| Home | Q&A With Karen Breslau, San Francisco Bureau Chief, Newsweek -- April 2006
October 2, 2014

Karen Breslau has been Newsweek's San Francisco bureau chief since 2000, spearheading the magazine's coverage of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Before moving to California, Breslau was Newsweek’s White House correspondent, covering Bill Clinton’s second term. Breslau joined Newsweek in 1989 as a correspondent in the Bonn/Berlin bureau. She covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, the coup against former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Before switching to print journalism in 1989, Breslau was a producer at National Public Radio. Breslau received an M.A. in political science with an emphasis on Soviet studies from the University of California at Berkeley in 1986. In 1984, she graduated magna cum laude from the University of California at Davis, earning a B.A. in international relations and a B.A. in German. She spoke with about her career as a journalist and the role of blogs.
Karen Breslau What's the most challenging aspect of covering Governor Schwarzenegger?

Karen Breslau: He is a celebrity governor and has been remarkably successful -- despite his sagging approval ratings -- at controlling access and image. His events are well-staged and while great for TV, often short on substance. His audiences are hand-chosen. Yawn. It'll be interesting to see whether a Democratic opponent can give him enough of a run for his money during this year's re-election campaign to make him get out there and mix it up like a real candidate instead of playing by Arnold's rules. How does a weekly news magazine stay relevant in this up-to-the-minute news world?

Karen Breslau: Just because people are pelted with information from morning until night, they haven't lost the basic human hunger for a good story. In that sense, a good newsmagazine story is the un-blog: it's richly reported, it's coherent, it puts things into context, it gives you ideas to think about for more than 3 seconds and for God's sake, it should be well-written. Are blogs diluting the role of journalists?

Karen Breslau: Absolutely not. Who was the last blogger to get kidnapped -- or worse -- on their way to an interview in Iraq or Pakistan? Blogs aren't diluting the role of journalists: they are diluting the size and attention of the more affluent spectrum of the audience. (And truth be told, that disproportiately affects journalists... since we are a gossip-driven bunch who spend our days staring at a screen). And yes, mea culpa: I, like everyone else, have my own favorite blogs to plow through before I get down to the business of the day. But c'mon, blogs are an entertaining echo chamber: At the end of the day how much do you really gain from reading about what someone else wrote about what someone else said about what someone else did? There comes a point in every blog-orgy where I snap myself to my senses and wonder: Why am I reading someone else's e-mail? I've got too much of my own to deal with. Journalism seems to be more divided politically than at any time in its history. Will this trend continue?

Karen Breslau: American journalism was born during colonial days as an intensely partisan, activist enterprise: the pamphleteers weren't looking for AP-like omniscience. They wanted to incite the public to rise up against the British monarchy. And let's not overstate the "trend": screaming matches are largely confined to cable television and the Internet. Important segments to be sure, but by no means a global indicator. I don't think the much-maligned "mainstream media" have become all that more politically biased in recent years. Rather, there's been such a proliferation of news sources that it's very easy for the news consumer to settle in with a media outlet that merely ratifies their views. We've gone from broadcast to podcast and blogcast. There's no need to find yourself provoked or challenged anymore. Everyone can be comfortably entertained -- and delude themselves into thinking they've been informed -- within a bubble of their own making. That to me is the biggest threat to democracy. We don't have much of a common conversation anymore. It's too easy to pop in those white ear doo-dads and be insulated from your civic duty to know what the hell is going on in the world -- and in your community -- and to decide what you expect your government to do about it -- or heaven forfend, what you yourself are willing to do to change the status quo. More journalistic scandals have popped up in the past five years than in the past 30 years combined. What do journalists need to do to regain the public's trust?

Karen Breslau: Well, there've been some doozies of late, but again, let's not mistake the increased scrutiny of recent scandals that technology has made possible with the Collapse of Journalism. Remember the Hitler "diaries"? Janet Cooke? Was it cool that bloggers could take down Dan Rather? Sure. Was it as important as the journalistic "scandal" that never got labeled that way: namely, the failure of journalists to discover that the intelligence presented as a prewar justification for invading Iraq was false? Uh, I don't think so. I think the public is less repelled by the aberrant actions of a few high-profile reporters and editors than by the sense that journalists feed on tabloid sensation and human misery. I have a 100-year-old grandmother in Florida (a great fan of the New York Post, by the way) who is a good barometer of public taste: if she's not interested in something I'm working on, she'll ask "Why are you writing about that crap?" There should be more grandmothers sitting around the editorial tables of America. You've covered a lot of historical events in your career, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the coup against former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and President Clinton's reelection campaign. Which of these events gave you the greatest sense of accomplishment as a journalist?

Karen Breslau: Covering the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 still ranks by far as the greatest thrill of my life as a journalist. I couldn't rightly call it an "accomplishment," since all I had to do was be there, but it was a life-making experience nonetheless. In terms of a tough reporting assignment, in 2001 I worked with my Newsweek colleagues Evan Thomas and Eleanor Clift on a reconstruction of the events aboard United Flight 93. We were able to tell a story whose essential details were three years later confirmed by the 9/11 report. I felt grateful to be able to give the families of the people who died on that plane as complete and accurate a story as was possible. More recently, covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina gave me a jolt that I have not experienced since my days as a foreign correspondent. To see people so ill-served by their government sure didn't feel like America. Why did you leave producing segments at NPR for a reporting job at Newsweek? Did you find broadcast journalism limiting?

Karen Breslau: I was dying to get overseas and be a foreign correspondent. I spoke fluent German and Newsweek was looking for a correspondent in Germany, just as communism in Europe was beginning to crack. It was a question of perfect timing. I revere NPR to this day. They fill a niche of civility and intelligence sorely lacking in the rest of the broadcast world. What's next for you -- do you want to go overseas again or return to political reporting in D.C.?

Karen Breslau: Someday I'd love to return to what I consider the real-est reporting around and become a foreign correspondent again. I hope to do that when my children are a bit older. In the meantime, I am very excited by the prospect of reporting about the environment, where it seems to me, some of the greatest political and economical struggles -- not to mention human drama -- are taking place.

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