| Home | Interview With David Greenberg -- Sept. 2003
September 21, 2014

David Greenberg, 35, a historian, teaches at Yale University and writes the 'History Lesson' column for Greenberg is former acting editor and managing editor of The New Republic, and has written for scholarly and popular publications including The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs, the New York Times and The Washington Post. He also worked as Bob Woodward's researcher for the book 'The Agenda.' He recently finished a book about Richard Nixon's place in American culture titled 'Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image.' The book won the Bancroft Dissertation Prize for a work of originality, scholarly importance and literary merit. Greenberg earned a BA from Yale and a PhD from Columbia University. He spoke with about his work in journalism and academia. You have a PhD in history and worked as a journalist. How do you juggle two careers? Did you always plan to do both?

David Greenberg: I've been in academia full-time ever since I got my PhD -- teaching at Columbia University and then as a fellow at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. This year I'm teaching full-time at Yale. But just after college I did spend five years as a reporter and editor in Washington. Then, when I came to New York for graduate school, I continued to freelance and I started working for Slate when it was founded. Partly that was because you can't live in Manhattan on graduate fellowships alone. But, more importantly, I liked it.

Writing a modest number of opinion pieces and book reviews and the occasional reported piece doesn't interfere with getting my scholarly work done. In fact, the two play off each other. Writing for the public reminds me to make my academic work accessible to readers, and the scholarship, I hope, makes my journalism more informed. Spending time in academia exposes you to all kinds of questions and bodies of literature that you wouldn't encounter as a journalist. Would you consider yourself more of a journalist than a historian?

David Greenberg: No, I wouldn't put it that way. I see myself as a historian who writes a fair amount of journalism and who tries to make my scholarship accessible to a wide audience. But the line between history and journalism can be blurry, especially when you write about the recent past, as I do. (My new book is a history of Nixon's image in American culture.) In my writing, I use the methods of both scholarship, like archival research, and journalism, like interviewing.

Journalists have written great works of history, especially about the recent past: Anthony Lukas, Nick Lemann, Godfrey Hodgson, Taylor Branch, Stanley Karnow, Jim Carroll -- I could go on. Of course, there are also a lot of journalists who do it badly, but then again there are also academics who do it badly. What counts isn't your institutional affiliation but the quality of your work.

Of course, there are important ways in which history differs from journalism. Historians see their purpose as understanding the past. If our conclusions help us to understand the present, that may be an advantage, but it's not the aim. But journalism is explicitly concerned with contemporary problems. So sometimes when journalists write about history, they start with their political opinions and then cherry-pick historical examples to support them. That's a danger. In your 'History Lesson' columns for Slate, you often compare a current event to an historical one. Do you find yourself always looking for historical context to help explain or understand what's going on today?

David Greenberg: It's striking to me how often in political debates people invoke history -- implicitly or explicitly. So if I hear Bush comparing his tax cut to Kennedy's, I may wonder: how are they similar or different? And I look into it, and maybe there's a column there. Or take the issue of the constitutionality of the phrase "under God" in the pledge of allegiance. There, the central question -- was the phrase intended as a state endorsement of religion? -- can in fact be answered by exploring the history. So I wrote a column about why Congress took this pledge, which contained no reference to God, and chose to add one. It turned out to spring from Cold War politics and the wish to distinguish the U.S. from what people like John Foster Dulles used to call "the godless Communists"...

The title of the column, 'History Lesson,' is meant ironically. In fact, history hardly ever offers clear lessons. A long time ago, people used to believe that the reason to study history was to distill rules for behavior in the present, and you still get amateur historians who think that way. But not too many serious people believe that anymore. Studying the past can help us cultivate a capacity for imaginative sympathy for people in different situations. Or it can help us realize how much of our condition is specific to our culture and our moment. And in some indirect way those insights may help us to make wiser decisions. But there's rarely a neat lesson to be gleaned from a particular episode in the past. You just finished a book on Nixon's presidency. What was Nixon's relationship with the press like?

David Greenberg: We tend to remember Nixon as having this terrible, antagonistic relationship with the press. But that's only part of the picture. I found in my research that there was a peculiar dynamic between Nixon and the Washington press corps -- a kind of seesawing between hostile and fawning coverage. According to one study, Nixon received better press coverage in his first year than any other 20th-century president except Teddy Roosevelt. The press in the Nixon years was whipsawed. On the one hand, there was a muckraking revival, and reporters felt a new responsibility to be skeptical and even adversarial. On the other hand, their credibility was coming under fire as never before -- partly because Nixon was deliberately trying to impugn them, as a political strategy -- and so they would bend over backward to be fair. It's a fascinating relationship and impossible to sum up in a few words. How did Nixon's legacy change how journalists cover presidents?

David Greenberg: Obviously, there are some changes with which we're all familiar. For example, after Nixon, reporters became aware of the ways that a politician's private demons or neuroses could inflict themselves on the nation. They took it upon themselves to start policing what has come to be called "character." Clearly, that has spilled out of control in the last decade or two. But the impulse to scrutinize the people who would lead the nation remains a sound one.

There's also another, more subtle legacy of Nixon upon the press that I write about in my book. Nixon's aggressive manipulation of the media reinforced reporters' resolve not to be spun. Journalists in the Nixon years felt that they had to find a way to indicate to their readers that they knew that Nixon was being dishonest or evasive or manipulative. As a result, political writing -- even in supposedly objective and neutral forums -- took on more of an inside-dopester tone. I think it's this tone -- as opposed to any ideological bias, which is actually pretty minimal -- that upsets most readers who get upset when they listen to Peter Jennings or read the New York Times. A lot of audiences would like our reporters to tell it to us straight and let us judge for ourselves if we're being spun. With the rise of conservative media outlets like Fox News Channel, would you say journalism is dividing up more into liberal and conservative camps as far as coverage goes?

David Greenberg: Journalism is so big and diverse that I think it's important to specify your terms. There are what we often call mainstream news organizations like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the network news broadcasts. These organizations certainly aren't perfectly objective, but they do have a professional stake in being fair and even-handed. That's what their readers expect of them; it's what their advertisers expect; and it's what their colleagues expect. They pride themselves on keeping a wall between their news and editorial pages. Then there are opinion magazines, radio talk shows, and so on, which are openly committed to a conservative or liberal or leftist orientation.

Finally there are the new conservative media like Fox that purport to belong to the former category but really belong to the latter. Fox has a right-wing agenda, and that's why people watch it. If Fox newscasters were to start conducting themselves like CNN -- with reporters trying hard to correct for bias, with right-wing views evenly balanced against left-wing views -- no one would watch. There is no left-wing equivalent of Fox, except maybe on the far reaches of the FM dial, where you have some left-wing types railing against the system but purporting to be just relaying the news. Why do you think that is?

David Greenberg: There's no question the situation is asymmetrical. I think it has to do with the basic nature of liberalism and conservatism today. Most liberals feel a strong commitment to journalism and reporting as something other than a vehicle for advancing their own agenda. This ideal goes back to the Progressive Era, if not to the roots of the Enlightenment. These journalists believe that an independent and objective or objectivity-seeking Fourth Estate is an important pillar of society. That belief is not traditionally a part of conservative doctrine the way it's part of the liberal worldview. I'm not criticizing the conservative media in saying that; I'm being descriptive. In an opinion piece in The Washington Post in March 2003, you wrote about how patriotism and unintended biases can color news judgment. You cited differences in coverage of the war in Afghanistan between the foreign press and American press. Did this type of coverage continue with the war with Iraq?

David Greenberg: My point was that reporters -- outside of Fox News, anyway -- don't set out to let their ideology influence their reporting. But that doesn't mean bias doesn't exist. It's just that bias is a much more subtle force than a lot of people who go around criticizing the New York Times as a flagrantly liberal paper realize.

All reporters and editors and journalists make judgments. Which stories deserve coverage? How much play should they get? Who should be interviewed? The answers depend on the journalist's judgment. And sometimes bedrock assumptions that are shared by almost everyone in a culture wind up shaping those judgments in ways we're not aware of. So consider the news that the U.S. was spying on other nations at the UN: To non-Americans, for whom concern about runaway American power is a vivid and constant issue, that was big news. To American journalists, whether liberal or conservative, it just didn't register as significant, since it's been going on for years. So American newspapers downplayed the revelation, while the European press went bananas.

These judgments vary over time as well as place. In the early 1970s, the media -- and American culture as a whole -- was much more suspicious of our leaders' claims of essential goodness. A story like the spying at the U.N. would have gotten much more play back in 1973. How did you like working with Bob Woodward when you helped him write the book "The Agenda"?

David Greenberg: Woodward is not only a great journalist, but one of the most decent, honest and generous people I've ever worked with. I worked for Woodward shortly after graduating college on several articles for the Post and on a book called The Agenda. I couldn't have asked for better training. He's scrupulously fair, thoughtful and committed to journalism. And even though he was in his fifties, he worked harder than anyone I know. He's also extremely and even excessively generous, as everyone who reads the acknowledgments he writes for his assistants knows.

There's a rap against Woodward these days that he doesn't analyze his material enough, that he just reports. Every time he writes a book, a half dozen pundits point this out as if they're discovering a cure for cancer, when they're rehashing an old critique. I've heard Woodward say that there's a glut of cheap opinion-mongering out there but a shortage of good, hard reporting. I agree. Back in 1972, countless journalists were holding forth about Nixon's statesmanship, but almost no one got out there and rang doorbells and made phone calls to investigate Watergate. I think Woodward still considers himself an old-fashioned empirical reporter, and he believes that the main service he can render is finding out new information about how our leaders make decisions that nobody else bothers to find out. What did you learn during your time at The New Republic?

David Greenberg: I've worked at TNR three times, first as an intern for nine months, then as managing editor, then as acting editor, along with Peter Beinart, who is now the editor. The combination of working for Woodward and TNR was a terrific one early in my career. Woodward stressed reporting -- the importance of being open-minded, of extracting information from your sources, of appreciating how they understand events that happened, of squaring differing accounts. At TNR, opinion and analysis was everything. The rap against TNR was always that we didn't do enough reporting -- although when you're an intern there trying to get published, you also learn that no one's going to run your pieces just for their opinions, that you have to get out there and uncover something newsworthy. So I learned to report there as well.

I learned so much at The New Republic that it's hard to boil it down to one or two things. Mainly, I think, I imbibed an ethic of contempt for cant. TNR was filled with incredibly smart people who could see through so much of the flaccid reasoning that passes for insight in Washington journalism. They would use that contempt not just to mock -- the way many British journalists do -- but to exact more rigorous thinking from themselves. It was a culture of high standards. Sitting at the table as a 22-year-old with Michael Kinsley, Rick Hertzberg, Leon Wieseltier, and the other editors, with all their wit and intelligence, was, I imagined, like what it must have felt like to be a fly on the wall at the Algonquin Club in the 1920s. What are your long-term career goals?

David Greenberg: I hope to keep pursuing a scholarly career as a historian that allows me to teach and write serious books. But I also want to continue having a voice in political and cultural debates and discussions. I have great respect for many journalists and journalistic institutions, and I think daily and weekly journalism is indispensable. But I also think that you can't really deal with issues as substantively or as satisfyingly in 1200 words, or even 5000 words, as you can in a book, and so I really hope to keep writing books. Good books take several years to write.

Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved.

Other interviews:

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  • Michelle Nicolosi, editor, Online Journalism Review, June/July 2003
  • Matt Labash, senior writer, The Weekly Standard, May 2003
  • Michele Norris, co-host of NPR's "All Things Considered," April 2003
  • Bob Schieffer, anchor and correspondent, CBS News/Face the Nation, March 2003
  • Larry Lee, CEO, (Sacramento Observer), Feb. 2003
  • Larry Reisman, Editor, Vero Beach (Fla.) Press Journal, Jan. 2003
  • Deborah Potter, Executive Director,, Nov./Dec. 2002
  • Orville Schell, dean, Univ. of Calif., Berkeley, Graduate J-school, September 2002
  • Tracy Wood, editor, Ms. Magazine, August 2002
  • Mike Hoyt, executive editor, Columbia Journalism Review, July 2002
  • Louis Wiley, executive editor, PBS 'Frontline,' May/June 2002
  • John Sasaki, reporter, KTVU-TV (FOX), March/April 2002
  • Dan Fost, media reporter, San Francisco Chronicle, February 2002
  • Carol Guzy, photographer, The Washington Post, January 2002
  • Roger Cohn, editor-in-chief, Mother Jones Magazine, December 2001
  • Mike Luckovich, cartoonist, Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- November 2001
  • Lisa Chamberlain, editor-in-chief, Cleveland Free Times -- October 2001
  • Ben Fong-Torres, former reporter and editor, Rolling Stone magazine -- October 2001
  • Raul Ramirez, news director, KQED Radio -- September 2001
  • James Daly, founder and former editor in chief, Business 2.0 Magazine -- August 2001
  • James Fallows, correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly -- July 2001
  • David Ignatius, executive editor, International Herald Tribune -- July 2001
  • David Talbot, founder and editor, -- June 2001
  • Ed Fouhy, former CBS, ABC and NBC news executive -- June 2001
  • Linda Cohn, anchor/reporter, ESPN -- May 2001
  • Sol Levine, former producer, CNN -- April 2001
  • Charlie LeDuff, reporter, New York Times -- March 2001
  • Pierre Thomas, correspondent, ABC News -- March 2001
  • Gene Roberts, former managing editor, New York Times -- February 2001
  • Sydnie Kohara, anchor, -- January 2001
  • Lowell Bergman, former producer, 60 Minutes -- January 2001
  • Joie Chen, anchor, CNN -- December 2000
  • David Plotz, Washington Bureau Chief, -- November 2000
  • Christopher John Farley, senior writer and pop music critic, Time Magazine -- October 2000
  • Bob Edwards, news anchor, National Public Radio -- October 2000
  • Sharon Epperson, CNBC correspondent -- September 2000
  • David Maraniss, reporter, The Washington Post -- April 2000
  • Wolf Blitzer, anchor, CNN -- March 2000