This article was originally posted to the Lamar University Press website.
The first time journalist John Dickerson had to interview people on the street, he was so nervous that it took him 45 minutes to ask a single question. Today, as a correspondent on “60 Minutes,” and a co-host of the Slate podcast, “Political Gabfest,” Dickerson reaches audiences of millions of people while interviewing some of the most famous people in the world such as President Donald Trump.
Dickerson said moments like those are some of the most memorable experiences of his career, even though they didn’t always go as planned.
“I very clearly remember sort of wondering whether I should ask a question that might be impertinent,” he said Monday night during a question and answer segment of the Judge Joe J. Fisher distinguished lecture series. “It was with Hillary Clinton, and it was during the (Monica) Lewinsky thing. We didn’t know what was really happening and they weren’t talking, so I said, ‘The best way to get your information out is to come answer questions out in public in front of everybody.’ It was not well received.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m in the White House, I’m here to do a job on behalf of our readers.’ You can’t not do your job.”
Dickerson did not grow up wanting to be a journalist, despite his late mother Nancy being the first female correspondent for CBS News.
“I was not expecting to go into television because it was my mother’s profession and I thought there was a period of time where my relationship with her was, anything she did, I would have done the opposite,” he said. “But clearly all the stuff that I like about storytelling, about the news, about characters on the public stage, all of that came to me probably by osmosis.”
Dickerson said his relationship with his mother was quite bad from when his parents divorced when he was 14, until he moved to New York, where his mother was living.
“It’s why I ended up writing a book about her life (‘On Her Trail’) because after she died, which was 22 years ago, she left me all of her papers, which include her journals going all the way back to when basically she’d first started writing,” he said. “This fascinating person emerged, who I had not known both in real life, but also I obviously hadn’t been alive. Her television career, the most well-known part of it was from 1960 until 1974, so at the end of that I would have been six years old, and when you’re six years old, you don’t know anything.”
Dickerson said when he entered college, he didn’t know what he wanted to do.
“I thought I might go into law,” he said. “I thought I might write fiction. I thought I might be an English professor. I just went to New York because I knew I wanted to live in New York.”
Dickerson got a job as a secretary at TIME Magazine, where he soon figured out his admiration for political storytelling.
“It was the 1992 (presidential) election, and I wanted to be around that story because it was exciting,” he said. “It was an exciting story. I realized that all the stories of TIME Magazine were stories that I thought were exciting. I spent the next basically two years trying to find a way from my position as secretary to weasel my way into the magazine, which ultimately happened.”
While working for TIME in New York, Dickerson covered issues ranging from the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, to the baseball strike of 1994, to the separation of twins that were joined at the chest.
Dickerson then moved to Washington D.C., where he’s been reporting on politics for the last 25 years. Dickerson said he’s noticed how the two main U.S. political parties — Democratic and Republican — have changed over the years.
“The two parties fought with each other a lot, but they more or less found occasions where they could actually work together and cooperate and do things together, which doesn’t much happen anymore in Washington,” he said.
Dickerson said that journalists are often trained to present both sides of a story, but this can lead to a false equivalency.
“The question of false equivalency has become a problem in particular with our current environment where the penalty for saying something that isn’t true, has diminished,” he said. “This is particularly true with the president, but it’s true with all politicians. If something’s gone way over, your normal job as a journalist, which is to give both sides of an argument, you doing so is actually an injury to the truth, because it suggests that the thing that was said way over here has an alternative, it doesn’t.”
The power dynamic between politician and constituent has changed as well, Dickerson said.
“There was a view in politics that it was a politician’s responsibility to answer the questions that were asked of them because they’re public servants and the people pay their salary and that the members of the press are essentially there on behalf of the people,” he said. “The power dynamic was different because the politicians owed an answer to their constituents — that’s changed a little bit.
“What forced them to answer correctly was not just a good feeling about democracy, but they knew if they didn’t do it right, they would get voted out of office. Now because of the way things have become so partisan, giving an answer that fires up your team, is, in some cases, more important than giving an answer that is helpful to everybody. When you’re trying to rile up your team, you’re arguably misinforming the larger group of people.”
Dickerson said it’s imperative for journalists to do a lot of research before any interview, so that they can keep pushing for an answer to their questions even if their subject tries to deflect it.
“Know your facts and then you can’t be tricked by them claiming something that isn’t the case,” he said. “You have to be prepared for them creating entirely new facts that you couldn’t study because it turns out, it’s all made up.
“Study and then be as respectful as possible, in asking your question and in following up. Do it in a way that’s just with the goal of trying to find information to inform people. I found that in life and in journalism, there are a lot of people who do it differently — there are a lot of people who are very aggressive, I’m not so good at that, and I don’t actually think it’s that useful.”
Dickerson has become known for his interview style, referred to as “Dickersonian” by his colleagues, which is characterized by catching his interviewees off guard. He said he did not intentionally develop it, he just wanted to ask questions other reporters weren’t.
“I must have gotten it from my mother,” Dickerson said. “When I worked at TIME Magazine, I had to ask questions that were outside of the immediate news cycle because the wires and television people would ask those questions, and then it’ll be on the news that evening. By the time your story comes out the next Monday, everybody has lived it, so you’re not exactly asking anything that’s new. You have to ask, ‘Where’s this going? What’s the larger context of this story? What’s really at the heart of the story?’”
Throughout his career, Dickerson has worked across multiple media platforms — print, television broadcast and radio (podcasting) while also maintaining a presence on social media such as his Twitter account. He said many students today are taught that it’s important to be versatile, but burnout can be a side effect of doing so many things at once.
“Burnout happens in a bunch of different ways, not only the low share, which has just been all the stuff you have to do in a given day — you basically shred your attention across several different things,” he said. “That’s no good because then you’ve done all this work and you feel kind of thinned, like butter spread over too much bread.”
Dickerson said the best way to combat burnout is by finding a core goal, which makes applying it to different mediums easier.
“Your job is to be there and cover the story,” he said. “As journalists, our job is to be a windowpane through which people see what’s going on. If you start thinking too much about your brand, then you’re thinking about, you know, the wood that goes around the windowpane, and nobody’s seeing anything.
“For me, I came to social media through something I was doing in my day job. It’s a byproduct of the core work we do. The core thing is what nourishes you. It’s what makes you have a career that you enjoy, and then the other stuff sprouts off from that. That’s the way in the end that you end up appearing in all these different (mediums). Then you just have to find a balance.”
Throughout the past 30 years of his career, Dickerson has hosted a major news broadcast, explored the world of podcasting, written numerous articles for the nation’s most well-known publications, written three books and more. He said he has noticed a lot of change in politics, journalism and the world surrounding them, but he always tries to remember one thing.
“Did I respond with grace?” Dickerson said. “I’d like to respond with grace more. If you look at politics today, in our conversations, some are pretty quick to question everyone’s motives or put the worst casts on something that somebody said.
“There’s been good reason for this in politics and in the media. The media have disappointed a lot of (people), for a variety of reasons. Certainly politicians have disappointed us, but they have always disappointed us because they are fallible people. They have sometimes disappointed us and we have been disappointed in the media because the jobs are too difficult and the picture is moving and the incentives in the business are slightly misaligned.
“In public conversation, particularly in social media which is built on the idea that it will pull from us our most passionate emotions, if you look and spend any time on social media, the people who say, ‘Life is complex, and it is gray, and it is full of messy alternatives,’ they don’t get that many followers. But if you say something really mean about some politician or some other figure, you are elevated in the process, and this causes — and can ruin a number of careers — people to basically act out.
“What if every time you have that impulse, you try to just automatically respond with grace? If public conversation is causing us all to react so negatively, instantaneously and there is a business where people raise money for campaigns by playing on that idea or they get you to watch their television or buy their newspaper or sign up for their newsletter based on that idea that everybody on the other side is acting in bad faith, it’s incredibly corrosive. So, can you at the end of every day say, ‘Did I respond with grace?’”
Dickerson said the world is complex and full of gray, and even things that seem definitive have more complexity to them, which is important to keep in mind. He said he has one piece of advice for journalists who are trying to understand their audiences.
“Let them talk and listen to them,” he said. “Don’t go into the interview with a kind of slot that you want them to fit in, and then kind of constantly poke them to get them to say the thing you need to fit into that slot. It’s an act of human communication that makes people feel respected as opposed to used. Nobody wants to feel used.”
Dickerson’s third book, “The Presidency: The Hardest Job in the World” will be released on June 9. Follow him on Twitter @jdickerson.