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.”
The deal is, don’t make your little problem all about you. Find a way to draw people in with this story, get them to think how they have this in common with you and the big picture. It’s so arrogant of us to suggest that we should not have to reveal anything about ourselves, that readers are just supposed to trust us. Newsrooms are full of reporters who envy columnists and think we don’t work hard, and sure, if you’re spending too many of your columns just regurgitating reader mail, it’s time to give it up. I also made a conscious choice: Do you want to become a TV celebrity, or devote yourself to the writing and reporting? It’s bad when a columnist starts walking into a room wondering how many people recognize her. It hurts the work. If a lot of people know who you are, lucky you, but you have to earn that honor every day.
I wrote a column once about tipping in airports. And one day, I was racing to my flight and this guy drives by me in one of those electric carts. He stops and backs up, and says, “Miss Schultz?” And I say, “Yes?” And he says, “Thank you.” I can’t tell you how much that meant to me, because that says the people you’re writing for actually know it. You don’t do this kind of work expecting a lot of gratitude from the people you’re fighting for.
It’s interesting how newspapers determine who they’re supposed to be covering and who’s reading them. Some in the newsroom wanted only our e-mail address at the end of stories, but I always wanted to have my phone number, because I knew that a lot of the people who read my columns don’t have computers. And I know that because they called me. My voicemail would hold 90 messages, and it would fill regularly.