It’s hard to say because the media is such a large, ungainly beast. But I do think it’s generally true that the media, as with American society, handles race gingerly, and often not terribly honestly. And I don’t mean that every white’s a racist or that every black is a nationalist. It’s a complicated business to unpack. Yet to write about it I’m always struck by this vitriolic reaction you will often get. Even at the Times, which is a pretty sophisticated readership, the comments when I’ve written about this often are striking. I think that makes people sometimes retreat into sappy bullshit about race rather than writing about what’s out there. I also think we both shy from race coverage and it also tends to be ghetto-ized. I’ve often thought we’ll know when we have arrived when a white guy or woman is doing the race beat and a black man or woman is doing the Wall Street beat.
The statistics you’re responsible for handling are the unemployment figures. How do you deal with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports?
Every one of those statistics has a narrative written behind it. And what’s kind of fun, a challenge for that day, is to try and piece it together. You’ve go to try and tease out what it means. And I think what it means recently is quite grim for the future of the economy and for Americans. The Thursday before they come, I and my colleague Motoko Rich—also new to the beat—will start calling around to economists, smart people, academics. So you spend the day reading up, looking at what happened the previous month; if you’re conversant on what happened the previous month you’ll be able to more quickly make comparisons.
I’ve been lucky—and I use that word advisedly—in the sense that the arrows in the most recent statistics point rather clearly to what you write about. The murkier the numbers, the harder it is, because you have to wrestle with the story. The risk there is that you get one of those articles that doesn’t really say anything; it’s just kind of a hash of “some say this and some say that.” As much as you can, you try to impose a take. Then the great risk is that you impose your take, and it doesn’t arise from what you see.
You’re known for writing with a take, and a strong voice. Is it difficult to write the way you do in a large and traditional institution like the Times?
I’ve been given a lot of freedom, and other writers have been as well. I think that reflects a change at the Times. Twenty years ago there were some terrific writers here with a lot of freedom, but it was a smaller group. The aperture has been widened. It is an editor-intensive paper. But as long as you do it respectfully, you can argue with the copy editor, you can push, you can have that discussion. And they’re very smart. I’ve been saved many more times by copy editors here than I can justifiably blame them for doing anything to my copy.
One of the worries, though, at a place like the Times, because it is very editor-driven, is that younger writers can feel constrained to write like the Times, whatever the Times style is. That’s a real tension here, and it was at The Washington Post, to a somewhat lesser extent. I think the editors need to be aware of that and they need to be aware that you’ve got to give people a little bit more leash and encourage people to throw themselves off cliffs occasionally, stylistically, to take chances. I sometimes see young writers who come here and I think, “No, go further, take more chances.” That’s always the risk at a place like this, that a young writer comes here and gets smaller rather than bigger.
Was it a dream of yours as a younger writer to work at the Times?