People who are seldom interviewed can’t believe you want to know their opinion. Once they believe you care about what they have to say, it’s mind-blowing how much they can trust you. That’s a fragile responsibility. In the white, working-class neighborhoods, the women particularly couldn’t believe that I cared; you’d often get this nervous giggle—“What, you’re writing this down?”
And with a lot of working-class guys, who chuckled at the whole notion of having to answer any questions from a woman, I’d go up and introduce myself as Chuck Schultz’s daughter, daughter of a utility worker, Local 270. And we’d start talking. They’d give me a hard time, but I always felt comfortable with gruff white men because that was my dad. In a working-class community, if I’m a utility worker’s kid, I’m all of a sudden the American Dream for their kids because I got a profession. I was never just a reporter. The only way I was going to get in was to be honest about who I am. Why would they trust me otherwise? I wouldn’t have trusted me. It was my job to give them reasons to trust me.
I did a series in 2002 called “The Burden of Innocence.” It was about a man, Michael Green, who’d been in prison for 13 years for a rape he didn’t commit. I’ll never forget when Michael’s stepfather looked at me and started shaking his head. I said, “What’s the matter, Mr. Mandell?” And he said, “I can’t believe you keep coming back here and it isn’t because someone’s been killed.” And I looked at him and said, “You know, fair criticism, but I’m going to keep coming back, and eventually you’re going to believe I’m here for a different kind of story.”
‘I get tired of the cynicism’
The columnist slot opened up as I was working on that story. It was the perfect time, because I’m not sure how much longer I could have kept reporting about things like Michael Green and not having opinions about them. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t become a columnist.
What sort of person would you be if you’re covering the economic devastation of a growing part of the country and don’t have an opinion about it? I don’t want to be that kind of person. I was never a cynic about politics and I think that’s because I came from a union background. We knew that only in numbers were people like my family, my relatives, going to get any power. So you wanted to know politically who was against you and who was for you. And I’m a feminist—so how could I be completely cynical about politics, when I could look at the laws that changed the lives of my gender? I get tired of the cynicism.
I always find it amusing when journalists, particularly editors, say, “I never vote, so I’m bias-free.” That seems to be completely depriving yourself of any responsibility as a citizen—I don’t get that. Nobody’s objective. We should all work hard to know what our biases are so they don’t get in the way of our work as journalists.
It’s interesting that most surveys have shown that reporters tend to be more liberal than their editors. My assumption has always been that if you spend a lot of time on the ground reporting on the impact of policies, it can radicalize you. I met so many people who are doing everything they can to get off assistance, are ashamed by it, and all you need to do is start talking to those people—my people—to understand that these are real people, and they have their own dreams and desires. It’s quite moving and sad at the same time to see that their expectation was that nobody was ever going to ask their opinion.
Earning the honor
The best advice I ever got, just before I started writing my column, was from my boss at the time, Stuart Warner. He said to me, “I want you to write a personal column, too, because even if they hate your position on gay marriage or abortion rights they’re going to love what you have to say as a single mom; they’re going to love how you are about your dog.” Some say there’s no place for that on the op-ed page, but that’s baloney. If people feel like they know you personally and have anything in common with you, then the next column that’s on a bigger issue isn’t going to be a brawl. Some of my favorite notes are from conservatives who say, “I don’t agree with you a lot, but I have to tell you, you’re right about underage drinking in the home of parents who allow it.”