Richard L. Berke, The New York Times National Editor, met with three newspaper editors and a radio correspondent to discuss the Times’ mid-term election coverage, and other aspects of journalism, before speaking to students at Pomona's Rose Hill Theatre on Nov. 9.
Berke explained how The New York Times assigned a reporter to follow the Tea Party Movement across the country for the past year.
"I was pushing the reporter at the end of the summer to write a story about the power of the tea party movement," said Berke. "How will they do in November do we think? How strong are they? She came back to me and said that it's not all that black and white. They have some terrible candidates, that are going to cost Republicans there seat in November, but then they have some really strong candidates. She said, 'I know you want a really clear narrative, of me being the expert and what this means, but it's not that simple.' I said I never want anybody to try and make something simplistic that isn't simplistic. So she wrote something nuanced that talked about the strengths and weaknesses."
Berke shared his own anecdotes about reporting, such as his article focusing on former President Clinton telling others that then Vice President Gore was not a good campaigner, while he was running for the presidency.
"I wrote the story and had a lot of anonymous sources because no one wanted to go on the record," said Berke. "I called one of the President's aides to give them a heads up of what was coming. An hour later I get on the [phone with] a guy from the White House. I say, ‘I can't talk to you, I am on with the copy desk in New York.’ He says, ‘the President is here and wants to talk to you.’ I found out later that [the White House's] view was that by calling me back, it would nib the story in the butt. [Clinton's] objective was to have a quick conversation with me to tell me that he and Gore get along great, and then hang up. My objective was that how often do you get the President of the United States on the phone? So my objective was to keep him on the phone for as long as possible. It was a weird situation because I was typing everything, however I couldn't let there be a pause in the conversation — that would give him an opening to hang up. I was right on deadline, so I had to get the story done right away. On the other hand I had the President so I wanted to keep him for as long as I could. I end up keeping him on the phone for 25 minutes and got him to say all this stuff. So he said, 'I used to be concerned about Gore's political skills, but he has gotten a lot better.' Instead of anonymous quotes, I have the President of the United States as a source. [This article] set the tone for that whole campaign in many ways. The sub plot for that campaign was the tense relationship between Clinton and Gore, and Gore not liking Clinton, and Clinton not having faith in his Vice President."
A few days later Berke spoke with former Republican Presidential Nominee Bob Dole, who ran against Clinton, about his wife's bid for the 2000 Republican Presidential Nomination.
"I said, ‘how is your wife's campaign going?’" said Berke. "He said, 'well she's getting better.' He repeated everything Clinton said about Gore, about his wife. He was saying she needs to get better political skills. I am thinking of giving money to John McCain instead. Then I wrote that story and that became a sensation. You have the tension between the Dole and Gore and Clinton. Those stories had traction for weeks and weeks and weeks, if not months. [Dole] was a serious contender for the Republican nomination. If your own husband can't support you, then you are not going to make it as the nominee. She probably wouldn't have anyway, but that dried up all her money."
Berke has developed interviewing tactics to receive information he desires.
"Say I have an hour for the interview," said Berke. "I would ask some softball question, about whatever I knew they wanted to tell me. I would look very interested. I would even move the tape recorder up so I looked like I wanted to get it all down. Then my strategy would be to slowly toss off some of the other questions, without them really knowing what I was doing. Then I would ask the killer question of something specific I wanted. Then I might stop writing, because I didn't want to give them a clue that was something I cared about, but I still had the tape recorder running. Then say oh that's interesting. If they think you are asking just to ask, then they won't tense up, and talk more about it. You don't let them know what you are looking for. The smart ones might be able to figure it out, but usually they wouldn't. The reality of what I am doing here is not about trying to mislead anyone. It is about getting to the truth. It is about trying to get them candid and answer my questions."