company with editor Paul Bass and the static of the police scanner in the New Haven Independent’s matchbox-sized office on Elm Street.
Police scanners and Twitter have a lot in common, it turns out. Both face space and time constraints, for one thing. A police officer talking on a radio needs speed — usually someone’s hurt, in danger, requires backup. On Twitter, at least in the news biz, one aims to scoop. In both formats, you’ve got to break it down for your audience.
But the differences matter. If you have access to a scanner, for instance, odds are you’re either a cop, fireman, security guard or reporter, listening for what’s action- or newsworthy. Twitter, happily, with no barrier to entry, combines equal parts signal, noise and meme.
* * *
In the office with the scanner, hour after hour, the retro crackling fades into a fuzzy background soundscape, and a vernacular poetry fills the sonic white spaces in the day.
A phonetic alphabet scheme generates the limited lexicon of this spoken-word genre. In order to avoid confusions, since certain letters of the alphabet sound alike over the air (think fraternally twinned sounds “A” and “H,” or “B” and “V” — not to mention the confusion of “W”), a particular word represents each letter. To spell “Barack Obama,” for instance, you’d say “Bravo-Alpha-Romeo-Alpha-Charlie-Kilo. Oscar-Bravo-Alpha-Mike-Alpha.” B-heavy names sound congratulatory. When F (Foxtrot) or T (Tango) show up in a license plate description, I feel lighter on my feet.
Much like the visual #, @, MT and RT signs in Twitterese, the oral word code (though technically a kind of expansion, rather than shorthand) organizes content in a new way in response to a formal challenge.
Plus, both police scanners and Twitter deliver news in real time. There’s no delay — no proofing before a print deadline or arguments around a boardroom table. (One NHI tweet from that day still reads “pdate” for “Update,” a typo testament to the day’s pace.)
A direct communication between writer and reader occurs without anyone to slow it up, question or interfere — some reporters’ dream scenario. Others find it harrowing — the loss of a last line of defense against triteness, a facile point or overzealous news-breaking. Call it self-doubt, but in a panicky atmosphere, with accuracy paramount, why turn down an extra pair of eyes?
* * *
That morning, as I headed towards Old Campus under a pale sky to investigate the police scanner tipoff of a threat made from a payphone, a new message crackled through the air: “Confirmed report of a gunman … Shelter in place at once … This is not a drill.” I called Paul and phoned in the phrases. He posted them on the site. This became our routine throughout the day.
More than once, reporters on Twitter posted details before our main article updated, but Paul made his case for context and narrative, and we stayed ahead of the pack as often as not.
@nhindy was, in some ways, a faceless, bodiless handle — with multiple reporters and editors responsible, rather than a single voice. It was a virtual newsboy — hawking a headline that led to a more complete text. We may have lost a certain human quality with that move, but I also understand better the reasoning behind it now.
And the external eagle eyes of Twitterbirds helped our coverage as much as internal oversight. We’re a skeleton staff of four, so others fleshed out our reporting with on-the-scene details or called for focus where particulars were blurry.
I haven’t leapt out of the nest into the twittersphere yet; I plan to one day soon. Delay and mediation will always be available for those who want distance and crave space between the instantaneous self and the World Wide Web. But on the day of the scare, I was following feeds more often than refreshing pages. So I’ll get up to speed. I really will. Any minute now.
Seniors stressing out about postgraduation plans might consider Ted Conover as a potential guru. A celebrated participatory journalist with a Pulitzer nomination under his belt, Conover career hops for a living, dipping into other people’s experiences in order to write about their lives from a first-person point of view. Conover, who dropped by Yale last week for a Master’s Tea, seems to have lived more lives than a proverbial cat. He wrote about being a taxi driver in Aspen and a homeless person in the Southwest. Conover has gone undercover twice — first as a correctional officer for his acclaimed book, “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing,” and more recently for Harper’s magazine, where he wrote the May cover story about his experience working as a meat inspector in Nebraska. Conover practices New Journalism, the long-form style pioneered in the ’60s by wild-eyed writers like Hunter S. Thompson, but his product offers not druggy joyrides but a controlled experiment in radical empathy.
Q. You discover lots of horrific information during your research. Do these discoveries influence your life after you’re done? Did covering meat inspection convince you to go vegetarian?
A. I’m not vegetarian, though the question came up at the Morse Master’s Tea. You remember, in the last scene of the article I confront a steak. Any immersive experience changes me, and in many ways these pieces are less investigations in the classic journalism sense than they are experiences in identity — seeing if I can live in a different way as a different kind of person. I think that’s what makes my work a little different from what you might expect when you hear “undercover reporting.”
My book about Sing Sing isn’t an exposé and the story about working as a USDA meat inspector isn’t really an exposé either. Cargill Meat Solutions is very unhappy that I spent so much time in that plant without asking permission, but I don’t describe rats being ground in with the regular meat or somebody losing their arm in a machine. I guess I would have written about it if I saw it. The worst thing I saw was pink slime, which has been known about for a long time. It’s less a breaking-news piece of expose writing than an ethnographic journey through a strange corner of American life. That’s what I expected in life starting out and that’s how it ended up.
Q. You’re saying the pieces are as much about the first-person singular as they are about the landscape and environment they describe?
A. Not as much. The story’s about being a meat inspector but I think the fact that I am the meat inspector makes it singular. The benefit of doing work like this is not just that you get to see things you wouldn’t ordinarily see, but that you get to see what it feels like to do a certain kind of thing for a long time. I try to be very honest about how my appetite for meat changes and how my body responds to the demands of work on an assembly line and what it’s like to be part of the everyday slaughter of thousands of animals. That is another thing I write about — predation writ large, which is what a slaughterhouse is. I try to look at it from all of the angles and hope the result is something that has some value as writing and not just as information.
Q. You wrote the meat-inspection piece for Harper’s, which is one of the best platforms for long-form journalism today. Do you find that people today have less patience for long-form?
A. I don’t think so. The piece has now appeared not only in Harper’s but also in Byliner and on Longform.org and from what I can tell it’s getting a zillion hits. I don’t think there’s less interest in reading long-form. I think there’s a missing model for how to make money at it. I think that’s the crisis in journalism as regards to longer pieces like that. There are lots of experiments underway to monetize something that’s shorter than a book and longer than an article, such as Kindle Singles or pieces by the Atavist. Some of these are going to start bearing fruit. It’s an exciting time and I don’t feel that I have fewer readers than I did in the past. It’s just that I’m being read in different ways.
Q. Once you’ve started researching or gone undercover, it would be a shame to hit a wall and realize there’s no real story or that your cover is blown. What preparation do you do before you start covering a story?
A. I wasn’t too doubtful that there’d be an interesting story about being a USDA meat inspector. That seemed to me a pretty sure thing. The uncertain part was over whether I could get the job. Once that was an in, I felt that the experience of working on the line, inside a slaughterhouse, to make sure food was wholesome, would carry the story, and would be interesting. There wasn’t a big downside in terms of having something to tell readers that they didn’t know. Most people have no idea how meat inspection works and most people have only a vague idea of how a slaughterhouse works. I wasn’t too concerned about that.
What’s more concerning to me is just that something will fall through at the eleventh hour. I waited more than two years from the time I had this idea to the time I could actually begin. And with my book “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing” I think I waited almost four years, so the bigger fear is that after such a long time spent waiting, something will knock me out of consideration for a job. A Google search of my name that reveals I’m a writer, that’s what I worry about.
Freelance writing is like venture capitalism, in which your capital is your time and you only have so much of it. You want to make good use of it and some of these projects require a lot of it. The return is never certain. If there’s something I’m willing to wait this long for, it’s usually because I know there’s a good story there.
Q. So if you’re afraid of employers googling your name, does that mean that you don’t devise a new identity when going undercover?
A. I’ve only done two quote-unquote undercover projects: my prison book and this Harper’s article. I learned for the prison book that it’s important to be truthful when you apply for any job. So I applied with my legal name, which is not Ted. When asked for nicknames I put down Ted and a couple other things I’ve been called. So that reduces the chance somebody is going to Google Ted Conover but doesn’t eliminate it. And truly just that Google search would be the end of the line, in most cases.
Q. So why is it important to put down your real name?
A. For legal reasons. If you invent the name or invent the resume, as ABC News did in the famous food line/grocery store case, in which some producers made up resumes, you’re committing fraud. If you simply offer a selection of the truth, and don’t invent anything, you’re in much better shape legally. And then just as a matter of practice, I’m uncomfortable making anything up. I guess it’s my journalism background. Journalism is nonfiction and nonfiction is about what really happens. I go to great lengths not to tell lies, not to invent some backstory and deceive my co-workers with it.
It’s much easier just to be taciturn, to say you just prefer not to go into it. You might remember that in the Harper’s article I was asked where I went to college by my co-worker Stan, and I just told him I preferred not to talk about it, which felt to me like a big copout and I was sad to have to say it. He ended up giving me credit for not being the kind of person who would boast about his college. He says most of the people he knows who’ve gone to college want to tell you more about it than you’re interested in hearing, and I was the opposite. It felt a little unfortunate that I got credit for a dodge. But I do typically try to avoid fabrication.
Q. Doesn’t a journalist sometimes have to lie and deceive in order to get to the truth?
A. Some do. I’m just not sure I would ever do that in pursuit of a story. I think it’s very important not to make things up. There’s something inherently deceptive about any kind of undercover reporting. But I think there’s a real difference between simply lending a false impression, by turning up in Nebraska as a meat inspector when my regular employment is in New York City as a journalist, and concocting an elaborate story that will trick somebody into hiring me or inviting me to be around. I don’t do the latter. It wouldn’t feel good and it’s too complicated to make a big lie like that. I’ve been reading a great new book called “Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception” by Brooke Kroeger. It makes a persuasive case that there’s deception in all reporting. But early instances from the U.S. and Europe from early in the twentieth century and even before, people made up elaborate stories to deceive their subjects. They made up names for themselves and whole personal histories. That feels complicated and sleazy to me. I don’t think I would ever attempt that.