Q&A: Olivia Nuzzi on covering ‘psychodrama of the Beltway in the Trump era’

Politico named Olivia Nuzzi one of the breakout media stars of the 2016 election thanks to her political reporting for The Daily Beast. Now she’s been scooped up by New York magazine in the media world’s ongoing game of post-election musical chairs to take up the newly created post of White House correspondent.

Nuzzi’s journalism career began at the age of 18, writing for an alt-weekly called the triCityNews based in Asbury Park, New Jersey and continued through college at Fordham University, where she wrote for digital news magazine NSFWCorp, and freelanced for the likes of Politico Magazine, New York magazine, and The Daily Beast. Nuzzi left Fordham before getting a degree to join The Daily Beast full-time, a decision that has by no means hurt her career.

CJR spoke to Nuzzi about her new role, the antagonism between the Trump administration and the White House press corps, and what it feels like to be covering one of the biggest political stories of a generation. Below are excerpts of our conversation, which have been edited for clarity.

This is a new role at New York magazine. What exactly are you going to be doing for them?

I’m going to be covering the Trump White House, and I’ve described it as: the psychodrama of the Beltway in the Trump era. Things are obviously different than they have been in the past, and I think it’s going to be very interesting to see how everything unfurls in Washington over the next four or eight years, or maybe shorter than that.

How will it differ from what you’ve been doing up to now for The Daily Beast?

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I’ve been at The Daily Beast for three years. They hired me initially during Bridge-gate, which seems like ancient history now. I covered Chris Christie, and then I covered Rand Paul. Covering Rand Paul incidentally had me covering Alex Jones and InfoWars, and what became the alt-right, which became relevant in the Trump era. But The Daily Beast is primarily a website, there’s no print aspect to it, and so I think what’s going to change at New York is I’m going to be following more of the Gabe Sherman model of working on these long-form stories, and reporting on them, and then writing news items based on that reporting in between filing bigger profiles or bigger feature stories.

The two political campaigns that you’ve had the most experience with—Anthony Weiner’s run for mayor of New York and Donald Trump’s presidential bid—have both been pretty unorthodox. What has that been like in terms of a learning curve?

No one was prepared for Trump, right? No one, no matter how long they’ve been covering politics seemed like they knew what we were all in for on *June 16, 2015, when he announced. I am always looking for elements of the absurd in political campaigns, and it’s not hard to find usually. I think getting my break writing about Anthony Weiner was sort of perfect, in a way, to prepare me for covering the Donald Trump campaign and now the Donald Trump presidency. It’s something that is so absurd that it’s almost cartoonish. I never had any expectations that it would be a normal, nine-to-five gig covering American politics because of how I got my start. I hope that has prepared me for the next couple of years.

Speaking of how the Trump administration doesn’t adhere to political norms and traditions. Is being relatively new to the game an advantage or a disadvantage in that environment?

I think there are certainly times where I am watching a situation unfold and I wish that I had the knowledge that comes with previous administrations to know whether or not what I’m watching is normal, or to know how abnormal it is. Obviously there are tons of benefits that come with experience that I don’t have. I do hope that I bring a fresh perspective to things and that I am able to interpret things in a way that is interesting to general interest readers—people who might not be following the ins and outs of this stuff everyday.

What’s your take on what’s happening right now between the Trump administration and the US press corps?

Oh, it’s going great! I think everything’s fine, why do you ask? It’s remarkable to watch it because [for the most part] all of the people in Trump’s orbit, one-on-one or one-on-a-gaggle, they’re very friendly to the press. They like the press. They like being quoted. They like appearing in print. Donald Trump obviously is very enamored by the press, by print media in particular and by television, and then to hear them during a press conference on television basically say that we all have devil horns and that we should be unemployed and destitute and living in the woods is really stunning. I’m concerned obviously, as someone who cares a lot about freedom of the press, by what I’m hearing from people like Kellyanne Conway, where they’re calling for reporters or pundits to be fired. But at the same time, I can’t help but think that it is all talk, given what we know about Donald Trump and given what we know about the people surrounding him.

How should the press respond?

Some people say, Well, don’t have Kellyanne Conway on television. Don’t quote her. Don’t have these people who lie so flagrantly in your reporting, and I don’t really think that’s the answer. I think watching these people lie, and pointing out when they’re lying, and correcting them, is doing a service to the readers. The readers need to know what kind of people are now running the US government, and we can only do that by including them in our coverage and making sure that we are strict and strong about pointing out when they’re telling lies or falsehoods.

NYU’s Jay Rosen has been talking about the idea that the big stories won’t be found in the White House press briefing room. Where will you direct your focus and energy?

I think that’s always been true. I mean, investigative reporting has always been essential, and I think it’s only going to become more essential in the Trump era. I am going to be putting my energy into really trying to understand the characters who are populating this administration, who are in Donald Trump’s ear and influencing his decision-making. For me, as a reader, that’s the type of thing that I’m interested in. It’s the back story, and as the Washington correspondent that’s what I’m going to try to achieve.

There’s obviously a lot of polarization in the political landscape. How much leeway will you have in expressing your personal views and insights in the new role? How important do you think it is to bring your own perspective to your writing?

I’ve never believed that objectivity is achievable or desirable—certainly not for the type of writing that I do. That said, I have a point of view, I have a world view, I have a very strong sense of what I think is right and wrong that I bring to all of my writing. But it’s not so much Democratic or Republican. It’s more just the way that I look at the world and thus the administration. I’m not worried about how I’m going to put my opinion into my work and if that’s going to compromise my work. I’m more looking at things through [the lens of] this is ethical or this is unethical and I’m never worried about being censored. I think people who read my work know what it’s like at this point.

Who are your inspirations in the journalism world?

Oprah Winfrey and Howard Stern I think are two of the great interviewers. In terms of writing, I mean I sound like a cliche, but Nora Ephron. I love some more modern people, you know, Molly Ball, Maggie Haberman. I always forget who my inspirations are the second someone asks me. I read so much every day, I feel like I wake up reading and I go to sleep reading and I’m influenced by more things than I could even tell you. I’m constantly looking to see what other people are doing and how they’re doing it.

How does it feel to be reporting on what’s probably the biggest political story in a generation?

I am nauseous. I am equal parts excited and terrified. The journalist in me is very interested in this story, and very eager to cover it, and very excited, and feeling very lucky that I have an opportunity to cover it for a publication like New York magazine, which I respect so much. And then the human in me is very concerned for the implications for small “d” democracy, and for freedom of the press, and free speech, and for rights for all sorts of minority groups, and people of color, and women, and the LGBTQ community. I’m sort of looking at this with my fingers over my eyes, peering through.

* An earlier version of this post gave the wrong date for Trump’s announcement.

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Shelley Hepworth is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.